John C. Rambo, Chancellor

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.

 

Rivers v. Brooks, No. E2023-00506-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 9, 2024).  This case concerns a “Declaration of Additional Restrictive Covenants” applicable to an unimproved tract in a residential subdivision. In relevant part, the Declaration provides that, if a construction agreement could not be reached, the buyer is required to either (1) obtain a waiver of the exclusive builder provision, or (2) re-convey the property to seller at the original purchase price, excluding fees and costs. Here, Appellant/seller and Appellees/buyers could not agree on the building costs. The trial court determined that Appellant breached the Declaration and waived the right to enforce it when he failed to grant Appellees’ request for waiver of the exclusive builder provision and also refused to re-purchase the lot. Discerning no error, we affirm.

 

State ex rel. Misti Leigh Haney O’Dell v. O’Dell, No. E2023-00056-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 20, 2023) (memorandum opinion).  Because the notice of appeal was not timely filed, this Court lacks jurisdiction to consider this appeal.

 

First Covenant Trust v. Willis, No. E2023-00230-COA-T10B-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 24, 2023). This is an interlocutory appeal as of right, pursuant to Rule 10B of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, filed by Jeff A. Willis (“Petitioner”), seeking to recuse the judge in this suit to collect a judgment. Having reviewed the petition for recusal appeal filed by Petitioner, and finding no error, we affirm.

 

Wininger v. Wininger, E2021-0-COA1296-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 14, 2022).  The appellant challenges the trial court’s dismissal of her petition for order of protection against her husband. Following a hearing where both parties testified, the trial court did not find appellant’s testimony credible and dismissed her petition. We affirm.

 

In Re Grayson M., E2021-00893-COA-R3-PT (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 12, 2022).  This is a termination of parental rights case. The trial court terminated mother’s parental rights to her child on multiple grounds. Specifically, the trial court determined that mother had abandoned her child and failed to manifest an ability and willingness to care for the child or assume physical or legal custody of the child. In addition to finding that grounds existed for termination, the trial court concluded termination was in the child’s best interests. The mother now appeals the trial court’s termination. Although we vacate one ground for termination relied upon by the trial court, we otherwise affirm the trial court’s order terminating mother’s parental rights.

 

Runion v. Runion, E2021-00544-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 29, 2022). William Lee Runion, Jr. (“Husband”) filed for divorce from his wife of many years, Dianna Lynn Mashburn Runion (“Wife”), in 2019. Throughout the parties’ marriage they lived on a farm owned by Husband’s father. When dividing the parties’ marital estate, the trial court determined that Wife had no interest in the farm land, the real estate thereon, or the profits generated by the farm. The trial court found that these were neither separate nor marital assets, as they belonged solely to Husband’s father. Wife appeals, arguing that Husband and Grandfather were engaged in an implied partnership. Discerning no error, we affirm.

 

Kidd v. Lewis, E2021-01156-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 14, 2022).  This appeal concerns an alleged conversion of funds. Rebecca Durbin, Teresa Fletcher Kidd, and Ramona Lewis (“Plaintiffs,” collectively), the adult children of the late Charles Lewis (“Charlie”), sued Bernice Lewis (“Defendant”), Charlie’s widow, in the Chancery Court for Washington County (“the Trial Court”).Plaintiffs alleged that Defendant exercised undue influence over Charlie in his later years and converted funds in a bank account that Charlie had intended for them to have. After a trial, the Trial Court ruled in favor of Plaintiffs. Defendant appeals, arguing among other things that the three-year statute of limitations applicable to Plaintiffs’ claim had expired. Defendant also argues that the Trial Court erred by not awarding her any darnages for Plaintiffs’ failure to maintain Charlie’s house, which Defendant continued to live in pursuant to Charlie’s will. We hold that Plaintiffs were on constructive notice of their claim against Defendant no later than October 5, 2009, and thus their lawsuit filed in October 2019 is time-barred. We, therefore, reverse the judgment of the Trial Court with respect to Plaintiffs’ claim against Defendant. However, we affirm the Trial Court as to its declination to award Defendant any damages for Plaintiffs’ failure to maintain Charlie’s house as Plaintiffs owed her no duty to maintain the house; per Charlie’s will, that was his Estate’s responsibility. We thus affirm, in part, and reverse, in part, the Trial Court’s judgment.

 

Wininger v. Wininger, No. E2022-00306-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 14, 2022).  Because the notice of appeal in this case was not timely filed this Court lacks jurisdiction to consider this appeal.

 

In Re: Naomi B., No. E2021-00892-COA-R3-PT (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb 24, 2022).  This appeal concerns termination of parental rights. Paternal grandparents Russell B.(“Grandfather”) and Louella B. (“Grandmother”) (“Grandparents,” collectively) filed a petition in the Chancery Court for Washington County (“the Trial Court”) seeking to terminate the parental rights of Alexandria Y. (“Mother”) and Ricky B. (“Father”) to their minor child, Naomi B. (“the Child”). After a hearing, the Trial Court entered an order terminating Mother’s and Father’s parental rights to the Child. Mother and Father appeal. Grandparents raise additional issues as appellees. We find, inter alia, that in addition to the grounds found by the Trial Court, the proof is clear and convincing in support of the grounds alleged by Grandparents of abandonment by failure to visit against Mother and persistent conditions against both Mother and Father. We find further, as did the Trial Court, that termination of Mother’s and Father’s parental rights is in the Child’s best interest. We affirm the judgment of the Trial Court as modified, resulting in affirmance of the termination of Mother’s and Father’s parental rights to the Child.

  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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