Patricia Head Moskal, Chancellor

Biography

Reports of Cases Reviewed by Appellate Courts – Beginning Jan. 1, 2020

Text is the appellate court’s summary of the opinion. 

Scroll down for important information.

 

Carter v. Gentry, et al., No. M2023-01016-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 26, 2024). This appeal concerns subject matter jurisdiction. Eric O. Carter (“Petitioner”) filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the Chancery Court for Davidson County (“the Trial Court”) against Howard Gentry (“Gentry”), Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk, 1 and Frank Strada (“Strada”), Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction (“TDOC”), asking that the criminal judgment entered against him be expunged because it was not properly endorsed under the applicable rules and statutes. The Trial Court dismissed the petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Petitioner appeals, arguing that he only wants a ministerial act performed and is not challenging his sentence. We find that Petitioner is in fact challenging his sentence, and the Trial Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to hear that challenge. We, therefore, affirm the Trial Court.

 

Jacobson v. Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, No. M2022-01610-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 7, 2024). This appeal arises from a Tennessee Public Records Act (“TPRA”) petition to access a Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (“DCS”) case file regarding its investigation into the fatality of a fourteen-year-old boy. The petition also sought disclosure of the investigation into the child’s death, as well as four prior investigations related to the same child, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-5-107. Prior to the filing of the petition, the petitioner, Stacy Jacobson (“Ms. Jacobson”), submitted a written request to obtain the unredacted version of the deceased child’s case file, along with the records from four prior DCS investigations related to the child. DCS denied the requests, citing several legal bases, including Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-5-124, Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 37-1-409 and 612, Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-5-107, Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 16 (“Rule 16”), and the 2013 Davidson County Chancery Court order requiring that DCS redact all such records to eliminate information made confidential under state law. Thereafter, Ms. Jacobson filed a petition in the Chancery Court of Davidson County to obtain access to the unredacted public records, the four related investigative files, and for her attorney’s fees and costs. The trial court denied the petition, finding that, under “the state law exception” to the TPRA, which encompasses Rule 16, the redacted portions of the case file and the four related investigative files are exempt from disclosure because they are relevant to an ongoing criminal prosecution of the deceased child’s family members who are alleged to be responsible for his abuse and death. Ms. Jacobson subsequently filed a motion to alter or amend judgment, arguing that the trial court had failed to consider whether the DCS records from the prior investigations involving the deceased child were part of the child’s “full case file.” The trial court denied the motion, finding that a ruling on this issue would constitute an advisory opinion. Ms. Jacobson appeals the trial court’s denial of her requests. For the reasons explained below, we vacate the judgment of the trial court and remand for further proceedings.

 

Gonzales v. Orion Federal Credit Union, Nos. M2022-00796-COA-R3-CV and M2022-00510-COA-R10-CV (Consolidated) (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 4, 2023). A federally chartered credit union agreed to purchase substantially all assets of a Tennessee-chartered bank. The Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions objected. He contended that the transaction was prohibited by the Tennessee Banking Act because the credit union was not a bank holding company. So he sought declaratory and injunctive relief to stop the transaction. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court concluded the sale of substantially all of the assets of a bank was not prohibited by the Act. We affirm.

 

Smith d/b/a  Sugar Creek Carriages v. Gerregano, Commissioner,   No. M2022-00941-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 28, 2023).  The Tennessee Department of Revenue issued a tax assessment against a horse-drawn carriage company pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-6-212(a)(2). The carriage company filed a complaint in the chancery court challenging the tax assessment on two grounds: (1) that its carriage rides did not constitute a place of amusement under the statute and (2) that its equal protection rights had been violated because no other carriage companies had been assessed the tax. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The court granted the Tennessee Department of Revenue’s motion for summary judgment and denied the carriage company’s motion for summary judgment. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm the chancery court’s decision.

 

Gresham, Smith and Partners v. Middleburg Real Estate Partners LLC, No. M2021-01459-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 25, 2023). In this breach of contract dispute between an engi neering consulting firm and a real estate development company, we review the trial court’s holding that the real estate development company breached the contract between the parties as well as the court’s award of attorneys’ fees to the engineering consulting firm. We affirm the court’s decision in all respects. Because the parties’ agreement states that the prevailing party in litigation arising from or related to the contract shall be entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs, we remand the case to the trial court with instructions for the trial court to award the engineering firm its reasonable and necessary attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in this appeal.

 

Whitley v. Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education, No. M2022-01079-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 22, 2023).  Appellant, a tenured teacher employed by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, was involved in an altercation with students at an alternative high school. Subsequently, Appellee Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education (the “Board”) terminated Appellant’s employment. After exhausting his administrative remedies, Appellant filed an action with the trial court arguing that the Board exceeded its authority under the Teachers’ Tenure Act. The trial court vacated the Board’s decision on the ground that the Board violated the Open Meetings Act. We affirm the trial court’s decision on different grounds, i.e., that the Board committed a clear error of law when it conducted a third hearing concerning the termination of Appellant’s employment. We also conclude that Appellant is entitled to reinstatement and back pay. There is nothing further for the Board to do; accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s order of remand.

 

St. Paul Community Limited Partnership v. Community Church n/k/a Green Hills Community Church, No. M2021-01548-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 9, 2023). This third appeal in a long-running landlord/tenant dispute presents the question of the proper amount of an attorney’s fees award. The tenant, John T. Rochford, III, and several business entities owned or controlled by Mr. Rochford (collectively “Rochford”), sued the church now known as Green Hills Community Church (“Church”), claiming among other things that Church breached a lease agreement. Following a second appeal in which this Court held that an award of attorney’s fees in favor of Church was warranted, the trial court awarded Church $343,535.07 in attorney’s fees and expenses, which reflected a rate of $295 per hour. The trial court declined Church’s request for 10% yearly interest starting from the date of the filing of the complaint, July 30, 2015, finding it unwarranted by the terms of the lease. Church appeals, arguing that it should have been awarded attorney’s fees at a rate of $450 per hour and interest. We affirm.

 

STJ, L.P. v. Frensley, No. M2021-00920-COA-R3-CV  (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 16, 2022). This case involves a decedent’s alleged wrongful transfer of real property, without fair consideration, out of a limited partnership in which he had served as general partner. Presently at issue is the trial court’s dismissal of claims brought against the personal representative of the decedent’s estate and the decedent’s wife. Although the partnership appeals the decision of the trial court and challenges, among other things, the trial court’s determination that a claim involving breach of fiduciary duty by the decedent is time-barred, we affirm the trial court’s judgment for the reasons stated herein.

 

Oliver v. Tenn. Dept. of Safety and Homeland Security, No. M2021-00121-COA-R3-CV  (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 4, 2022).  Narcotics officers seized two vehicles and approximately $23,000 in U.S. currency while executing a search warrant at a residence. An administrative law judge ordered the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security to return the seized property to the purported owner. The judge determined that the search warrant was issued without probable cause, resulting in an illegal seizure. And, if not, the Department failed to prove that it strictly complied with the forfeiture statutes. The Department petitioned for judicial review. After reviewing the administrative record, the chancery court reversed in part, vacated in part, and remanded the administrative decision for further proceedings. We affirm.

 

Anthony v. Parker, No. M2021-00753-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 7, 2022).  Andre Anthony (“Petitioner”) appeals the ruling of the Chancery Court for Davidson County (the “trial court”), dismissing his petition filed pursuant to the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act (“UAPA”). We conclude that this Court lacks jurisdiction and dismiss the appeal.

 

Waggoner v. State of Tennessee, No. M2021-01037-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 23, 2022).  Kevin Lee Waggoner (“Petitioner”) filed an action in the Chancery Court for Davidson County on April 30, 2021, pursuant to the Tennessee Public Records Act (the “Act”). Petitioner sought the audio recordings from his criminal trial held several years earlier in Union County. The trial court held that the clerk of the criminal court in which Petitioner’s trial was held was not required by statute to store the recordings as part of the clerk’s case records. The trial court also held that the audio recordings were exempt from disclosure under the Act pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 34. We reverse the trial court’s decision as to both issues and remand for further proceedings.

 

Luna Law Group, PLLC v. Roberts, M2021-00699-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 5, 2022).  In this breach of contract case, Appellee law firm sued Appellant former client for unpaid attorneys’ fees.  Appellant argued that the statute of limitations and the doctrine of laches barred Appellee’s breach of contract claim.  Alternatively, Appellant argued that the unpaid attorneys’ fees were unreasonable.  The trial court held that neither the statute of limitations nor the doctrine of laches barred Appellee’s breach of contract claim, and that Appellee’s attorneys’ fees were reasonable.  Discerning no error, we affirm.

 

Anderson v. White, No. M2021-00887-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 5, 2022) (memorandum opinion).  Appellant appeals the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in Appellee’s favor on a breach of contract claim. Because Appellant’s brief is not compliant with Rule 27 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure, we dismiss this appeal.

 

Tennessee Dep’t. of Safety and Homeland Security v. Shell, No. M2021-00108-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 4, 2022). Following the return of his seized property under the forfeiture statutes, claimant asked the administrative law judge to award him attorney’s fees under two separate statutes, Tennessee Code Annotated section 4-5-325(a) and 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). The administrative law judge awarded fees under only the former statute. Upon review by the chancery court, the decision to award fees under section 4-5-325(a) was reversed; the chancery court also ruled that claimant’s request for fees under the federal statute was waived or abandoned. We affirm the trial court’s conclusion that claimant is not entitled to fees under section 4- 5-325(a). We remand to the trial court for consideration of the previously pretermitted claim for attorney’s fees under section 1988(b).

 

Crawley v. Metro. Gov’t of Nashville and Davidson County, Tenn., No. M2021-00210-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 5, 2022).  This appeal arises from the dismissal of a petition for writ of certiorari challenging a decision by a city’s planning commission. The petitioner contends that the planning commission’s approval of modifications to a site plan for a planned unit development district were not minor, such that the proposed amendments should have been referred to the city’s council for consideration. The trial court ultimately determined that the modifications were minor and did not require referral to the council; accordingly, it dismissed the petition. We concur in the conclusion of the trial court and affirm its judgment.

 

Holland v. Tenn. Dept of Safety and Homeland Security, No. M2020-01044-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 23, 2022). The police seized a vehicle and commenced a forfeiture proceeding. The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security notified the vehicle owner that a forfeiture warrant for the vehicle had been issued. And the owner filed a written claim and request for a hearing. But before the hearing could take place, the administrative law judge granted the Department’s request for a voluntary dismissal of the forfeiture proceeding. In a subsequent order, the administrative law judge awarded attorney’s fees to the owner under Tennessee Code Annotated § 4-5-325(a). The Department petitioned for judicial review of the fee award. The owner filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the administrative decision was not final because the order did not address her request for attorney’s fees under a federal statute. After denying the motion to dismiss, the trial court ruled that the fee award violated the state statute. So it vacated the administrative decision. On appeal, the owner argues that the trial court erred in denying her motion to dismiss and in ruling that the fee award violated the state statute. We affirm.

 

The City of Cleveland v. The Health Services and Development Agency, State of Tennessee, et al., No. M2021-00396-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 27, 2022). This appeal concerns opposition by the City of Cleveland, Tennessee (“the City”) to an application by Middle Tennessee Treatment Centers, LLC, d/b/a Cleveland Comprehensive Treatment Center (“CCTC”) to operate a nonresidential, substitution-based treatment center for opiate addiction within the City.  The City filed a petition for declaratory judgment in the Chancery Court for Davidson County (“the Trial Court”) against the Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency (“the Agency”) seeking to have the certificate of need granted for CCTC revoked on grounds that CCTC failed to provide proof of service upon the City by certified mail, return receipt requested, in contravention of Tenn. Code Ann. § 68-11-1607(c)(9)(A).  CCTC intervened in the case.  CCTC and the Agency (“Defendants,” collectively) filed motions to dismiss.  After a hearing, the Trial Court granted Defendants’ motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim.  The City appeals.  We hold, inter alia, that the purpose of the notice provision in Tenn. Code Ann. § 68-11-1607(c)(9)(A) is to afford the relevant officials an opportunity to participate in an Agency hearing on whether a certificate of need is granted; proof of receipt is required.  We, therefore, reverse the judgment of the Trial Court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

 

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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"The Book" - Information on Tennessee Trial Judges Copyright © 2023 by BirdDog Law, LLC. All Rights Reserved.