Pamela A. Fleenor, 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.

 

Green v. Panter, et al., No. E2022-01447-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 26, 2024). This is a partition in kind action. The three owners of 68 acres entered into a joint stipulation appointing three commissioners to partition the property into three separate parcels. Thereafter, the commissioners filed a written report with a survey that allocated 32.4 acres to the plaintiff Jerry Green, 17.8 acres to the defendant Robert Hale, and 18.1 acres to the defendant Cynthia Panter. After the defendants filed exceptions to the commissioners’ report, the parties agreed to have one of the commissioners testify to state the commissioners’ factual findings and reasoning. Pursuant to the parties’ agreement, Commissioner Bill Haisten testified in open court, explaining, in part, that more acreage was partitioned to the plaintiff because much of the parcel allocated to him is hilly and rocky and another large portion of the plaintiff’s parcel is encumbered by a TVA power line easement. Commissioner Haisten also testified that while the three partitioned parcels are not equal in area, they are equal in fair market value. Based upon these additional facts, the trial court concluded that the partitioning of the property by the commissioners should be confirmed. The defendants appeal, contending, inter alia, that without sufficient proof of either the value of the property partitioned or of the evaluations from which the commissioners derived their partition division, the trial court erred in confirming the commissioners’ report. We affirm.

 

Schmeeckle v. Hamilton County Tennessee Et Al., No. E2024-00309-COA-T10B-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 16, 2024). This is the petitioner’s second petition to recuse based on the same allegations. Therefore, we affirm the trial court’s dismissal.

 

Schmeeckle v. Hamilton County, TN,  No. E2023-01533-COA-T10B-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 20, 2023). Appellant appeals the denial of his motion to recuse the trial judge on the grounds that the trial judge refused to explain the reasons other judges recused from the case, refused to hear evidence of misconduct against an attorney involved in the case, and allegedly ruled erroneously in several respects. Because we conclude that an ordinary person knowing all the facts known to the judge would not question the judge’s impartiality, we affirm.

Rama d/b/a Discount Liquor v. City of Chattanooga, City Council, No. E2022-01506-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 6, 2023).  The appellant applied for a special exception permit allowing it to op- erate a liquor store in a location designated as a C-2 Convenience Commercial Zone. The appellee, City Council for the City of Chattanooga, denied the application based upon a council member’s statements that “the City is turning that area around to meet some different purposes.” The appellant sought review from the Chancery Court for Hamilton County, which upheld the decision of City Council. Following careful review, we reverse.

 

Jahen v. AER Express, Inc., No. E2022-00344-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 6, 2023).  An injured truck driver brought suit against his alleged employer seeking to recover worker’s compensation benefits. The alleged employer did not appear at trial, and the trial court entered judgment in favor of the plaintiff. Eight months later, the alleged employer moved the trial court to set aside the judgment pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 60.02, on the grounds that it did not receive notice of the trial date. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the alleged employer failed to notify the court and the plaintiff of its change of address and that plaintiff would be severely prejudiced if the court set aside the judgment. Discerning no error, we affirm.

 

Garrett v. Weiss, No. E2022-01373-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 25, 2023).  The pro se plaintiff appeals the trial court’s summary judgment dismissal of his legal malpractice action against his attorney and the attorney’s law firm. The trial court found that the action was barred by the applicable one-year statute of limitations. Because the plaintiff’s action accrued more than one year before he filed the lawsuit, we affirm.

 

Henry, Jr. v. Casey, No. E2022-00933-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 3, 2023). This appeal stems from the trial court’s dismissal of two creditors’ claims against the personal representatives of the decedent debtor’s estate. The creditors claimed that the personal representatives breached their fiduciary duties to the estate by failing to exercise the decedent’s statutory right, as a surviving spouse, to take an elective share of his deceased wife’s estate when the time limit for doing so had not yet expired at the time of the decedent’s death. The creditors also asserted claims against other parties associated with the personal representatives for conspiracy and inducement. In dismissing the creditors’ complaint, the trial court determined that (1) Tennessee statutory law provides that a personal representative of the surviving spouse’s estate “may” take an elective share on behalf of the surviving spouse who has died, (2) “may” indicates that the decision is discretionary, (3) the personal representative maintains the same discretion to elect that the surviving spouse held, (4) the personal representative owes no duty to creditors of the estate to make the election, and (5) the right to elect is not an asset of the estate that can be deemed “wasted” if unexercised. The creditors have appealed. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm.

 

Sanko v. Sanko, No. E2022-00742-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 6, 2023). Katherine Sanko (“Mother”) and Clinton Sanko (“Father”) dispute custody of two of their four children. The children have lived primarily with Mother in Pennsylvania. However, following a petition filed by Father to change custody, the trial court concluded that a material change in circumstances occurred and that Father should be the primary residential parent. Because the trial court determined that the material change in circumstances was Mother’s relocation from Tennessee to Pennsylvania and this Court sanctioned the relocation in a prior appeal, the ruling must be vacated and the case remanded.

 

State of Tennessee ex rel. Hebert Slatery III v. The Witherspoon Law Group PLLC, No. E2021-01343-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 21, 2022).  This appeal involves an action brought by the State of Tennessee for alleged violations of Tennessee’s statutes regarding the unauthorized practice of law and the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act. The State of Tennessee claimed that the defendants improperly solicited clients who were in the process of making funeral arrangements for their recently deceased children. Following a trial, a jury returned a verdict unanimously finding in favor of the State of Tennessee and assessing civil penalties against the defendants. Accordingly, the trial court entered judgment against the defendants. The defendants appeal. We affirm and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

State of Tennessee ex rel. Tulis v. Lee, Governor of Tennessee, No. E2021-00436-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 24, 2022).  In this mandamus action, the petitioner/relator, acting on relation to the state, sought to have the trial court, inter alia, issue writs requiring the state governor and county health department administrator to comply with Tennessee Code Annotated § 68-5-104, which pertains to “[i]solation or quarantine.” The relator named the governor and health department administrator as respondents in both their official and “personal” capacities. Upon the respondents’ respective motions to dismiss the petition and following a hearing, the trial court entered separate orders granting the motions to dismiss as to each respondent, finding, as pertinent on appeal, that (1) the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction as to the claim against the governor in a mandamus action, (2) the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction as to the claim against the health department administrator because the relator lacked standing, and (3) the relator otherwise failed to state claims upon which relief could be granted. The trial court also granted the health department administrator’s motion for a reasonable award of attorney’s fees and costs in defending against the lawsuit in her personal capacity pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-20-113. The relator filed motions to alter or amend, which the trial court denied following a hearing in orders certified as final pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 54.02. The relator timely appealed. Concluding that (1) the trial court’s lack of subject matter jurisdiction is dispositive as to the action against the governor in his official capacity, (2) the relator’s lack of standing is dispositive as to the action against the county health administrator in her official capacity, and (3) the relator’s actions against both respondents in their personal capacities failed to state claims upon which relief could be granted, we affirm the trial court’s dismissal orders. We clarify, however, that the relator’s lack of standing with respect to his claim against the county health administrator did not equate to a lack of subject matter jurisdiction in the trial court.

 

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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