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Sixth Circuit Revives Tennessee Detainee’s Suit, Holds Lower Court Not Required to Retain Jurisdiction of State Law Claims After Dismissing Federal Claims

by Matt Clarke

On September 22, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit extended the life of civil rights claims brought under Tennessee law by a jail detainee whose federal claims were dismissed by the federal court for the Eastern District of Tennessee.

In its ruling, the Court held that the federal court was not required to retain jurisdiction over a remaining state tort claim of negligence in order to determine whether to apply a state statute that exempts negligence claims based on civil rights violations from its waiver of sovereign immunity.

The facts of the case began in 2016, when Brian Devereaux surrendered on a first-time DUI charge and then sat motionless for several hours in a holding cell in the Knox County Jail. Guards were in and out of the cell and later present when other prisoners tried unsuccessfully to awaken Devereux, but that was after they ignored him for at least six hours.

Eventually, Devereux collapsed on the floor. Emergency personnel took him to a hospital, where it was determined he had suffered a major stroke causing “permanent neurologic injury” which likely would have been substantially mitigated had he received medical treatment earlier.

Devereux and his wife then filed a civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court for the Eastern District of Tennessee against several guards and the county. The lawsuit also contained a pendent state negligence claim under the Tennessee Government Tort Liability Act (TGTLA), Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205, which provides an exemption to the state’s waiver of sovereign immunity for claims involving violations of civil rights.

In September 2018, the district court dismissed all claims but that for negligence under TGTLA. The next month, it then dismissed that claim without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, allowing the claim to be re-filed in state court. Knox County appealed, seeking dismissal with prejudice, arguing that since the Court found no civil rights violation, the exemption to the law was not satisfied and it was protected by sovereign immunity.

Represented by Richard Everett Collins, II, of Stanley, Kurtz & Collins in Knoxville, the Devereuxs joined the County to ask the Sixth Circuit also to certify a question to the state Supreme Court whether the “civil rights exception” applies in this case, where Plaintiff alleges both federal civil rights claims and state negligence claims based on the same facts.

Taking up then case, the Court noted the question had previously been addressed in the state, citing Cochran v. Town of Jonesborough, 586 S.W.3d 909 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2019), in which an appellate court said it was “unpersuaded by Appellant’s argument that because the district court dismissed Appellant’s federal claims at the summary judgment stage, there were no civil rights violations, and [TGTLA’s civil rights exception] is thereby inapplicable.”

Given that, the Court continued, “the issue is whether the claims ‘did not sound in civil rights,’ and the presence of a civil rights claim is not strictly necessary for the civil rights exception to apply to parallel TGTLA claims.”

It also said this constituted an exceptional circumstance for it to decline jurisdiction instead of determining whether the civil rights exemption applied, noting that the Tennessee legislature had expressed a strong and unequivocal preference that TGTLA claims be handled by its own courts.

Thus the Sixth Circuit declined to certify the question to the state Supreme Court. It then vacated the portions of the district court’s orders as to its rationale regarding the TGTLA negligence claim, affirming its judgment in all other respects. See: Devereux v. Knox Cty., 15 F.4th 388 (6th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Devereux v. Knox Cty.