Jeffrey M. Atherton, Chancellor


Report 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.


Booker v. Booker, No.  E2022-01228-COA-R3-CV  (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 25, 2023). This is an appeal from a divorce in the Chancery Court for Hamilton County (the “trial court”). Donna Booker (“Wife”) and Mike Booker (“Husband”) married for the first time in 1993 and divorced in 1998. They remarried shortly thereafter in February of 1999. The day of their second wedding, Husband and Wife executed a prenuptial agreement addressing Husband’s interest in his family’s steel erection business. Wife filed the current divorce action in the trial court in February of 2020, and a trial was held May 3 and 4, 2022, and July 6, 2022. The trial court ordered the parties divorced, divided the marital estate, and awarded Wife alimony in futuro. Finding that the prenuptial agreement was valid, the trial court determined that Husband’s interest in his family business was separate property. Wife appeals. Following thorough review, we affirm in part, reverse in part, vacate in part, and remand the case for further proceedings.


In re Estate of Mary Hutchinson Moon Ballard, No. E2022-01147-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 14, 2023).  In this matter concerning the interpretation of a will, John Moon and Shannon Moon (“John” and “Shannon”) (“Claimants,” collectively) filed a claim in the Chancery Court for Hamilton County (“the Trial Court”) against the estate of their late sister, Mary Hutcheson Moon Ballard (“Mary”).1
Arthur Ballard (“Arthur”), Mary’s husband, filed an exception to the claim. Mary’s grandmother, Elise Chapin Moon (“Elise”), had established a trust for her grandchildren, including Mary. It is Claimants’ position that a bloodline provision in Elise’s will (“the Moon Will”) excludes spouses of grandchildren from receiving trust proceeds. The Trial Court, having put certain questions to a jury, ruled in
favor of Arthur. Claimants appeal. We hold that once Mary received the funds from the trust, which dissolved in 2016, the funds were hers outright and no longer subject to the will’s “bloodline” restriction. We hold further that the Trial Court erred by putting questions to a jury when the case was resolvable as a matter of law. However, the error was harmless. We affirm the judgment of the Trial Court.


Bowers v. Ditto, No. E2022-01307-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 7, 2023).  In this quiet title action, the pro se defendant appeals the trial court’s decision to permit constructive service by publication in lieu of personal service, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 21-1-203(a)(2). Because Plaintiff met the statutory requirements of service by publication and because constructive service by publication was effective to establish the trial court’s personal jurisdiction over Defendant, we affirm.


Smith v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tenn., No. E2022-01058-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 9, 2023).  This appeal concerns a claim of retaliatory discharge. Heather Smith (“Smith”), then an at-will employee of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Inc. (“BlueCross”), declined to take a Covid-19 vaccine. Smith emailed members of the Tennessee General Assembly expressing her concerns and grievances about vaccine mandates. BlueCross fired Smith after it found out about her emails. Smith sued BlueCross for common law retaliatory discharge in the Chancery Court for Hamilton County (“the Trial Court”). For its part, BlueCross filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. After a hearing, the Trial Court granted BlueCross’s motion to dismiss. Smith appeals. We hold that Article I, Section 23 of the Tennessee Constitution, which guarantees the right of citizens to petition the government, is a clear and unambiguous statement of public policy representing an exception to the doctrine of employment-at-will. Smith has alleged enough at this stage to withstand BlueCross’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. We reverse the Trial Court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.


Cousins v. Hutton Construction Co., No. E2021-01251-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 8, 2023). This is an employment contract dispute involving the interplay of a paid sick leave provision and a bonus compensation provision. The appellant, Keith Cousins (“Cousins”), was hired by a real estate business in 2017. He signed a two-year contract which included provisions for salary, bonuses, and paid sick leave. After being with the defendant company for only a few weeks, Cousins suffered a major heart attack and, ultimately, never returned to work. A dispute regarding his compensation arose and in July of 2017, Cousins filed suit against his former employer for, inter alia, breach of contract. The trial court determined that the company breached Cousins’ contract and awarded him some damages, but not the full balance of the two-year contract as Cousins requested. Both Cousins and the company appeal. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and vacate in part. The case is remanded for further proceedings.


Phillips v. Chattanooga Fire and Police Dept. Pension Fund, No. E2022-00296-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 2, 2022).  Appellant filed for disability benefits with the Appellee, Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Fund (“CFPPF”). The CFPPF board denied Appellant’s application by letter dated October 27, 2020. On June 28, 2021, Appellant filed a request for rehearing with the board; the board denied rehearing by letter dated August 19, 2021. On September 10, 2021, Appellant filed a petition for writ of certiorari seeking review in the trial court, and the CFPPF moved to dismiss under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02. The trial court held that the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act (“UAPA”) applied and further held that the board’s October 27, 2020 was not compliant with the UAPA requirements for final orders. Nonetheless, the trial court held that the October 27, 2020 letter was a final order so as to trigger the sixty-day time for filing for review in the trial court and dismissed Appellant’s petition with prejudice. Because the October 27, 2020 order was not UAPA-compliant, it did not constitute a final order so as to trigger the running of the sixty-day statute of limitations. As such, the trial court erred in dismissing Appellant’s petition with prejudice. Reversed and remanded.


Brock . Brock, E2021-00363-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 10, 2022).  This appeal concerns the interpretation of a last will and testament, which provided for the creation of a trust. The decedent’s wife is the current income beneficiary of the trust, with the decedent’s son being a remainder beneficiary. The son requested an accounting of the trust financials, to which the trustees of the trust responded that the son was not entitled to receive them. The trustees filed a complaint for declaratory judgment asking the trial court to instruct the parties whether the son was entitled to the information he requested. The son subsequently filed a counterclaim asking that the trustees be required to provide him with the information he requested and alleging breach of trust by the trustees. The Trial Court granted the trustees’ motion for judgment on the pleadings after finding that the son was a remainder beneficiary and not a current income beneficiary of the trust and, therefore, was not entitled to financial information regarding the trust. The Trial Court found that the language in the decedent’s last will and testament was intended to override the reporting requirements of Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-15-813(a) and limit the trustees’ statutory obligation of reporting to qualified beneficiaries. In doing so, the Trial Court determined that the trustees were not required to provide the son with reports or other financial information concerning the trust. The Trial Court denied the son’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. Discerning no error, we affirm.


Daniels v. Trotter, E2020-01452-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 20, 2022).  This appeal involves the mortgagors’ petition to set aside the non-judicial foreclosure of a piece of real property, alleging that the mortgagors and owner of the property were not given proper notice of the non-judicial foreclosure sale. The mortgagee and the beneficiary of the deed of trust concerning the property at issue is the City of Chattanooga. The property was sold to Vince Trotter in a foreclosure auction. In a court order, which was certified as final pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 54.02, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Trotter, determining that Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-106 prevented the foreclosure sale from being considered void or voidable due to lack of notice and that the mortgagors had a constitutionally adequate remedy of monetary damages. Despite the mortgagors arguing that Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-106 is unconstitutional as applied to governmental entities, the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office was not notified of the constitutional challenge to the statute, as required by Tenn. R. Civ. P. 24.04, Tenn. R. App. P. 32, and Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-14-107(b). Therefore, we vacate the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Mr. Trotter and remand to the trial court to provide the required notice to the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office.


Blackthorn House, LLC v. First Volunteer Bank, No. E2021-00346-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 12, 2022).  This dispute involves a lender bank’s deed of trust for a leasehold interest related to real property on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. After the trial court found, inter alia, that the deed of trust was no longer in effect and the bank’s interest in it ceased when the lease terminated, the lender appealed. The contractual issues before us are between the lender bank and the borrower’s landlord. We affirm the ruling of the trial court.


Case v. Wilmington Trust, N.A., as Trustee for Trust MFRA 2014-2, No. E2021-00378-COA-R3-CV  (Tenn. Ct. App. June 28, 2022).  The plaintiff appeals the trial court’s order granting the defendants’ motions for summary judgment and dismissing the plaintiff’s claims for breach of contract, wrongful foreclosure, injunctive relief, and declaratory relief. Having determined that the plaintiff has waived arguments related to his breach of contract claim, we review solely the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim for wrongful foreclosure. We conclude that the defendants did not strictly comply with the notice requirements of the deed of trust, vacate the portion of the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to the defendants with respect to the plaintiff’s wrongful foreclosure claim, and set aside the foreclosure sale. We affirm the trial court’s order with respect to the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim. We decline to award the defendants damages pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 27-1- 122.


Law v. Law, No. E2021-00206-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 26, 2022). On May 1, 1992, Barbara Matthews Law (“Wife”) and Halbert Grant Law, Jr. (“Husband”), executed a prenuptial agreement. They married the following day. Wife filed for divorce in the Chancery Court for Hamilton County in December of 2017. The parties disputed, inter alia, the enforceability of the prenuptial agreement, as well as the classification and division of several assets. Trial was held over multiple days in 2019 and 2020, and the trial court entered its final decree divorcing the parties on July 31, 2020. The trial court held that the prenuptial agreement was valid and enforceable, classified the parties’ assets, and divided the marital estate. Wife was awarded the parties’ family home and $4,500.00 per month in alimony in futuro. Husband appeals, challenging the classification of the parties’ home as marital property, as well as the classification of one bank account. Wife cross-appeals, challenging the enforceability of the prenuptial agreement and the classification of several assets. Wife also requests increased alimony. We affirm the trial court’s finding that the parties’ prenuptial agreement is valid and enforceable. We reverse the trial court’s classification of three assets – the parties’ home, a checking account, and an investment account. We vacate the trial court’s decision as to those three assets and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion. In light of the changes in classification of several major assets, we also vacate and remand the trial court’s award of alimony for reconsideration.


James P. Little M.D. Et Al. v. City of Chattanooga, Tennessee, No. E2020-01414-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 25, 2022). This is a mandamus action in which the plaintiffs seek to compel the City of Chattanooga (“the City”), pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 6-51-108(e), to complete the plans of services arising from a 1972 annexation and to publish annual reports of its progress pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 6-51-108(c). Two areas of the 1972 annexation are at issue: (1) an area known as “Tiftonia” or “Area 4” and (2) an area known as “Wauhatchee–Williams Island” or “Area 12.” The plaintiffs also seek a declaration that all annexations by the City since 1981 were void due to the City’s violation of Tennessee Code Annotated § 6-51-102(b)(5), which prohibits a municipality from annexing additional territory while in default on a prior plan of services. After three years of trial preparation, but prior to trial, the court imposed monetary sanctions against the City under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 37.03 in the amount of $263,273.08 for attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses caused by the City’s failure to supplement discovery responses. Thereafter, the case was tried in three phases. Following the first phase of the trial in 2017, the court found the City complied with its obligations as to Area 4; however, it found the City “materially and substantially failed to comply” with its obligations to provide street paving, street construction, and sanitary sewers in Area 12. Following the second phase of the trial in 2019, the court found the City’s failure to comply with its obligations as to Area 12 was not excused in that it was not caused by “unforeseen circumstances.” As a consequence, the court ordered the City to submit a proposed scope of services to be provided, which would, inter alia, be the subject of the Phase 3 trial. After the third and final phase of the trial in 2020, the court found the City’s proposed scope of services was insufficient and issued a writ of mandamus ordering the City to bring all streets up to current standards and install, inter alia, a gravity-fed sewer system for Area 12 within 48 months. The court also ordered the City to publish annual reports of its progress and enjoined the City from further annexations until the services were provided. Finally, the court found the plaintiffs were not entitled to additional relief for the City’s past violations of §§ 6-51-102(b)(5) and – 108(c). Both parties appealed. The plaintiffs contend, inter alia, that the trial court erred 01/25/2022 – 2 – by finding the City complied with the plan of services for Area 4 and by denying their request for additional relief under §§ 6-51-102(b)(5) and -108(c). The City contends that § 6-51-102(b)(5) and § 6-51-108(c) and (e) do not apply to the annexations of Area 4 and Area 12 because the statutes were enacted after the annexation ordinances were passed. The City also contends that the plaintiffs lack standing, and that their claims are barred by the doctrine of laches and the applicable statute of limitations. In the alternative, the City asserts that the trial court erred by finding it failed to materially and substantially comply with the plan of services for Area 12. The City also appeals the trial court’s award of sanctions for noncompliance with discovery under Rule of Civil Procedure 37.03. Following a thorough review, we reverse and modify the trial court’s judgment regarding the standards that apply to the City’s provision of street paving and construction in Area 12; vacate its judgment regarding the City’s provision of sanitary and storm sewers in Areas 4 and 12; and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We affirm the court’s judgment in all other respects.


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.



"The Book" - Information on Tennessee Trial Judges Copyright © 2023 by BirdDog Law, LLC. All Rights Reserved.