Elizabeth C. Asbury, Chancellor


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 Avalee W., No. M2023-00977-COA-R3-PT (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 2, 2024).  This appeal involves the termination of a mother’s parental rights. The trial court found by clear and convincing evidence that six grounds for termination were proven and that termination was in the best interest of the children. The mother appealed. On appeal, the Department of Children’s Services “does not defend” three of the grounds that the trial court concluded were established. We reverse these three grounds. Of the three remaining grounds, which DCS maintains were sufficiently proven, we conclude that the ground of substantial noncompliance with a permanency plan was proven by clear and convincing evidence. We further find that termination of parental rights is in the best interest of the children. However, due to insufficiencies in the trial court’s findings, we vacate the grounds of persistent conditions and failure to manifest an ability and willingness to assume custody or financial responsibility against the mother. We reverse in part, with respect to three grounds for termination, and vacate in part, with respect to two grounds for termination, but otherwise we affirm the trial court’s order terminating parental rights.


Miller v. City of LaFollette, No. E2023-00197-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 24, 2024). The genesis of this case lies in the investigation into a city’s police department and subsequent termination of the appellant, a former police department employee. After the appellant was terminated, his counsel sent a public records request to the city, one of the appellees herein, pursuant to the Tennessee Public Records Act. Through this public records request, the city was asked for copies of, among other things, “investigative material” related to the appellant. Although some records were initially produced in response to the public records request, other records were not provided until after litigation was initiated by the appellant in chancery court. Certain “investigatory” records that had formerly been in the possession of an attorney hired by the city to investigate the police department were not ever produced. Although the parties dispute whether such “investigatory” records would be subject to disclosure under the Tennessee Public Records Act, such records had, according to the findings of the chancery court, been destroyed by the time the city received the public records request at issue herein. Upon the conclusion of the trial litigation, the chancery court also found that “all requested documents that exist had been provided” and determined that the city “did not willfully refuse to disclose documents and records.” In light of its determination that the city did not act willfully, the chancery court held that attorney’s fees would not be awarded in this case. For the reasons stated herein, the chancery court’s judgment is affirmed in part and vacated in part, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

Tennessee Farmers Mutual Ins. Co. v. Linkhous, No. M2022-01035-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 20, 2023).  The trial court held that an insurance company properly denied an insured’s claim for property loss arising out of a fire. The trial court found that the denial was supported by two grounds: (1) that the property was not “occupied” as defined by the policy at the time of the fire and, therefore, the policy did not cover the loss, and (2) that the policy was voided by the insured’s misrepresentations relating to the loss. We affirm the trial court’s decision.


Waterfront Investments, GP v. Collins, No. E2022-00370-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 4, 2023). This appeal stems from a disputed strip of land along the edge of Norris Lake in Campbell County, Tennessee. The defendants in this case are lot owners of residential lakefront property in a planned development. The plaintiffs are the neighborhood home owner’s association and the company operating the marina in the development. The plaintiffs claim, based upon a note in the original plat map of the development, that a “one-foot buffer” zone along the defendants’ lots was reserved to the original developer. According to the plaintiffs, the marina company thus controls the shoreline in the area at issue and is at liberty, with permission from the Tennessee Valley Authority, to expand the existing marina. The defendants, on the other hand, dispute the existence of the buffer and claim that their lot boundaries extend right up to the shoreline. The plaintiffs filed a declaratory judgment action, and, following a bench trial, the trial court concluded that the plat note at issue did not reserve any interest in the disputed strip to the original developer. Plaintiffs appeal. Discerning no error, we affirm the trial court.


Love v. McDowell, No. E2022-00230-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 3, 2022).  This appeal involves a challenge to a chancery court’s granting of a motion to enforce a settlement agreement related to litigation over the partition of family-owned property. The appellant is incarcerated, which caused complications for all parties in efficiently resolving their dispute. The chancellor concluded the appellant was bound by the settlement reached by his agent, who was acting with both actual and apparent authority. On appeal, the appellant contends the chancellor erred in finding his agent had actual and apparent authority to agree to a settlement on his behalf. We conclude that the appellant has failed to demonstrate that the chancellor erred in finding the appellant conferred actual authority upon his agent; accordingly, we affirm the chancery court’s granting of the appellees’ motion to enforce the parties’ settlement agreement.


In Re Kailyn B., No. M2021-00809-COA-R3-PT (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 17, 2022).  Mother appeals the termination of her parental rights. In addition to disputing the grounds for termination and best interest, Mother argues that the petition was fatally flawed, and Petitioners should not have been allowed to amend after the close of their proof. We conclude that the trial court did not err in deciding the case on its merits because the amendments were not prejudicial to Mother and remedied the petition’s deficiencies. We further conclude that clear and convincing evidence was presented of both the grounds for termination and that termination was in the child’s best interest. As such, we affirm the decision of the trial court.


Bruce Anne Steadman v. Charles Daniel Farmer, No. M2021-00484-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 5, 2022). In this divorce case, Husband contests the trial court’s division of marital property and debt and the award of alimony to Wife. We affirm.


Adam Garabrant v. Jeffery Chambers Et Al., No. E2021-00128-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 1, 2022). In this dispute concerning the ownership of a parcel of unimproved real property, the plaintiff filed a declaratory judgment action seeking to quiet title to the property at issue. Following a bench trial, the trial court entered an order ruling in favor of the defendants. The plaintiff has appealed. Discerning no reversible error, 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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