Deanna Bell Johnson, 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.

 

Korshoff v. Wesley Financial Group, LLC, No. M2022-00630-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 6, 2024). An employer terminated an employee after she requested unpaid commissions pursuant to her contract. The employee sued her former employer claiming breach of contract, unjust enrichment, retaliatory discharge, and intentional misrepresentation. She also sought punitive damages. The jury found in the employee’s favor on all claims and awarded damages for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and retaliatory discharge as well as awarding punitive damages. The former employer sought post-trial relief, arguing the jury’s verdicts were inconsistent and that the jury’s punitive damages award was in error and excessive. The trial court concluded the verdicts were consistent but did reduce, while not eliminating, the punitive damages award. The former employer appeals, challenging the compensatory and punitive damage awards. We affirm.

 

Swinghold v. The Farm at Clovercroft Homeowners Association, Inc., No. M2022-01633-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 17, 2023). The plaintiffs filed this breach of contract action against their homeowners association for failure to rectify alleged violations of the neighborhood restrictions. The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment establishing that the issues complained of were actual violations of the restrictions. The trial court dismissed the action in favor of the homeowners association and the plaintiffs’ neighbors who joined as interested parties. We affirm.

 

Hasty v. Greyhawk Development Corp., No. M2021-01217-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 30, 2023). A plaintiff obtained a default judgment against a corporation. Ten months later, the plaintiff moved to pierce the corporate veil and enforce the judgment against an alleged alter ego of the corporation. The trial court denied the motion. Because the judgment was final and the alleged alter ego was never made a party to the action, we affirm.

 

Bluewater Bay at Center Hill, LLC v. Hasty, No. M2020-01336-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 26, 2023).  This appeal concerns the enforceability of a promissory note and a co-guarantor’s right to seek contribution from another guarantor. The note and guaranties were assigned several times and, at one point, held by the co-guarantor. On a motion for summary judgment, the trial court concluded on the undisputed facts that the promissory note had been discharged and that there was no right to contribution. We conclude that the promissory note was not discharged but agree that there was no right to contribution.

 

Austermiller v. Austermiller, No. M2022-01611-COA-T10B-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 5, 2022).  This is an accelerated interlocutory appeal as of right pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 10B § 2.02 from the trial court’s denial of a motion for recusal in a pending divorce action. The husband moved for recusal based on comments the presiding judge made after the husband failed a court-ordered drug test. The judge stated from the bench, “If I could put [the husband] in drug court, I would. It’s a two-year program. I would certainly love for him to be in that. Unfortunately, he doesn’t qualify because it’s not for domestic. It’s for criminal.” In the order denying the husband’s motion, the judge stated: “the Court made these suggestions only to help [the husband] get well and beat his addiction so he can be a father to his two children.” The court also found that the husband filed his motion “for an improper purpose, i.e., to delay the litigation.” We have concluded that the motion was not filed for an improper purpose; however, we find the evidence is insufficient to prompt a reasonable, disinterested person to believe that the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned. Accordingly, the judgment of the trial court denying the motion for recusal

is affirmed.

Odom v. State of Tennessee, No. M2022-00252-CCA-R3-PC (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Nov. 29, 2022). Petitioner, Melvin A. Odom, appeals the summary dismissal of his post-conviction petition as time-barred. On appeal, he contends that the correct date to determine the statute of limitations is the day the trial court filed an amended judgment on one of his convictions and by that date, his petition was timely filed. Alternatively, he contends that due process considerations warrant the tolling of the one-year statute of limitations and requests that the case be remanded for an evidentiary hearing to determine whether he is entitled to equitable tolling. Following our review of the entire record, oral arguments, and the parties’ briefs, the dismissal is affirmed.

Standley v. Standley, No. M2021-00591-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 9, 2022). In this post-divorce action, Mother appeals the trial court’s award of Father’s attorney’s fees on his petition to modify child custody. Because the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding Father attorney’s fees, we affirm.

 

State of Tennessee v. Noah Cassidy Higgins, No. M2021-00281-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. April 25, 2022). Defendant, Noah Cassidy Higgins, pled guilty as a Range I standard offender to vehicular homicide by recklessness with the sentence to be determined by the trial court.  Following a sentencing hearing, the trial court denied judicial diversion and probation and sentenced Defendant to five years’ incarceration with a thirty percent release eligibility.  Defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court: (1) improperly denied judicial diversion; (2) improperly denied probation; (3) considered facts outside the record; and (4) erred in applying and balancing certain enhancement and mitigating factors.  Following our review of the record and the parties’ briefs, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

 

Charles Biggs et al. v. Town of Nolensville, No. M2021-00397-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 5, 2022). This is an appeal from a governmental tort liability case in which the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant governmental entity on the basis that it retained its immunity.  Plaintiffs now appeal, arguing that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment.  Specifically, plaintiffs contend that the trial court failed to consider their expert affidavit.  On appeal, we reverse the trial court’s entry of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings.

 

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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