A lawsuit involving former Loudon County resident Richard Truitt, Loudon County Board of Education and former Loudon County Director of Schools Jason Vance will be reviewed by the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
Truitt filed an appeal Oct. 23 following a summary judgment in favor of the BOE by Circuit Court Judge Michael Pemberton on March 20, 2019.
The case began Sept. 7, 2017, after Truitt alleged the BOE held a meeting Aug. 31, 2017, in violation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act.
According to the complaint, Vance used the meeting “as a means to poll school board members and obtain input from school board members concerning an issue of public concern that was to be considered at a future school board meeting with the intention of reducing or eliminating discussion and deliberations.”
Chris McCarty, BOE attorney, filed a motion in January 2018 arguing that even if a violation occurred, a subsequent meeting Sept. 14, 2017, “cured” any wrongdoing.
“The only case that I’m aware is just the one appeal because the only case that was ever filed was just the one case,” McCarty said. “I know that he appealed this fall. Basically, the school board has won at every turn in terms of allegations that we violated the Sunshine Law. Judge Pemberton dismissed the case in an order for summary judgment that we filed, and the council for Mr. Truitt and Ms. (Linda) Noe asked the court on more than one occasion to reconsider that decision. Each time, Judge Pemberton agreed with us and stood by his decision to dismiss the case.”
Linda Catron Noe, attorney for Truitt, argued the BOE was in violation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act and that the following “cure meeting” did not solve the issue.
She cited Tennessee Code Annotated 8-44-106, which states, “The circuit courts, chancery courts and other courts which have equity jurisdiction, have jurisdiction to issue injunctions, impose penalties and otherwise enforce the purposes of this part upon application of any citizen of this state.”
“All Mr. Truitt asked was the court impose an injunction on the Board of Education, which would simply say, ‘Don’t violate it anymore. You’re going to be court supervised for a year at least’,” Noe said. “They would not agree to an injunction, which we consider mandatory when we read the Open Meetings Act that says if you are found in violation, the court shall enjoin a person from further violation. We are going with that statute, but they’re saying they had a cure meeting that they went back and did another meeting and that cured everything that they had done in violation.”
Noe claims the BOE held the cure meeting after Truitt filed the lawsuit, which she believes proves the BOE was in violation.
She said Loudon County taxpayers are being held responsible after the BOE “shelled out that $50,000 simply because they would simply not accept an injunction — a court order that says, ‘Go and sin no more.’”
“If you’re going to have that kind of law, you’re going to have no law at all,” Noe said. “All you’re going to have is, ‘Oh well, if we get caught then we’ll do a cure meeting. If we don’t get caught, we do nothing.’ That’s pretty much what happened with this. They only started their cure meeting and put it on the agenda after Mr. Truitt had already filed the suit, and so their reaction to a lawsuit was, ‘We’re going to cure it and then it’s gone.’ That’s our position, and I think we’re going to have some support from some outside groups that are interested in open government.”
Both attorneys said the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically slowed the court system, meaning the appeal may not be reviewed until sometime in the spring.
If the appeal is denied, Truitt will have the option to take the appeal to the state level.
“There’s basically three things that can happen, and the first one is what we hope will happen which is the Court of Appeals will affirm Judge Pemberton’s decision and dismiss the case in its entirety as he ordered,” McCarty said. “If that happens and the case goes away, or Ms. Noe could request an appeal for the Tennessee Supreme Court, but you don’t have an appeal of right with the Tennessee Supreme Court because they could actually say, ‘We’re not going to hear it’.”
“The Open Meetings Act has few teeth,” Noe added. “It is completely toothless if governing bodies, such as LCBOE, can violate the Act with zero consequences, not even a slap on the wrist. The current ruling permits violations with no consequences. Mr. Truitt does not believe that is what the law says or that that is what the legislature meant in enacting the Open Meetings Act.”