Note: This story was last updated at 3:25 p.m.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals on Thursday affirmed the decision of a trial court to dismiss an ouster complaint filed against Anderson County Law Director Jay Yeager.
Twenty-two Anderson County residents tried to remove Yeager, who was appointed law director in September 2006, from his office under Tennessee’s ouster law. The complaint was originally filed in Anderson County Chancery Court in May 2014 and amended the next month.
The Anderson County Chancery Court issued an order granting Yeager’s motion to dismiss on September 22, 2014, but the case was appealed. On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the court, which heard oral arguments in April, upheld the trial court’s decision to grant the motion to dismiss, which was issued by Special Judge Don R. Ash.
“I deeply appreciate the County Commission and the Legal Services Advisory Committee for their continued support and confidence during these very difficult times for myself and my family,” Yeager said Thursday morning.
The debate hinged on whether the county law director is a public office subject to the ouster law or if he or she is instead a public employee. The ouster law provides a method for removing individuals from public office, but it does not apply to workers who are considered public employees.
The trial court concluded that the law director’s position is not a public office. The Tennessee Court of Appeals agreed, saying the county law director is subject to oversight by an 11-member advisory committee that may remove him or her at any time with the subsequent approval of the county legislature.
The appellate court said the purpose of the ouster law is to “rid the public of unworthy officials” and “to improve the public service, and to free the public from an unfit officer.” Certain procedures put into place by the Tennessee General Assembly demonstrate the legislature’s intent to provide a speedy method for removing unfit public officials, the court said.
“Without such a mechanism, it is possible that a public official could openly engage in willful misconduct without fear of losing office prior to the expiration of his or her term,” the three-judge panel said. “Such a situation is certainly untenable. However, that possibility does not exist where, as is the case here, the position in question is subject to oversight by a committee with the power to remove its holder at any time, with or without cause.”
In this case, the judges said, the private act of 2006 that created the law director’s office created an oversight committee that is capable of removing the county law director “at any time, for any reason.”
Yeager could be removed by a two-thirds vote of the Legal Services Advisory Committee and then a two-thirds vote of the Anderson County Commission. But so far, no members of the committee or the commission have asked for him to be removed.
“Though the position of county law director has some of the characteristics commonly associated with a public office, as opposed to mere employment, we conclude that because the position is subject to the oversight of an advisory committee, which may remove the individual holding the position with the approval of the county legislative body, it is not a public office under the ouster law,” the judges said. “We therefore affirm the ruling of the trial court dismissing the petitioners’ action. Costs of this appeal are taxed to the petitioners.”
Through attorney Greg Brown, Anderson County resident Lynn Byrge and his fellow petitioners said they were disappointed by the Court of Appeals ruling and have authorized their attorneys to prepare an application for rehearing by the Court of Appeals or review by the Tennessee Supreme Court
“That process is already well under way,” Brown said in a statement. “While the court’s opinion recognizes the possibility of oversight and termination by the Legal Services Advisory Committee, the reality is that the committee did not meet for six straight years and is chaired and staffed by individual officials dedicated to protecting Mr. Yeager from substantial oversight or accountability. The result is that Mr. Yeager may hold his position for life, without regard to his actions and inactions, a result that cannot have been intended by any lawmaker.”
Brown said the petitioners also disagree with the Court of Appeals regarding the importance of Yeager’s duties to the county. While the Court has held that his duties are not sufficiently important to the county to make him a public officer, Brown said, petitioners feel that his performance has a “significant and deleterious effect on the integrity and operations of Anderson County government.
“While the petitioners are disappointed in the result, they appreciate the advocacy of the attorneys and the consideration given to the issue by the Court of Appeals, and hope for and look forward to further consideration by the Tennessee Supreme Court,” Brown said.
Here’s a summary of the case posted by the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Knoxville. Judge Brandon O. Gibson delivered the opinion, which was joined by Judge John W. McClarty and Thomas R. Frierson II.
State of Tennessee Ex Rel Landle Byrge, et al. v. Nicholas Jay YeagerE2014-01996-COA-R3-CVAuthoring Judge: Judge Brandon O. GibsonTrial Court Judge: Judge Don R. Ash
The petitioners filed this action seeking to remove the respondent from the position of county law director of Anderson County pursuant to Tennessee’s ouster law, found at Tennessee Code Annotated section 8-47-101. The respondent filed a motion to dismiss, which the trial court granted after concluding that the position of county law director is not a public office subject to the ouster law. On appeal, the petitioners argue that the trial court erred in concluding that the position of county law director is not a public office. Because the county law director is subject to oversight by an advisory committee that may remove him or her at any time with the subsequent approval of the county legislature, we affirm the ruling of the trial court.
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