Mason v. Seaton

CourtSupreme Court of Tennessee
Citation942 S.W.2d 470
Parties12 IER Cases 1452 Maxine O. MASON, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Kenneth M. SEATON and Wife, Laurel Seaton d/b/a Grand Hotel, Defendants-Appellants.
Decision Date07 April 1997

Page 470

942 S.W.2d 470
12 IER Cases 1452
Maxine O. MASON, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Kenneth M. SEATON and Wife, Laurel Seaton d/b/a Grand Hotel,
Supreme Court of Tennessee.
April 7, 1997.

James H. Ripley, Sharp & Ripley, Sevierville, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Douglas L. Dutton, Amy V. Hollars, Hodges, Doughty & Carson, Knoxville, for Defendants-Appellants.


REID, Justice.

This case presents for review the decision of the Court of Appeals, reversing the trial court, that the action of retaliatory discharge "for refusing to remain silent about illegal activities" does not require a showing that

Page 471

the employer expressly or implicitly directed the employee to remain silent about the illegal activity. This Court affirms the decision and rationale of the Court of Appeals.

The case is before the Court on the defendants' motion for summary judgment asserting that the complaint does not state a cause of action for retaliatory discharge for violation of the provisions of Tenn.Code Ann. § 50-1-304 (1991). 1

The evidence submitted in opposition to the motion shows that the plaintiff, Maxine O. Mason, worked in the laundry room of a hotel owned and operated by the defendants, Kenneth M. and Laurel Seaton. The laundry room had three doors, two of which were located on the east side of the laundry room and provided access to the area of the hotel designated the convention center. The other door was located on the west side of the laundry room and opened to the outside. Gas fired dryers were located along the wall between the east doors and the west door. These dryers had accidentally caught on fire on previous occasions. The plaintiff had noticed in the laundry room unprotected electrical wiring and uncovered electrical junction boxes, which after her discharge, were found to be in violation of the fire code.

Sometime prior to being discharged from her employment, the plaintiff saw maintenance personnel installing locks on the two doors providing access to the convention center. The plaintiff was told that these two doors would remain locked, and the only means of entering or leaving the laundry room would be the door at the opposite end of the room. The plaintiff expressed to management personnel her concern that she and other laundry room personnel could be trapped in the laundry room in the event a fire started at one of the gas fired dryers. When pleas by the plaintiff and others failed to dissuade management from its decision to lock the doors at the east end of the laundry room, the plaintiff telephoned the city fire and police department. As the result of the plaintiff's call, police and fire department officers made an investigation at the hotel. At the insistence of the officers, the hotel manager discussed with the plaintiff her safety concerns. As the result, the defendants agreed that one door on the east end of the laundry room would remain unlocked until 7 p.m. of each day.

Subsequently, the defendants were cited for code violations unrelated to the locked doors, for which they paid a penalty. An industrial safety expert testified that locking both doors at the east end of the laundry room would have created a condition dangerous to workers in that room and was a violation of 29 C.F.R. § 1910.36(b)(4) (1996). 2

The plaintiff's employment was terminated six days after the date on which she protested the defendants' decision to lock the doors and reported her concerns to city officials. Prior to that event, management had expressed no dissatisfaction with the plaintiff's work. No reason was given for her discharge. At no time did the defendants instruct the plaintiff to remain silent regarding the conditions in the laundry room.


The trial court found that whether the plaintiff was discharged from her employment

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solely for reporting conditions in the laundry room was a disputed issue of material fact. The trial court further found that whether the activity reported by the plaintiff was illegal also was a disputed issue of material fact. However, the court found the plaintiff had failed to submit evidence that she was forced by her employer to violate a law or regulation or to remain silent about the violation, and on that basis, dismissed the complaint.

The Court of Appeals found the record presented a disputed issue of material fact as to every essential element of the cause of action alleged and remanded the case for trial.


Review in this Court is limited to the question of whether the plaintiff failed to present evidence supporting every essential element of a cause of action under Section 50-1-304. Rule 56.03 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure provides that summary judgment "shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law."

[W]hen the facts material to the application of a rule of law are undisputed, the application is a matter of law for the court since there is nothing to submit to the jury to resolve in favor of one party or the other. In other words, when there is no dispute over the evidence establishing the facts that control the application of a rule of law, summary judgment is an appropriate means of deciding that issue.

Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d 208, 214-15 (Tenn.1993). "Construction of [a] statute and application of the law to the facts [are questions] of law." Beare Co. v. Tennessee Dept. of Revenue, 858 S.W.2d 906, 907 (Tenn.1993). It follows that the issues raised by the motion for summary judgment of whether the plaintiff failed to present evidence supporting the essential elements of the cause of action, are questions of law. Consequently, the scope of review is de novo with no presumption of correctness. See Tenn. R.App. P. 13(d); Union Carbide Corp. v. Huddleston, 854 S.W.2d 87, 91 (Tenn.1993). "No presumption of correctness attaches to decisions granting [or denying] summary judgments because they involve only questions of law. Thus, on appeal, we must make a fresh determination concerning whether or not the requirements of Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56 have been met." Cowden v. Sovran Bank/Central South, 816 S.W.2d 741, 744 (Tenn.1991).


The defendants' position is that the activities reported by the plaintiff were not illegal within the meaning of the statute, the plaintiff failed to show a causal relationship between her call to the fire and police department and her discharge, and the plaintiff was not instructed to remain silent within the meaning of the statute.

The record clearly supports the concurrent findings by the trial court and the Court of Appeals on the first two issues.

The testimony of the expert on industrial safety that locking the doors created a dangerous working condition, and the existence of code violations were sufficient evidence of illegal activity to overcome the motion for summary judgment. This evidence is sufficient to show "illegal activity," which is defined as "activities which are in violation of the criminal or civil code of this state or the United States or any regulation intended to protect the public health, safety or welfare." Tenn.Code Ann. § 50-1-304(b). The statute's protection extends to employees who have reasonable cause to believe a law, regulation, or rule has been violated or will be violated, and in good faith report it. See e.g., Melchi v. Burns Int'l Security Services, Inc., 597 F.Supp. 575, 583 (E.D.Mich.1984).

The evidence also would support a verdict that the plaintiff's employment was terminated solely because she reported the conditions in the laundry room, including the installation of locks, to city officials. In Anderson v. Standard Register Co., 857 S.W.2d 555 (Tenn.1993), and Conatser v. Clarksville Coca-Cola, 920 S.W.2d 646 (Tenn.1995), the Court discussed the element of causal relationship

Page 473

between protected conduct and discharge from employment. In Anderson, the employee was discharged pursuant to a facially neutral absence control policy for absences caused by a work-related injury. She alleged that she was discharged because...

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