Ronald Thurman, 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 Lyrik L., No. M2023-00276-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Jan. 8, 2024).  This appeal arises from a pending petition for termination of parental rights and adoption. Two weeks after the maternal grandparents commenced their action to terminate the parental rights of the mother of their grandchild (the father being deceased), the paternal grandparents (“the Intervenors”) filed a motion to intervene for the purpose of filing a competing petition for adoption and termination of parental rights; they also sought to set aside an order granting permanent guardianship over the child to the maternal grandparents previously issued by the juvenile court in a separate proceeding. The Intervenors also filed a motion for leave to intervene for the purpose of filing a petition for grandparent visitation. The maternal grandparents opposed all relief sought by the Intervenors. The trial court denied the motion to set aside the juvenile court’s order of permanent guardianship for lack of jurisdiction, and it denied the motion to intervene for purposes of adoption on the ground that the Intervenors lacked standing because they did not meet the definition of prospective adoptive parents under Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-102(44). However, the court granted their motion to intervene for the purpose of grandparent visitation. The Intervenors appeal the denial of the motion to intervene for purposes of adoption, and the maternal grandparents appeal the order granting the Intervenors leave to intervene for the purpose of grandparent visitation. We have determined that the Intervenors have standing to file a petition for adoption and termination of parental rights; thus, we reverse the trial court’s ruling on that issue. We affirm the trial court in all other respects.


Frasch v. Suggs, No. M2023-00183-SC-R10-CV (Tenn. Nov. 28, 2023). Michael Benjamin Suggs and Lori M. Suggs have filed an application for extraordinary appeal in this Court seeking review of a Clay County Chancery Court order, entered on October 14, 2022, denying their motion to dismiss and/or for summary judgment. The Court treats the filing as an application for permission to appeal from the denial of a Rule 9 application, see Tenn. R. App. P. 9(c), and the Court grants the application. The Chancery Court’s October 14, 2022 order is hereby vacated, and the case is remanded to the Chancery Court for further consideration in light of Pandharipande v. FSD Corp., No. M2020-01174-SC-R11-CV, 2023 WL 6819018 (Tenn. Oct. 17, 2023).


Patton v. Camboy, No. E2023-00231-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 22, 2023).  This is a declaratory judgment action in which the plaintiffs seek to establish that they have an ingress and egress easement over the portion of a once public road that crosses over their neighbor’s property. The plaintiffs contend that they have a prescriptive easement or, in the alternative, a private access easement for ingress and egress because their properties abut the once public road that runs through the defendant’s property. The chancery court found that the plaintiffs have a prescriptive easement for ingress and egress across the defendant’s property. The defendant appeals. We affirm the trial court’s finding that the plaintiffs have an easement across the defendant’s property, albeit on different grounds. We have determined that the plaintiffs failed to prove a prescriptive easement; nevertheless, they have proven a private access easement over the defendant’s property because their properties abut a once public road that passes through the defendant’s property. Accordingly, we affirm as modified the decision of the trial court awarding the plaintiffs an ingress and egress easement over the defendant’s property.


Etheridge v. Etheridge, No. M2022-00451-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 22, 2023).  A husband and wife each had multiple children from prior relationships. After their marriage, the husband and wife agreed to a contract that would control the distribution of their estates, with funds passing first to the surviving spouse and then to be distributed after the second spouse’s death among their children. Both husband and wife have since died. Husband’s children brought suit, arguing that the distribution of assets in husband’s final will is contrary to the contract. Awarding summary judgment to husband’s children in this declaratory judgment action, the trial court determined that the distribution of the husband’s estate is controlled by the terms of the contract. The wife’s estate appealed. We vacate and remand.


Thomas v. Smith, No. E2022-00964-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 28, 2023).  In this real property dispute, the petitioner brought an action to quiet title to and remove the respondent from a parcel of improved real property located in Cumberland County. Following a bench trial, the trial court ordered that the title of the property be fully vested in the petitioner. The trial court also ordered the respondent to vacate the premises within ten days. Following a damages hearing, the trial court entered an order awarding to the petitioner $8,000 in compensatory damages and $1,000 in attorney’s fees. The respondent has appealed, and the petitioner has raised an issue alleging that this is a frivolous appeal. Because we are unable to discern from the trial court’s judgment any consideration of the Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 8, Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5 factors (“RPC 1.5 factors”), we vacate the award of attorney’s fees and remand for the trial court to make a new determination of a reasonable attorney’s fee award to the petitioner based on the RPC 1.5 factors. We deny the petitioner’s request for damages on appeal. We affirm the trial court’s judgment in all other respects.


In re Skylar M., No. E2023-00875-COA-R3-PT (Tenn. Ct. App. July 26, 2023).  The appellant filed a notice of appeal more than thirty days from the date of entry of the order from which the appellant is seeking to appeal. Because the notice of appeal was not timely filed, we have no jurisdiction to consider this appeal.


Conserv Equipment Leasing v. Schubert Enterprises, LLC.,  M2022-00535-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 3, 2023).  The defendants in this action failed to timely answer the plaintiff’s complaint. Upon the plaintiff’s motion, the trial court entered judgment by default against the defendants. The defendants moved to set aside the default judgment. The trial court denied the motion to set aside. Because the trial court’s order lacked findings of fact and conclusions of law to explain its ruling, we vacate the trial court’s determination and remand for sufficient findings of fact and conclusions of law to facilitate appellate review.


Franks v. Bilbrey, M2021-00766-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 30, 2022). This appeal concerns an alleged breach of contract.  Danny Ray Franks (“Mr. Franks”) and his spouse Angela May Franks (“Ms. Franks”) (“Plaintiffs,” collectively) hired Roger Bilbrey (“Mr. Bilbrey”) and Bilbrey’s Construction, Inc. (“Defendants,” collectively) to build a “barndominium,” a metal building that looks like a barn with a stained-concrete floor, garage, and living quarters.  The parties’ contract (“the Agreement”), which was drafted by Mr. Bilbrey, provided that work would start immediately and be completed by Thanksgiving of 2018.  However, the project was not completed by that date.  Some five months later, the project still was unfinished.  Plaintiffs then fired Defendants.  Plaintiffs sued Defendants in the Chancery Court for Overton County (“the Trial Court”) for breach of contract.  The Trial Court ruled in Plaintiffs’ favor.  Defendants appeal.  We hold that time was of the essence under the Agreement.  We further find that Defendants committed a material breach of the Agreement by failing to timely complete Plaintiffs’ barndominium.  We affirm.

Robinson v. Hicks, M2022-00960-COA-T10B-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 23, 2022).  This is an accelerated interlocutory appeal from the denial of a motion for disqualification of the trial judge.  After carefully reviewing the record provided by the parties, we affirm the decision of the trial court denying the motion.


In Re Skylar M.,  E2022-00119-COA-R3-PT (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 4, 2022).  The trial court terminated the parental rights of the father upon concluding that the petitioners had proven by clear and convincing evidence the following statutory grounds of termination: (1) abandonment by failure to visit the child, (2) abandonment by failure to support the child, (3) persistence of the conditions that led to the child’s removal from the father’s custody, (4) failure to manifest an ability and willingness to assume legal and physical custody of the child as a putative father, and (5) risk of substantial harm to the child’s physical or psychological welfare if returned to the putative father’s legal and physical custody. The father timely appealed. Upon review of the final order, we conclude that the trial court did not comply with Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(k) due to its failure to include sufficient findings of fact in its written order. We therefore vacate the trial court’s judgment and remand this matter to the trial court for the expedited entry of sufficient written findings of fact. We deny the petitioners’ request for attorney’s fees on appeal.

In Re Arianna, No. M2021-00980-COA-R3-PT  (Tenn. Ct. App. May 11, 2022).  In this termination of parental rights case, Appellant Father appeals the trial court’s termination of his parental rights to the two minor children on the ground of abandonment by failure to support, Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 36-1-113(g)(1), 36-1-102(1)(A)(iv). Appellant also appeals the trial court’s finding that termination of his parental rights is in the children’s best interest. Discerning no error, we affirm.


McKayla Taylor v. Miriam’s Promise et al., No. M2020-01509-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 7, 2022). This appeal involves an award of attorney fees after a remand from this Court. The appellant argues that the statute authorizing such fees is inapplicable by its terms and also unconstitutional as a violation of her right to access the courts. We affirm and remand for further proceedings.


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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