Ben Dean, 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.

 

In Re Isaiah F., No. M2023-00660-COA-R3-PT (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 24, 2024). Foster parents appeal the dismissal of their petition to terminate a father’s parental rights and to adopt. The petitioners sought to terminate the father’s rights on two grounds: failure to file a timely petition to establish paternity and failure to manifest an ability and willingness to assume custody and financial responsibility for the child. The trial court found insufficient evidence to support either ground for termination. Upon review, we find clear and convincing evidence to support one of the alleged grounds. So we vacate the judgment of dismissal and remand for further proceedings.

 

Remus v. Nunn, No. M2023-00589-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 27, 2024). In this post-divorce case, the husband filed a petition for declaratory judgment on the issue of whether a provision of the parties’ marital dissolution agreement concerning military retirement was modifiable.  The trial court dismissed the husband’s petition on the ground of failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted and ruled that the provision at issue was not modifiable.  While we find that the trial court erred in granting the wife’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, we affirm the result reached by the trial court on the merits of the dispute.  Further, we have determined that the wife was not entitled to an additional award of attorney fees at trial and is not entitled to her attorney fees on appeal.

 

In Re Chance B. et al., No. M2023-00279-COA-R3-PT (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 26, 2024). Mother appeals the termination of her parental rights and the stepparent adoption of her two children by their stepmother. The trial court found three grounds for termination: abandonment by failure to visit, abandonment by failure to support, and failure to manifest an ability and willingness to assume custody. The trial court also concluded that terminating Mother’s parental rights was in the children’s best interest. The termination was conjoined with a stepparent adoption, which the trial court granted. The Mother appeals. We affirm the judgment of the trial court terminating Mother’s parental rights and granting the stepparent adoption.

 

Amarino v. Amarino, No. M2023-00340-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 14, 2024) (memorandum opinion). In this divorce case, Husband/Appellant appeals the trial court’s order: (1) awarding a Toyota 4-Runner to Wife/Appellee; (2) dividing the remaining debt on the vehicle between the parties; and (3) awarding Wife one-half of the attorney’s fees she incurred in the trial court. We reverse the trial court’s conclusion that the 4-Runner was Wife’s separate property and conclude that it was transmuted into marital property. We affirm the remainder of the trial court’s order. Wife’s request for appellate attorney’s fees is granted.

 

In Re Lieselotte H. Rogoish Revocable Living Trust, No. M2022-01464-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 16, 2023).  This appeal arises from a petition filed by a beneficiary of a trust seeking an accounting and removal of the trustee. The trustee asserted the affirmative defense that the beneficiary violated the no-contest clause in the settlor’s trust. The trustee served the beneficiary with requests for admissions, to which the beneficiary responded with objections to the majority of the requests. After the trial court granted his motion for the requests for admissions to be admitted, the trustee filed a motion for partial summary judgment based on the no-contest clauses in the trust and will of the settlor. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the beneficiary’s petition with prejudice. The beneficiary appealed. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

 

Denny ex rel. Doghouse Computers, Inc. v. Rather, M2022-01743-COA-T10B-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 19, 2023). This is an accelerated interlocutory appeal as of right pursuant to Rule 10B of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Tennessee from the chancery court’s denial of a motion to recuse. A new chancellor, during the course of a judicial election and shortly after the election was held, made extremely critical comments regarding the personal and professional character of his opponent, the incumbent chancellor. The challenger won the election, and the former chancellor, who has returned to practice, is now representing a party before the new chancellor. The former chancellor moved for the new chancellor’s recusal in cases in which the former chancellor is appearing as counsel as well as recusal from cases involving the law firm which the former chancellor joined after losing the judicial election. The new chancellor denied the motion. On appeal, we conclude that, even in the absence of actual bias, based upon concern about the appearance of bias toward the former chancellor, recusal is warranted. This concern does not extend to the law firm the former chancellor has joined. Accordingly, we reverse the denial of recusal insofar as it concerns the former chancellor but affirm the denial of recusal insofar as it concerns the law firm.

 

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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