Joseph A. Woodruff, 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.

 

Reguli v. Anderson as Mayor of Williamson County, Tennessee, No. M2022-00705-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 22, 2024). What began as a public records request ended with the trial court imposing sanctions upon the requester for violations of Rule 11 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. The trial court concluded that the public records requester violated Rule 11 by including a false statement and deceptive exhibit in her Public Records Act Petition, by failing to conduct an adequate inquiry before filing her Petition, and by having an improper purpose in connection with her anticipated speech regarding any public records that she might obtain via the Public Records Act. The trial court imposed multiple sanctions upon the requester including a $5,000 penalty, a requirement to associate counsel in any future pro se filing within the judicial district, and a dismissal with prejudice of her Petition. We conclude the trial court properly determined the requester violated Rule 11 by including a false statement and deceptive exhibit in her Petition. Given the context of the Public Records Act, we conclude, however, that the trial court erred with regard to its conclusion that the requester made an inadequate inquiry prior to filing her Petition and had an improper purpose in connection with the requester’s anticipated use of any documents she obtained. We also conclude the monetary penalty imposed by the trial court violates the Fifty-Dollar Fine Clause of the Tennessee Constitution. Because of our other findings, we vacate the trial court’s imposition of all three sanctions, and remand for determination of an appropriate sanction in light of our decision.

 

Tittle v. Tittle, No. M2022-01299-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 29, 2024). This is a divorce action in which the trial court awarded the wife a divorce based on the husband’s inappropriate marital conduct, divided the marital estate and awarded the wife, inter alia, child support as well as transitional alimony of $2,000 per month for four years, followed by $1,500 per month for two years, then $1,000 per month for two years, and $500 per month for two years. The court also awarded the wife alimony in solido of $50,000 as necessary spousal support and an additional $75,000 to defray the cost of most of her attorney’s fees. The husband appeals. We have determined that the record contains an inconsistency concerning the amount of the work-related childcare expenses the husband is required to pay, and it appears that the trial court failed to consider the husband’s obligation to pay work-related childcare costs in setting transitional alimony at $2,000 per month during the first four years, which additional expense appears to impair the husband’s ability to pay that amount. Accordingly, we vacate the award of child support and that portion of the transitional alimony award and remand these issues for reconsideration, taking into account, inter alia, the allocation of childcare expenses, the wife’s need, and the husband’s ability to pay. We affirm the trial court in all other respects. Both parties seek to recover the attorney’s fees and costs each incurred in this appeal. Exercising our discretion, we deny both requests.

 

Philips North America, LLC v. KPI Healthcare, Inc., No. M2022-01688-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 16, 2023).  To collect on its judgment, Appellant judgment creditor served a levy on Appellee garnishee bank. Judgment creditor sought to garnish an escrow account that was subject to an escrow agreement between a third-party and judgment debtor’s representative. Garnishee bank initially responded that it did not have any funds to remit. Thereafter, garnishee bank filed an amended response and enclosed a cashier’s check for $731,598.51, the amount of funds in the escrow account; the check was made payable to the Williamson County Circuit Court. A few days later, garnishee bank filed a motion to return funds deposited into the Clerk’s Office. At trial, garnishee bank argued that it was not properly served with the levy and that, even if service was proper, judgment creditor had no right to collect the funds held in the escrow account. The trial court agreed. We conclude that garnishee bank waived any objection concerning whether the levy was properly served. The trial court’s order is otherwise affirmed.

Hysen v. Smythe, No. M2022-00816-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 27, 2023).  Because the notice of appeal was untimely, this Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over the appeal. Appeal dismissed.

 

State of Tennessee v. Beech, No. M2022-01213-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 24 2023).  Following the denial of his motion to suppress, the defendant, Rodney Paul Beech, pled guilty to driving under the influence (“DUI”) and DUI per se and was sentenced to eleven months and twenty-nine days suspended to probation after service of forty-eight hours in jail. As a condition of his plea, the defendant reserved the right to appeal a certified question of law pursuant to Rule 37(b)(2) of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, challenging the denial of his motion to suppress based on lack of reasonable suspicion for the stop of his vehicle. Upon our review, we conclude the defendant failed to properly certify the question of law pursuant to Rule 37(b)(2). Accordingly, this Court is without jurisdiction, and the appeal is dismissed.

 

Christman, Jr., Trustee v. SP Title, LLC, No. M2022-00944-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 20, 2023).  This appeal arises out of a third-party complaint asserting claims arising from the sale of real property. The trial court entered an order granting in part and denying in part the thirdparty defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Afterward, the third-party plaintiff filed a notice of voluntary dismissal as to his remaining claim, which was then dismissed without prejudice by the trial court. The third-party plaintiff appeals. We reverse in part, vacate in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

State of Tennessee v. Molthan, No. M2021-01108-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 28, 2022).  The Defendant, Jason Steven Molthan, was convicted by a Williamson County Circuit Court jury of one count of stalking and one count of harassment. The trial court imposed consecutive sentences of eleven months and twenty-nine days at seventy-five percent service. On appeal, the Defendant argues that the trial court should have merged his convictions and that the trial court erred by failing to file a consecutive sentencing order pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 32(c). Upon our review, we conclude that the Defendant has failed to provide this Court with an adequate appellate record and has not prepared a sufficient brief. Because we cannot conduct a meaningful appellate review of his issues, we conclude that the issues are waived. We affirm the judgments of the trial court.

 

Mitchell v. City of Franklin, Tennessee, No. M2021-00877-COA-R3-CV  (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 4, 2022).  This appeal is an action subject to the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act, in which a pedestrian suffered injuries after she tripped and fell on a sidewalk in Franklin, Tennessee.  The pedestrian filed a complaint claiming that the city was negligent.  After a bench trial, the trial court entered judgment in favor of the city and dismissed the case.  The pedestrian appeals.  We affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

Hyatt v. Adenus Group, LLC, No. M2021-00645-COA-R3-CV  (Tenn. Ct. App. July 12, 2022).  The trial court reformed an agreement between an employer and employee regarding the employee’s right to a profit share upon termination of his employment. We affirm the trial court.

 

Boeh v. Dial, M2021-00520-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 12, 2022).  This case pertains to the purchase of real property in a residential subdivision. The dispute arises from the fact that, at the time of sale, the lot was incorrectly listed as not being in a flood plain. Upon learning of the flood plain issue, the seller filled and graded the lot and abutting property, after which the regulatory authorities removed the lot from the flood plain zone. Despite the fact the lot was removed from the flood plain, the buyers commenced this action against the seller and its engineering firm, asserting claims for negligent misrepresentation, breach of contract, and violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). Following discovery, the defendants filed separate motions for summary judgment, and the motions were set for hearing on the same day. When the buyers did not file a response in opposition to either of the motions and did not appear at the summary judgment hearing, the seller voluntarily continued the hearing on its motion. The engineering defendants, however, proceeded with the hearing, and the trial court granted summary judgment in their favor. The buyers, claiming they did not receive proper notice of the hearing, filed a Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 59 motion to set aside the order granting summary judgment to the engineering defendants. Following a hearing on the remaining motions, the trial court denied the buyers’ Rule 59 motion on the finding the buyers had constructive notice of the hearing. The court also granted summary judgment in favor of the seller on the claims of breach of contract and the TCPA. The trial court determined that the contract permitted the defendants to “grade” the land and rectify the flood plain issue even after closing. As such, the trial court found that the buyers did not have a claim for breach of contract. As to the claim that the seller violated the TCPA, the trial court explained that the TCPA requires some degree of fault, which was not present. Having determined that the buyers had constructive notice of the hearing on the engineering defendants’ motion for summary judgment, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the buyers’ Rule 59.04 motion. We also affirm the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the seller concerning the claims for breach of contract and TCPA. Thus, we affirm the trial court in all respects.

 

Mankin Media Systems v. Corder, No. M2021-00830-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 30, 2022).  Appellant appeals the trial court’s order affirming the award of an arbitrator. Appellant
filed suit against its former employee, the Appellee, alleging breach of contract for violation of certain provisions of the employee handbook, which also contained an arbitration clause. Because the handbook does not constitute an enforceable employment contract, the trial court erred in ordering the parties to arbitrate and in affirming the arbitrator’s award. Reversed and remanded.

 

Meade v. Paducah Nissan, LLC,  No. M2021-00563-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 9, 2022). Wife appeals from the trial court’s decision to dismiss a complaint against the car dealership managed by her estranged husband for claims associated with the use of a demonstrator vehicle. We affirm the decision of the trial court.

 

In Re Estate of James M. McKinney, No. M2021-00703-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 9, 2022).  In this appeal, we construe a will. The trial court determined that the will disinherited one of the testator’s two daughters by necessary implication when the testator identified only one daughter as his child in the “Family” clause and did not indicate a specific intent to include the other daughter in the residue clause that disposed of his estate. Upon our de novo review, we hold that inclusive language in the family clause does not operate to disinherit one daughter when the residue clause defined “children” differently, such that both of the testator’s daughters are beneficiaries under the will. We therefore reverse the judgment of the chancery court and remand the matter for further proceedings.

 

Smallbone v. Smallbone, No. M2020-01556-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 4, 2022). As part of a divorce decree, the trial court fashioned a permanent parenting plan for three minor children. The court’s plan provided for substantially equal parenting time and joint decision making for major decisions. The plan was expressly conditioned on the parents remaining within the children’s current school district after the divorce. The father argues that neither equal parenting time nor joint decision making were appropriate based on the evidence presented. And he maintains that the court lacked authority to include a residency requirement in the plan. He also contends that the court failed to address some of his claims. We conclude that the court, either expressly or implicitly, resolved all claims between the parties. And because the court did not abuse its discretion in establishing the parenting plan, we affirm.

 

State of Tennessee ex rel. Carla D. Gifford v. Daniel S. Greenberg, No. M2021-00510-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 24, 2022).Daniel Greenberg appeals the order of the Circuit Court for Williamson County (the “trial court”), enrolling a California judgment under which Mr. Greenberg is obligated to pay child support to his ex-wife. Because his brief is not in compliance with Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 27, Father’s issues are waived and his appeal must be dismissed.

 

In Re Kendall R. et al., No. M2020-01226-COA-R3-JV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 2, 2022). Father appeals from the Williamson County Circuit Court’s order suspending his parenting time with his minor children.  The Circuit Court had tried the matter de novo following an appeal by Father from prior proceedings in the Williamson County Juvenile Court.  Based upon our review of the record, we conclude that Father failed to timely perfect his appeal to the Circuit Court from the Juvenile Court’s order.  Therefore, we conclude that the Circuit Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear the appeal, and we vacate its order and dismiss the case.

 

Fitness and Ready Meals LLC et al. v. Eat Well Nashville LLC, No. M2021-00105-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 1, 2022). A seller entered into an agreement to sell its meal preparation business and assets to a purchaser who was also in the meal preparation business.  When the seller failed to perform certain of its obligations under the agreement, the purchaser ceased performing its contractual obligations.  The seller filed a breach of contract claim against the purchaser, and the purchaser moved for summary judgment based on the seller committing the first material breach.  The trial court granted summary judgment to the purchaser, and the seller appealed.  We affirm as modified and remand for a determination of the purchaser’s reasonable attorney fees incurred on appeal.

 

Thomas A. Buckley individually and derivatively on behalf of TLC of Franklin, Inc. v. Grover C. Carlock, Jr. et al., No. M2019-02294-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 28, 2022). A minority shareholder in a close corporation brought a shareholder oppression claim.  The trial court heard the claim in two phases.  After the first phase, the trial court found that there was shareholder oppression by the majority shareholder and determined that redemption of the minority shareholder’s shares was the appropriate remedy.  After the second, the court found the fair value of the minority shareholder’s shares.  The court later awarded attorney’s fees to the minority shareholder, but it failed to award fees associated with the second phase of trial.  The court also denied the minority shareholder’s request for prejudgment interest and dismissed an unjust enrichment claim.  On appeal, the minority shareholder takes issue with the court’s fair-value determination.  He also claims that he was entitled to prejudgment interest, as well as attorney’s fees for both phases of trial. And he argues that the court erred in dismissing his unjust enrichment claim. We affirm.

 

William B. Stinson v. Vest Family Limited Partnership et al., No. M2021-00151-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 23, 2022). The plaintiff in this action filed a petition for declaratory judgment to quiet title to his farm in Maury County, Tennessee. In his petition, the plaintiff asked for all relief necessary to quiet title, including a declaration on the boundaries of his farm and a declaration on his rights to the disputed property. In their answer, the defendants asserted adverse possession under Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 28-2-102 and -103. The plaintiff later nonsuited one of his claims and, during the hearing on his motion for summary judgment, stated that he was seeking only a declaration on where the boundaries of his farm were “on the face of the earth.” Finding that matters related to possession of the property were not at issue, the trial court granted summary judgment to the plaintiff and declared the location of his “legal boundary.” The court then denied the defendants’ Motion for Relief from Judgment under Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure 52.02, 58, 59.04, 60.01, and 60.02. On appeal, the defendants contend, inter alia, that the trial court’s order was not final because it did not adjudicate the parties’ respective rights to possess the area in dispute. We agree. Because the purported final judgment does not resolve all of the claims between the parties, we dismiss the appeal for lack of a final judgment.

 

Brian C. Frelix v. State of Tennessee, No. M2020-01653-CCA-R3-PC (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Feb. 8, 2022). The Petitioner, Brian C. Frelix, appeals from the Williamson County Circuit Court’s denial of his petition for post-conviction relief from his convictions for four counts of aggravated robbery, four counts of aggravated assault, aggravated burglary, and theft of property valued at $1000 or more but less than $10,000, for which he is serving an effective thirty eight- year sentence. On appeal, he contends that (1) the post-conviction court erred in not continuing the hearing until the Petitioner could appear in person following the Petitioner’s positive COVID-19 test and (2) the court erred in denying his post-conviction claim for ineffective assistance of counsel. We reverse the judgment of the post-conviction court and remand for a hearing at which the Petitioner is present.

 

Benjamin Jordan Frazier et al. v. Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, No. M2020-00368-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 14, 2022). The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services denied an application for adoption assistance payments because the adoptive children did not meet federal eligibility criteria.  The adoptive family petitioned for judicial review.  And the chancery court reversed.  We conclude that the administrative agency’s decision was based on an erroneous interpretation of federal law.  So we affirm the chancery court’s decision.

 

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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