Michael E. Jenne, 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.

 

McDonald v. Coffel, No. E2022-01569-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 9, 2024).  In this action initiated by the mother to modify the parties’ permanent parenting plan for their minor child, the trial court limited the father’s co-parenting time to include no overnight visitation with the child after finding by a preponderance of the evidence that the father had committed domestic abuse against two women whom he had previously dated. The trial court relied on Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-406 to restrict the father’s parenting time based on its determination that the father’s acts of domestic violence and hostility toward women had a negative effect on his ability to effectively parent the minor child. The father appealed, but this Court dismissed that appeal because the trial court’s order was not a final judgment. See McDonald v. Coffel, No. E2021-00460-COA-R3-CV, 2021 WL 4958475 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 26, 2021). On remand, the trial court addressed all pending matters and entered a final judgment, keeping in place the residential co-parenting schedule limiting the father’s parenting time to exclude overnight visitation. The father has again appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion by denying him overnight co-parenting time and by relying on Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-406. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm.

 

Parker v. Parker, No. E2022-00720-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 12, 2023).  In this post-divorce action, the trial court denied the husband’s petition for contempt upon finding that the wife had satisfied a provision of the parties’ marital dissolution agreement allowing for the husband to retrieve items of personal property from a home awarded to the wife. The court initially awarded attorney’s fees to the wife, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-103(c), for her successful defense against the petition. Upon the husband’s motion to alter or amend and following a hearing and supplemental briefing, the trial court concluded that the statute did not provide for attorney’s fees in an action involving enforcement of the distribution of property in a divorce. The trial court granted the husband’s motion to alter or amend, denying the wife’s request for attorney’s fees. The wife has appealed. Upon consideration, we hold that Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-103(c) provides for attorney’s fees solely in matters involving alimony, child support, permanent parenting plan provisions, and custody of children. We therefore affirm the trial court’s judgment.

 

Wade v. Georgewell, No. E2023-00375-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 28, 2023).  Appellant appeals the trial court’s judgment finding that she breached a contract and ordering her to pay $3,343.10 in contractual damages. On appeal, Appellant has failed to comply with Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 27(a) and Rule 6 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee. Substantive review is also precluded by the lack of a transcript or statement of the evidence as required by Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 24. Accordingly, this appeal is dismissed.

 

Sparks v. Sparks, No. E2022-00586-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct App. June 20, 2023).  Eric Todd Sparks (“Husband”) and Rachel Collins Sparks (“Wife”) were divorced by order of the Chancery Court for Bradley County (the “trial court”) on December 2, 2021. In addition to $693 in monthly child support, the trial court ordered Husband to pay Wife $750 per month in alimony in futuro. The trial court also ordered that once the parties’ minor child, who was nine years old at the time of trial, reached the age of majority, Husband’s alimony in futuro obligation would automatically increase to $1,250 per month. Husband timely appealed to this Court. We affirm the trial court’s decision to award Wife alimony in futuro, but, considering Husband’s ability to pay and Wife’s need, we vacate the trial court’s ruling as to the monthly amount and remand for further proceedings. We also conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in ordering the automatic increase in Husband’s alimony obligation upon the Child reaching the age of majority and vacate that portion of the trial court’s order. Consequently, the trial court’s ruling is vacated in part and affirmed in part. We decline to award Wife her attorney’s fees incurred on appeal.

 

City of Benton v. Whiting, No. E2022-01382-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 25, 2023). Defendant/Appellant appealed a speeding ticket from Benton City Municipal Court to the Circuit Court for Polk County, Tennessee (the “circuit court”). The City of Benton (the “City”) filed a motion for summary judgment which the circuit court granted on May 18, 2022. Defendant appeals and, discerning no error, we affirm.

 

In Re Lyrical T.,  No. E2022-00457-COA-R3-PT  (Tenn. Ct. App. Fe. 10, 2023).  This is a termination of parental rights case. The mother and father appeal the trial court’s order terminating their parental rights, arguing that there was not clear and convincing evidence to support termination. For the reasons discussed herein, we affirm.

 

Jackson v. Burke, No. E2021-01484-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 27, 2023). This is an appeal from the entry of an order of protection for stalking. The respondent asserts that he did not receive the statutorily required notice of hearing and that the evidence did not support a finding of stalking. The trial court ruled in favor of the petitioner. 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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