Valerie L. Smith, Judge


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.


Ponnapula v. Wright, No.  W2023-00703-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 5, 2024). Following a motor vehicle accident, Appellant/the insured brought a breach of contract claim against Appellee/the automobile insurer. In a motion for summary judgment, Appellee argued that Appellant materially breached the duty to cooperate clause of the insurance policy, which barred his recovery. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Appellee, finding that there was no genuine issue of material fact that Appellant materially breached the insurance policy by failing to submit to an examination under oath. The trial court concluded that the material breach barred Appellant from recovery under the policy. Appellant appeals. Discerning no error, we affirm and remand.
Carter O’Neal Logistics, et al. v. Evans Petree, PC, et al., No. W2024-00048-COA-T10B-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 8, 2024). This is an accelerated interlocutory appeal as of right under Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 10B from a circuit court judge’s denial of a motion to recuse. The plaintiffs moved for recusal based primarily on an alleged attorney-client relationship between the judge and counsel for the defendants. We affirm the trial court’s denial of the motion to recuse.
Laurel Tree II Homeowners Association Inc. v. Moore, No. W2021-01275-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 1, 2024) (memorandum opinion).  This appeal concerns a suit brought by a homeowner’s association to enforce a property restriction contained in its declarations against a resident subject to the declarations. After the filing of a motion for judgment on the pleadings by the homeowner’s association, the trial court granted it relief and entered an injunction against the homeowner. The homeowner appealed. We conclude that the trial court properly granted the homeowner’s association’s motion for judgment on the pleadings and affirm the trial court’s judgment.
The Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County v. Tennessee Department of Education,  No. M2022-01786-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 10, 2024) (Chancellor Anne C. Martin; Judge Tammy M. Harrington; Judge Valerie L. Smith). This appeal concerns a lawsuit challenging the Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program, Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-2601, et seq. (“the ESA Act”). A group of parents and taxpayers from Davidson and Shelby Counties (“Plaintiffs”) sued state officials (“State Defendants”) in the Chancery Court for Davidson County (“the Trial Court”). In their operative amended complaint, Plaintiffs alleged that the ESA Act violates the Tennessee Constitution and state law by diverting taxpayer funds appropriated for public schools in Davidson and Shelby Counties to private schools, resulting in unique harm to these localities. A group of parents with children eligible for the ESA Act (“Bah Defendants”) and another group (“Greater Praise Defendants”) (all defendants collectively, “Defendants”) intervened in defense of the ESA Act. Defendants filed motions to dismiss, which the Trial Court granted on grounds that Plaintiffs lack standing and their claims are not ripe for judicial review. In reaching its decision, the Trial Court found that the ESA Act has not caused the affected counties any unequal hardship. Plaintiffs appeal the dismissal of their first, second, and sixth causes of action only. We conclude that the Trial Court erred by deciding factual disputes over the impact of the ESA Act on Plaintiffs at the motion to dismiss stage. Plaintiffs alleged enough in their amended complaint to establish standing both as parents and taxpayers. Plaintiffs’ claims also are ripe for judicial review. We, therefore, reverse the judgment of the Trial Court as to Plaintiffs’ first, second, and sixth causes of action and remand for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

Arty v. Arty, No. W2020-00224-COA-R3-CV (Sept. 22, 2022).  In this divorce case, we do not reach the substantive issues concerning the trial court’s division of the marital estate due to the fact that the trial court failed to designate all property as either marital or separate, failed to assign values to all property, and failed to consider the factors set out in Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-4-121(c). As such, we vacate the trial court’s division of the marital estate and its denial of alimony. Because the trial court failed to resolve the parties’ dispute over the Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 24 statement of the evidence by providing this Court with one cohesive statement, we reverse the trial court’s order concerning the statement of the evidence.


Jones v. Smith and Nephew Inc., No. W2021-00426-COA-R3-CV (March 14, 2022).  Appellant filed this products liability action more than 10 years after undergoing a total hip replacement using Appellee’s hip implant system. The trial court granted Appellee’s motion to dismiss on the ground that Appellant’s lawsuit fell outside the 10-year statute of repose and any exceptions thereto. Discerning no error, we affirm.


Boyd v. Gibson IV M.D.. W2020-01305-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct App. Jan. 10, 2022). This is a lawsuit that challenges the appropriateness of care received by a cancer patient. Plaintiff originally filed suit in January 2018 and asserted a number of claims, some of which were predicated on alleged conduct occurring as early as August 2014. In an amended complaint, Plaintiff expanded her allegations, taking issue with conduct occurring as late as September 2016. The trial court ultimately dismissed Plaintiff’s complaint in toto as it concerned the Defendants at issue in this appeal. Due to a lack of clarity regarding the court’s specific bases for dismissal with respect to each of the claims involved, we vacate the judgment and remand for further consideration and findings.


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.



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