Suzanne Cook, 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.

 

Carroll v. Foster, No. E2024-00525-COA-T10B-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 25, 2024). This is an interlocutory appeal as of right, pursuant to Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 10B, filed jointly by David Carroll (“Plaintiff”) and Todd Foster (“Defendant”) (“Petitioners,” collectively), seeking to recuse the trial judge in this case. Having reviewed the petition for recusal appeal filed by Petitioners, and finding no reversible error, we affirm.

 

Hughes v. Hughes, No. E2023-00952-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 19, 2024). In this post-divorce custody and contempt action, the trial court held the defendant father in criminal contempt for violating the parties’ permanent parenting plan. The trial court sentenced the father to serve 186 consecutive days in jail. The trial court also limited the father’s parenting time with the parties’ minor children and awarded the mother her attorney’s fees incurred in prosecuting the action. The father timely appealed to this Court, arguing that he lacked adequate notice of the criminal contempt allegations and that the trial court imposed an excessive sentence. The father also argues that the trial court erred in limiting his parenting time under Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-406. The issues related to inadequate notice are waived because the father raises those issues for the first time on appeal. Father’s argument regarding his parenting time is waived for the same reason. We also conclude that the trial court’s sentence for the father’s criminal contempt is appropriate under the circumstances and does not amount to an abuse of discretion. Finally, we award the mother her costs and expenses, including reasonable attorney’s fees, incurred in defending this appeal.

 

Cox v. Vaughan, No. E2023-00930-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 10, 2024). The pro se plaintiff appeals the trial court’s dismissal of her legal malpractice action against her former attorney. The trial court found that the plaintiff failed to offer any proof in support of her claim of negligence against the defendant attorney. We affirm.

 

Lusk v. Lusk, No. E2024-00226-COA-T10B-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 22, 2024). This is an accelerated interlocutory appeal as of right pursuant to Rule 10B of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Tennessee from a circuit court judge’s denial of a motion to recuse. The Appellant moved for recusal based on the judge’s setting a trial date, based on the judge’s having filed a complaint with the Board of Professional Responsibility against the Appellant’s attorney in an unrelated case, and based on criticism of the attorney in an unrelated case. The judge denied the recusal on the merits and also due to a failure to follow the procedural requirements of Rule 10B. We affirm the trial court’s denial of the motion to recuse.

 

Lowe v. Lowe, No. E2023-00338-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 14, 2023). This is a divorce action. Wife appeals the trial court’s division of property and debt and asserts that the trial court erred by not classifying and awarding certain real property in accordance with the parties’ stipulations. She also appeals the trial court’s denial of her request for an extension of the order of protection issued against Husband and the assignment of costs to her. We reverse the trial court’s interpretation of the parties’ stipulations regarding the classification of real property inherited by Wife. Because thisholding impacts the value of the parties’ separate property and the marital estate, we remand for reconsideration of the division of marital assets. We affirm the trial court’s equal division of marital debt and denial of Wife’s request for an extended protective order. We vacate the assignment of costs to Wife and remand the case to the trial court.

 

Potter v. Israel, No. E2023-00486-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 28, 2023).  In this breach of contract case, the trial court awarded Appellee damages for Appellant’s failure to perform his obligations under a construction contract in a workmanlike manner. Appellant appealed. Due to deficiencies in Appellant’s brief, we do not reach the substantive issues and dismiss the appeal.

 

Slaughter v. Stillwagon, No. E2023-01531-COA-T10B-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 7, 2023).  In this matter, the petitioner seeks a reversal of the trial court’s decision not to recuse itself. Due to the failure of the petitioner to meet the mandatory requirements of Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 10B, § 2.03, this appeal is dismissed and the trial court’s decision is affirmed.

 

Hopson v. Smith Wholesale, LLC,  No. E2023-01153-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 16, 2023) (memorandum opinion).  This is an appeal from a final order entered on July 6, 2023. The Notice of Appeal was not filed with the Appellate Court Clerk until August 11, 2023, 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.

 

Lowe v. Lowe, No. E2023-01061-COA-T10B-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 16, 2023).  This is an interlocutory appeal as of right, pursuant to Rule 10B of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, filed by the plaintiff, Karen Elizabeth Phillips Lowe (“Former Wife”), seeking to recuse the judge in this post-divorce case. Having reviewed the petition for recusal appeal filed by Former Wife, and finding no error, 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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