James B. Cox, 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.

 

Wilson, Jr. v. Wilson, No. M2023-01026-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 11, 2024). This appeal concerns the award of attorney’s fees in a post-divorce dispute. Clayton Sugg Wilson, Jr. (“Father”) and Rebecca Lynn Blocker Huston (“Mother”) were divorced in 2017, at which time Mother was named the primary residential parent of the parties’ one minor child, and Father was ordered to pay child support as well as one-half of their child’s uninsured medical expenses. Four years later, Father filed a petition to modify his child support obligation, claiming that his income had decreased so much that Mother should pay him child support. Mother opposed Father’s petition and filed a petition for civil contempt and to enforce the parties’ permanent parenting plan, claiming that Father had repeatedly failed to pay his child support obligation and his share of their child’s uncovered medical expenses. The trial court found Father in civil contempt and awarded Mother an arrearage judgment. Based on his 2020 income, the court reduced Father’s monthly child support obligation. The court awarded Mother her attorney’s fees in bringing the contempt action. Father then filed a motion for apportionment of Mother’s attorney’s fees, which the trial court denied, finding that the fees awarded to Mother were reasonable. Father appeals the trial court’s denial of his motion for apportionment of fees. We affirm the trial court in all respects. Finding that Mother is entitled to recover her reasonable and necessary attorney’s fees and expenses incurred on appeal under Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5- 103(c), we remand for a determination and award thereof.

 

Hale v. Bergmann et al., No. M2022-00782-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 4, 2024). Two neighboring property owners had the right to use the same easement for ingress and egress. For many years, the neighbors used and maintained a shared gravel road to access their properties. Then one property owner unilaterally removed gravel from part of the road and created an alternate route. The other property owner filed suit, seeking to protect his easement rights. The trial court held the owner who damaged the road liable for “acting beyond his legal rights” and “changing the nature and character of the easement.” Among other things, the court awarded the damaged party a judgment for the costs of the repairs plus pre-judgment interest and a permanent injunction. Because the evidence preponderates against the damages awarded, we modify the judgment by reducing the award. We also vacate the permanent injunction because the damaged property owner did not seek that relief. We affirm the trial court in all other respects.

 

Probst Et Al. v. Liberty Mutual Group, Inc. Et Al., No. M2022-01477-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 26, 2024). This appeal challenges the enforceability of a purported settlement agreement among homeowners, their insurance provider, and a service provider. The plaintiffs originally brought claims against their insurance provider and a service provider after efforts to repair water damage resulted in further damage to their home. The dispute progressed to settlement negotiations, and it seemed an agreement was reached; however, the plaintiffs stopped short of executing the written agreement. The defendants filed a joint motion to enforce the settlement agreement, which the plaintiffs opposed in the trial court, claiming that “counsel was not provided with express authorization to accept” the defendants’ counteroffer. The trial court deemed it a case of “buyers’ remorse” and granted the defendants’ motion to enforce the settlement agreement. On appeal, the plaintiffs raise the sole issue of whether a condition subsequent made the agreement unenforceable. Defendants contend that this issue was waived because it was not raised in the trial court. We have determined that the plaintiffs waived their only issue on appeal by failing to raise it in the trial court. We have also determined, as the defendants contend, that the trial court correctly ruled that the parties entered into an enforceable settlement agreement. Thus, we affirm the decision of the trial court.

 

Greene v. Greene, No. M2022-01171-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 11, 2023). This is a divorce case. Husband appeals the trial court’s valuation and division of marital property and its award of attorney’s fees as alimony in solido to Wife. We affirm the trial court’s valuation and division of marital property. We vacate the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees to wife as alimony in solido based on the lack of findings in the trial court’s order. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 52.01. The case is remanded for findings on the issue of whether an award of attorney’s fees is appropriate under the factors prescribed in Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-5-121 and, if so, whether the amount of attorney’s fees is reasonable.

 

In re Conservatorship of Gregory Blake Arvin, No. M2022-01808-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 18, 2023).  This appeal arises from a conservatorship proceeding. The issues on appeal concern the assessment of the fees of the attorney ad litem in the amount of $1,060. The trial court assessed the fees against the petitioners and the respondent, jointly and severally. The petitioners appeal, contending that, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 34-1-125, the court had no discretion but to assess the fees of the attorney ad litem against the respondent. The petitioners and the estate of the respondent also challenge the assessment of the fees against the respondent on other grounds. We have determined that the trial court was statutorily required to assess the fees of the attorney ad litem against the respondent and that it lacked the discretion to assess the fees against the petitioners. We have also determined that the petitioners have no standing to challenge the assessment of the fees against the respondent and that the issues raised by the estate of the respondent lack merit. Thus, we reverse the assessment of the fees of the attorney ad litem against the petitioners but affirm the assessment of the fees against the respondent.

 

Robinson v. Mahaffey, No. M2021-01068-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 21, 2022).  This appeal arises from a dispute between three neighbors over the nature and permissible use of an easement created through a 1983 judgment of the chancery court.  The plaintiffs own the property that is burdened by the easement and argue that the trial court correctly found that the 1983 judgment created an easement in gross in favor of the landowner directly north of their property.  We find that the trial court erred in finding an easement in gross and hold that the 1983 judgment created an express easement appurtenant creating a dominant and servient tenement; however, the easement appurtenant was not capable of being conveyed to landowners who were not purchasing the dominant estate.  Likewise, we find that there was no prescriptive or implied easement allowing the easement to be deeded from one neighbor to another.  Because the trial court’s judgment lacked findings of fact relevant to the slander of title cause of action, we remand this issue to the trial court for the entry of specific findings of fact on the elements of slander of title.  We affirm the trial court’s holding that defendants are responsible for the cost of re-installing a gate that they damaged.  The chancery court’s order is reversed in part, vacated in part, and affirmed in part.

 

Sporting Club of Tennessee, Inc. v. Marshall County Tennessee Board of Zoning Appeals, No. M2021-01361-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 20, 2022). This appeal concerns a zoning decision.  The Sporting Club of Tennessee, Inc. (“the Sporting Club”) filed an application with Marshall County, Tennessee for a special exception for a private park.  The club was to be situated on 285 acres of property and would feature a number of recreational activities like shooting.  It would have 150 members and corporate members along with their families and guests.  After a hearing, the Marshall County Board of Zoning Appeals (“the Board”) denied the Sporting Club’s application on grounds that the Sporting Club would not be low-impact, or passive, with respect to its surroundings.  The Sporting Club filed a petition for common law writ of certiorari in the Chancery Court for Marshall County (“the Trial Court”).  The Trial Court upheld the Board’s decision.  The Sporting Club appeals to this Court.  We conclude that the Board’s decision was supported by material evidence—namely, evidence concerning the Sporting Club’s 150 members and guests and the likely impact they would have on the property’s surroundings.  The Board’s decision neither was arbitrary, capricious, nor illegal.  We affirm.

 

In Re Conner B., No. M2021-00700-COA-R3-PT (Tenn. Ct. App. July 6, 2022).  This is the second appeal involving the termination of a mother’s parental rights to her child. On remand after the first appeal, the trial court determined there were six statutory grounds for terminating the mother’s parental rights and that termination was in the child’s best interest. We conclude that the evidence was less than clear and convincing as to three of the grounds. But the record contains clear and convincing evidence to support the other grounds. The evidence is also clear and convincing that termination of the mother’s parental rights is in the child’s best interest. So 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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