Court is in Order

Chancery down, Circuit and Probate steady in last 12 months

By Amy O. Williams

The City Charter Commission was only a twinkle in the eyes of the Shelby County Election Commission, the Memphis City Council and the city of Memphis when it first began to come under scrutiny. It was the election process in particular that didn't sit well with one national civil rights group.

That group, Operation Rainbow-Push Inc., an affiliate of the RainbowPUSH Coalition, in July filed a suit in Shelby County Chancery Court against the city and the council.

The suit claimed the election process for the Charter Commission, whose seven members took office Sept. 6, violated the state Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it diluted the voting power of blacks and other minorities. The suit still is continuing in federal court, with a deadline of May, 18, 2007, set for attorneys in the case to file their final motions to resolve the suit.

At issue in the suit is the election plan that required charter commission candidates to qualify within their individual districts, but made them subject to votes from the entire city.


Darts and laurels

The lawsuit filed by Operation Rainbow-Push was just one of the 10,347 cases filed in Chancery, Circuit and Probate courts in Shelby County between September 2005 and August of this year, according to The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.

That's down slightly from the 10,487 lawsuits filed in those courts in the same period a year ago and the 10,474 suits filed two years ago.

Memphis attorney Javier M. Bailey filed the Rainbow-Push suit July 18 in Chancery Court on behalf of Operation Rainbow-Push. The case was moved to U.S. District Court July 21. U.S. District Court Judge Jon McCalla was assigned the case.

"Judge McCalla is very fair, intelligent, and whatever decision he makes will be the correct decision," said Memphis attorney Richard B. Fields. Fields has handled civil rights cases for more than 30 years and has argued cases before McCalla.

"He is probably one of the best federal judges in the country," Fields said. "He is extremely good, and he will take this very seriously and make sure it's correctly decided."

Early voting for the Aug. 3 election took place July 14 through July 28, and the defendants in the Rainbow-Push case estimated that by July 26, 55,888 people had voted early. Operation Rainbow-Push filed a motion July 24 to stop the Aug. 3 election, but that motion was denied.

A motion to dismiss the case was filed July 28 based on the defendants' claim that there was no way to resolve the issue.

The latest activity in the case called for a conference to schedule further hearings.


Chancery filings

Between September '05 and August '06, 2,312 cases were filed in Chancery Court.

One hearing involved former State Rep. John Ford, who was sued by First Tennessee Bank in the first quarter of the year over unpaid loans totaling about $60,000. The case, originally filed in August 2005, was continued in March of this year and again in May.

Ford also was indicted in May 2005 for accepting $55,000 from the FBI's phony E-Cycle Management company in the Tennessee Waltz Sting, among other actions.

The number of cases filed in Chancery Court is down from the 2,387 cases filed during the same period last year. Of the cases filed in Chancery Court in the past 12 months, 254 were adoptions, just 33 fewer than in the same period last year. In the year ended August 2004, 257 adoptions were filed.


Circuit filings

In Circuit Court, a suit by Collierville developer David Halle was dismissed. Halle filed the suit against a Collierville resident who wrote a Commercial Appeal letter to the editor accusing him of corruption. The case was settled earlier this year.

Some other high-profile suits were among the 6,780 cases filed in Circuit Court in the past 12 months.

Wonder what they're talking about? Here's an explanation of some common case filings in Chancery and Circuit Courts:
Appeal from General Sessions Court: Appeal for a Circuit Court judge to overturn a General Sessions civil case verdict
Arbitration: Agreement by both parties to settle a dispute out of court with the aid of an arbitrator, or unbiased third party
Breach of Contract: Allegation that a party failed to comply with a contractual agreement
Complaint for Damages: Request for a judge to order one party to pay monetary compensation to another party
Complaint for Workers' Compensation: Request to compel an employer to pay lost wages and medical care of an employee injured on the job
Malpractice: Allegation that a professional - such as a lawyer, doctor, dentist, architect or engineer - acted in a manner not consistent with the standard of care
Minor Settlement: Lawsuit in which one party is a minor and the minor's parents become a litigating party
Petition to Enforce Foreign Judgment: Request to enforce a court order issued in another state or county

Among them was a lawsuit filed in July against Forest Hill Funeral Home and Memorial Park East LLC. The suit was filed on behalf of people who bought pre-need burial contracts they claimed were not honored by the owner, an Oklahoma businessman named Clayton Smart.

Smart claimed he was not liable to pay out on the contracts because he only owned the business for four years and because the contracts were bought before he took ownership.

Memphis attorney Kevin Snider is representing nearly 200 plaintiffs in the class-action suit. Earlier this month, Snider estimated about 13,000 people who bought the pre-need contracts were victims of fraud.

"The reason we got involved in it is we wanted to make sure that the consumers actually obtained a benefit - if, in fact, a benefit is awarded by a judge or the case is settled, that the consumers would receive the vast majority of the money," Snider said in an earlier interview.

However, most of the cases filed in Circuit Court in the past 12 months were typical, said Van Sturdivant, Circuit Court's chief administrative officer.

"There is just really not much variance anywhere," Sturdivant said. "It looks like same old, same old over here. We seem to be right where we usually are this time of the year."

Since January, 4,582 cases have been filed in Circuit Court, Sturdivant said. Circuit Court averages 575 cases per month, he added.

Cases filed in Circuit Court include personal injury, workers' compensation, malpractice and divorces, which topped the list. There were 2,381 divorces filed in Circuit Court between September 2005 and August 2006, up from 2,328 divorces in the same period a year ago and 2,224 divorces two years ago.


General Sessions filings

In Shelby County General Sessions Court's Civil Division, more than 65,000 civil cases were filed, according to information provided by the Civil Division. More than 32,000 civil warrants were filed in the past 12 months, more than any other type of warrant. Civil warrants are issued to get people to come to court regarding civil matters.

The number of cases filed in Probate Court varied little from cases filed in previous years. Cases filed in Probate Court involve wills, conservatorships and guardianships. Conservators are named when an adult is incapacitated, and guardians are named when a minor is incapacitated.

In the year between September 2005 and August 2006, Probate cases totaled 1,255 - steady with the 1,260 filings a year ago, but up from the 1,173 filings two years ago.