Adrienne Fry, 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.

 

Adams v. Adams, No. M2023-00069-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 24, 2024). Laura Adams (“Wife”) filed a complaint for divorce in the Circuit Court for Robertson County (“the Trial Court”) against Timothy Adams, Sr. (“Husband”). In its final judgment of divorce, the Trial Court determined that real estate in Lawrence County (“Lawrence County property”), purchased by Husband prior to the marriage, was marital property because it had become “inextricably commingled.” The Trial Court awarded Wife “40% of the total proceeds” from the Lawrence County property. The Trial Court further awarded Wife the marital residence and any and all equitable interests in the marital residence. Husband has appealed. We affirm the Trial Court’s judgment.

 

State of Tennessee v. Sanders, No. M2023-01148-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Apr. 23, 2024). The Defendant, Tandrea Laquise Sanders, pled guilty to assault and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. After a sentencing hearing, the trial court imposed concurrent sentences of eleven months and twenty-nine days. The sentences were suspended to probation after service of six months in custody. On appeal, the Defendant argues that the trial court abused its discretion in ordering a sentence of split confinement and failed to properly fix a percentage of the sentence to be served before consideration of rehabilitative programs. Upon our review, we respectfully affirm the trial court’s judgments.

 

Brocato (now Dunn ) v. Young, No. M2023-00222-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 2, 2024) (memorandum opinion).  This is a post-divorce partition action in which the ex-wife asked the trial court to order the sale of the former marital residence and to award her, as specified in the parties’ marital dissolution agreement (“the MDA”), half of the equity resulting from the sale. The ex-wife relied on the provision in the MDA, which provides that she is entitled to fifty percent of any equity in the former marital residence “when the house sells.” The ex-husband opposed the partition action, arguing that he was awarded the former marital residence pursuant to the MDA and that the ex-wife was only entitled to half of the equity valued as of the date of their divorce in 2019. The ex-husband also contended that the ex-wife’s claims were barred under the doctrine of equitable estoppel because he had remitted $6,600.00 in monthly payments toward the ex-wife’s equity pursuant to an oral agreement that set her equity interest at $9,750.00. The court granted the partition petition and ordered that the property be sold. The court also found that the MDA was a contract in contemplation of divorce; therefore, acting pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-4-121(b)(2)(A) (“the Distribution of Marital Property Statute”), the court valued the ex-wife’s equity in the former marital residence based on an appraisal near the date of the final divorce decree. The trial court refused to credit the ex-husband for the payments he made to the ex-wife according to their alleged oral agreement, finding that to do so would be a violation of the statute of frauds. Both parties appeal. For the reasons explained below, the judgment of the trial court is reversed, and this matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

Wallace v. Wallace M2022-01279-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 16, 2023).  Husband and Wife divorced; the trial court divided their property. Husband appeals, asserting five errors. Two of those purported errors are related to continuances, and three are related to the trial court’s division of the couple’s property. With regard the property division, one purported error relates to the trial court’s division of certain vehicles and two purported errors relate to the trial court’s division of two parcels of real property. We conclude that both of Husband’s continuance arguments are waived. We also conclude that his property division argument as to the vehicles is waived. With regard to the real property division, we conclude the trial court made inadequate findings of fact and conclusions of law to explain its decision as to both parcels, and we vacate and remand for the trial court to render further findings of fact and conclusions of law.

 

In Re Madilyn B., No. M2023-00035-COA-R3-PT (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 31, 2023).  Father appeals the trial court’s finding of abandonment by wanton disregard as a ground for termination of his parental rights, as well as its finding that termination was in the best interest of the child. We affirm the trial court’s judgment in all respects.

 

State of Tennessee ex. rel. Gutierrex v. Baggett, No. M2022-01658-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 28, 2023).  In this post-divorce case, Father appeals the trial court’s grant of sole decision-making authority over the Children’s non-emergency health care and religious decisions to Mother. Mother requests attorney’s fees incurred on appeal. Because there is no evidence to support an award of sole decision-making authority over religious decisions, we reverse the trial court’s order awarding Mother same. The trial court’s order is otherwise affirmed, and Mother’s request for appellate attorney’s fees is denied.

 

Vandyke v. Cheek, No. M2022-00938-COA-R10-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 1, 2023).  We granted this extraordinary appeal to determine whether the Governmental Tort Liability Act, Tennessee Code Annotated sections 29-20-307 and 29-20-313(b), requires severance in cases involving both non-governmental and governmental entities.  Following the legislature’s amendment of these statutes in 1994, we conclude that, when a jury is demanded, the entire case against both non-governmental and governmental entities shall be tried to a jury without severance.

 

Stephen v. Hill, No. M2022-00672-COA-R3-CV  (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan 12, 2023) (memorandum opinion).  This appeal involves a personal injury case where the defendant died during the pendency of the litigation. Subsequent to the filing of a suggestion of death by the defendant’s counsel, the plaintiff failed to timely file a motion for substitution within the time provided in the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure and, as a result, the defendant’s counsel filed a motion to dismiss. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff filed a motion for substitution and simultaneously moved the trial court to enlarge the time for filing the motion. The trial court denied the plaintiff’s motions and dismissed the case. Upon our review of the record, we reverse.

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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