Bonita Jo Atwood, Judge

Biography

Reports of Cases Reviewed by Appellate Courts – Beginning Jan. 1, 2022

Text is the appellate court’s summary of the opinion.

Scroll down for important information.

 

Batts-Richardson v. Richardson, No. M2023-00395-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 16, 2023) (memorandum opinion).  This appeal involves a mother’s post-divorce petition for modification of alimony and child support. Because the trial court has not disposed of all of the claims raised in the mother’s petition, we dismiss the appeal for lack of a final judgment.

 

Lazaroff (Coons) v. Lazaroff, No. M2022-01004-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 26, 2023).  This post-divorce appeal concerns the trial court’s finding of contempt against the father for his failure to pay child support and the court’s calculation of his support arrearage owed. We affirm.

 

Goughenour v. Goughenour, No. M2022-00297-COA-R3-CV(Tenn. Ct. App. May 5, 2023).  This is an appeal from a final decree of divorce involving the trial court’s award of parenting time and requiring parental restrictions. The trial court entered a permanent parenting plan in which Mother and Father were awarded equal parenting time, with Father being named the primary residential parent. The trial court also ordered that neither Father nor Mother were to consume alcohol in the presence of Child. Father appeals. Having carefully reviewed the record, we affirm the trial court’s order. We further award Mother her attorney’s fees on appeal and remand to the trial court for a determination of the amount awarded.

 

Creger v. Creger, No. M2022-00558-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 16, 2023). In this divorce action, the trial court distributed the parties’ marital assets and debts, fashioned a parenting plan naming the mother primary residential parent and providing the father with fifty-five annual days of co-parenting time, and set the father’s child support obligation. The father has appealed. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm the trial court’s judgment. Deeming this to be a frivolous appeal, we grant the mother’s request for reasonable attorney’s fees and costs incurred on appeal and remand this issue to the trial court for a determination regarding the amount.

 

Estate of Jennifer Diane Vickers v. Diversicare Leasing Corp., No. M2021-00894-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 13, 2022).  A nursing home resident commenced this health care liability action after she had 18 teeth extracted, after which she suffered excessive bleeding. Before suing, the plaintiff’s daughter, acting as her mother’s attorney in fact, provided each prospective defendant with a form that purported to authorize the release of the plaintiff’s health information as required by Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-26-121(a)(1). Four months later, the plaintiff filed her complaint and a certificate of good faith as required by § 29-26-122(a). The defendants responded by moving to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the pre-suit authorizations were invalid because the daughter lacked the authority to make “health care decisions” for the plaintiff. The trial court denied the motions, finding the general power of attorney authorized the daughter to release the plaintiff’s medical records. After the plaintiff filed an amended complaint to add a claim for lack of informed consent, the defendants moved to dismiss all claims set forth in the amended complaint based on the plaintiff’s failure to file a new certificate of good faith. The plaintiff argued that a new certificate was unnecessary; nevertheless, she moved for an extension of time to comply. Following a hearing, the court found that a new certificate of good faith was required by § 29-26-122(a) because the amended complaint asserted a new claim. The court also denied the plaintiff’s motion for an extension of time to comply on the ground that the plaintiff failed to establish “extraordinary cause” to justify an extension. Based on these findings, the court granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss all claims. This appeal followed. We agree that a new certificate of good faith was required; however, we find that the trial court applied an incorrect legal standard to deny the motion for an extension of time in which to comply. This is because the standard applicable to a motion for an extension of time to comply is “good cause,” not “extraordinary cause,” and good cause is a less exacting standard than extraordinary cause. See Stovall v. UHS Lakeside, LLC, No. W2013-01504- COA-R9-CV, 2014 WL 2155345, at *12 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 22, 2014) (citations omitted), overruled on other grounds by Davis ex rel. Davis v. Ibach, 465 S.W.3d 570 (Tenn. 2015). Accordingly, this issue, along with the trial court’s decision to dismiss the entire amended complaint, are vacated and remanded for further consideration by the trial court. As a result, we affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Wilson Bank & Trust v. Consolidated Utility District of Rutherford County, No. M2021-00167-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 10, 2022).  In 2014, development company KW Group, LLC (“KW”) purchased a tract of land located in Rutherford County, Tennessee, from Wilson Bank & Trust (“Wilson Bank”). The land was intended for a subdivision. A previous holder of the land, Mid-Cumberland
Development, Inc. (“Mid-Cumberland”), had deeded two lots out of the main tract to Consolidated Utility District of Rutherford County (“CUD”) in 2011. Desiring to have a portion of the two lots re-consolidated with the primary tract, KW and Wilson Bank filed suit against CUD and Mid-Cumberland in 2016. The plaintiffs sought reformation and/or rescission of the 2011 deed conveying the lots to CUD and stated causes of action for promissory estoppel and unjust enrichment. Following briefing by the parties, the trial court dismissed all of the plaintiffs’ claims with prejudice. We affirm.

 

Williams v Smyrna Residential, LLC, No. M2021-00927-COA-R3-CV, p. 5 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 8, 2022). This appeal concerns the enforceability of an arbitration agreement in a wrongful death lawsuit. James Williams (“Plaintiff”), individually as next of kin and on behalf of the wrongful death beneficiaries of Granville Earl Williams, Jr., deceased (“Decedent”), sued Smyrna Residential, LLC d/b/a Azalea Court and Americare Systems, Inc. (“Defendants,” collectively) in the Circuit Court for Rutherford County (“the Trial Court”). Decedent was a resident of Azalea Court, an assisted living facility. Plaintiff alleged his father died because of Defendants’ negligence. Defendants filed a motion to compel arbitration, citing an arbitration agreement (“the Agreement”) entered into by Decedent’s daughter and durable power of attorney Karen Sams (“Sams”) on behalf of Decedent when the latter was admitted to Azalea Court. Notably, the durable power of attorney (“the POA”) did not cover healthcare decision-making. The Trial Court held that Sams lacked authority to enter into the Agreement and that, in any event, the wrongful death beneficiaries would not be bound by the Agreement even if it were enforceable. Defendants appeal. We affirm.

 

Understanding the Limitations and Use of the Information Found in This Book

Tennessee’s trial judges resolve hundreds of thousands of legal and factual issues in tens of thousands of cases every single year.  No appeal is filed in the vast percentage of those cases, indicating that while the “losing” party may not like a ruling on a particular issue, that party understands there was an appropriate reason for the judge’s decision or, at a minimum, the judge was acting within his or her discretion.

 

Of course, a small number of decisions of trial judges do result in an appeal. Experienced trial lawyers know that the number of cases appealed out of a particular trial judge’s court does not, in and of itself, reveal much about the trial judge. For example, some judges hear more complex cases than others, and those cases are more likely to be appealed. Convictions in child sex abuse cases are frequently appealed, as are many criminal cases resulting in long sentences. There are a large number of parental rights termination cases that find their way to the appellate courts.  Judges who routinely try those types of cases will, other things being equal, see more of their cases reviewed by appellate courts than judges who do not see such cases.

 

Second, certain litigants (and certain lawyers) are more likely to appeal a case than others.  Thus, judges who have those litigants or lawyers regularly appear in their courtrooms will find more cases reviewed by the appellate courts.

 

For these and other reasons, the reader is cautioned not to read too much into the number of cases appealed from a court.  Stated differently, there is no reason to believe that a judge who has ten cases reviewed by an appellate court in a single year is a “worse” judge than one who has one case appealed, or that a judge who has three cases appealed is a “better” judge than one who has nine cases appealed.

 

Next, the number of times a judge’s ruling is reversed by an appellate court is not necessarily indicative of the quality of his or her work. For example, experienced lawyers know that there are “holes in the law,” i.e., cases where there is no law directly on point and the judge is forced to predict what an appellate court would rule on the issue. The fact that a judge decided an open legal issue one way and an appellate court decided it another way does not mean that the trial judge was “wrong” or does not understand the law. It simply means that the trial judge had a different view of what the law should be than the appellate court that decided the issue. A trial judge is not blessed with a crystal ball that can with 100 percent accuracy forecast how an appellate court will rule on an undecided legal issue.

 

In addition, the trial court is sometimes not provided with the same in-depth legal arguments and law that is supplied to the appellate court by the parties, or which is provided by law clerks at the appellate level (many trial courts do not have law clerks). The trial judge may have reached the same conclusion as the appellate court if he or she had been supplied with additional law or argument.

 

Finally, the law changes constantly, and the trial judge may rule on a case based on today’s law, which may evolve between the time of that ruling and the issuance of an opinion of the appellate court. In such cases, the reversal of the case by the appellate court is a question of timing of the original court decision as compared to changes in the law, not one of error by the trial court.

 

So, what is the value of this book?  How can the trial lawyer use it to help his or her clients given the limitations expressed above? Permit me to digress slightly.

 

You have seen the coffee cups or t-shirts that proclaim, “A good lawyer knows the law, but a great lawyer knows the judge.”

 

Some read this phrase as suggesting that the “great lawyer” is one who has an improper relationship with the judge – that he or she can use a personal relationship to improperly influence the judge.  But most lawyers know better.  Most lawyers understand that “knowing the judge” means knowing the judge’s background, preferences concerning the presentation of evidence (including exhibits), arguments of motions, drafting of proposed orders, and given that experience, how he or she is likely to rule on a particular issue.  “Knowing the judge” also means knowing the local rules, local forms, local customs, and what things irritate the judge (and every judge is irritated by at least one thing that lawyers or litigants may do).

 

Many lawyers, particularly those in more rural areas of the state or who limit their practice to one area of law, understand the personality and preferences of the judges they see on a regular basis. Many of these lawyers may have a fair advantage appearing before that judge. (The advantage is “fair” because it results from experience and knowledge.)  That advantage – knowing how the judge thinks and his or her preferences – is not outcome-determinative, but it still may be an advantage, similar to a sports team playing on their home field.

 

Why did I say it “may” be an advantage, given what I said earlier about the benefits of “knowing the judge?”  Because simply knowing the judge’s thought processes and preferences is not enough. You still need to have the law and the facts on your client’s side.  And you need to be prepared to be able to give the judge what he or she needs to know to make a ruling.

 

So, the purpose of “The Book” is to give Tennessee lawyers case-related information to help them understand the trial judge who will rule on their client’s case or preside over a jury trial. By looking at past appellate court rulings arising from cases decided by the trial judge, anyone unfamiliar with a judge can get a “feel” for the judge. The case data contained herein does not compare with daily or weekly appearances in front of the judge on issues like a given case, but it is readily available information that give you an idea of how the judge has ruled in the past on a variety of matters.

 

The cases included are those originally decided by the trial judge that were in appellate court opinions released on or after January 1, 2022.  Note that there are a substantial number of judges who first took office in 2022 and thus it is reasonable to assume that there will be no appellate decisions for such judges until late 2023 or 2024.

 

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