Court of Appeals Opinions

Format: 07/26/2016
Format: 07/26/2016
Regina K. Deal v. Robert C. Tatum
M2015-01078-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Presiding Judge Frank G. Clement, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Judge Larry J. Wallace

At issue is the ownership of real property. Plaintiff and Defendant divorced in 2001. In February 2005, they purchased a home as “tenants in common with right of survivorship.” Seven months later, in September 2005, Defendant transferred his interest in the property to Plaintiff by quitclaim deed. In March 2009, Plaintiff quitclaimed her interest in the property to Defendant. Neither quitclaim deed was recorded until a dispute arose in September 2014 following which Plaintiff commenced this action to set aside the 2009 quitclaim deed based on fraud. Plaintiff contends Defendant fraudulently induced her into conveying the property by assuring her that he would refinance the property and give Plaintiff her share of the equity within one year. Defendant insists he purchased the property outright for $9,000, a payment Plaintiff admits receiving. At trial, Defendant objected to evidence of a purported oral agreement based on the statute of frauds. The trial court ruled the defense had been waived and that evidence of an oral agreement was admissible based on equitable estoppel, an exception to the statute of frauds. At the conclusion of the trial, the court ordered that Plaintiff’s name be put back on the deed so that “both of you . . . own the property together.” Both parties appeal. The trial court summarized the testimony of the witnesses and discussed some relevant legal principles; however, it made few findings of fact, and the findings of fact and conclusions of law identified by the trial court fail to disclose the steps by which the trial court reached its decision. Although, we do not have a clear understanding of the basis for the trial court’s decision, it appears that the trial court’s ruling was based on equitable estoppel, which is significant because equitable estoppel is not a basis for affirmative relief. Because equitable estoppel is not a basis for the relief granted and the trial court did not make sufficient findings of fact and conclusions of law as required by Tenn. R. Civ. P. 52.01, we vacate the judgment and remand for the trial court to make findings of fact that include as much of the subsidiary facts as is necessary to disclose the steps by which the trial court reached its ultimate conclusion on each factual issue.

Dickson County Court of Appeals 01/29/16
In re Donna R.
M2015-00629-COA-R3-PT
Authoring Judge: Judge Richard H. Dinkins
Trial Court Judge: Judge Timothy K. Barnes

Father of a child who was determined to be dependent and neglected shortly after her birth had his parental rights terminated on the grounds of abandonment by an incarcerated parent – failure to support; failure to provide a suitable home and wanton disregard; failure to substantially comply with the requirements of the permanency plan; and persistence of conditions. Father appeals, asserting that the evidence does not sustain the trial court’s findings relative to those grounds as well as the holding that termination was in the child’s best interest. Father failed to appeal or argue one of the grounds for termination and, consequently, has waived that issue; the ground is thereby final and we decline to review the other grounds. Upon our review of the record, there is clear and convincing evidence that termination of Father’s rights is in the child’s best interest.
     

Montgomery County Court of Appeals 01/29/16
Renee Pembroke (Cooley) v. Christopher Eugene Cooley
W2015-00583-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge Arnold B. Goldin
Trial Court Judge: Judge Robert Samual Weiss

This appeal concerns a post-divorce modification of alimony. During the underlying divorce proceedings, the parties executed a marital dissolution agreement providing that the husband would make payments to the wife of $8,000 per month in transitional alimony for a period of five years followed by payments of $7,500 per month in alimony in futuro for a period of five years. The agreement provided that the alimony in futuro payments could be modified by either party ―upon a showing of a material, unanticipated change in circumstances.‖ The agreement was incorporated into the trial court‘s final decree of divorce entered in January 2005. In April 2014, the wife filed a petition seeking to increase and extend the husband‘s alimony in futuro obligation. After a trial, the Shelby County Circuit Court found a change in circumstances warranting a modification of alimony and ordered that the husband continue to pay alimony in futuro of $6,200 per month beginning in January 2015 and continuing for a period of six years or until his retirement, whichever occurred later. The trial court also awarded the wife $30,000 as alimony in solido for attorney‘s fees. On appeal, we conclude that the record does not support the trial court‘s finding of a substantial and material change in circumstances. We therefore reverse the trial court‘s modification of the husband‘s alimony in futuro obligation. Additionally, we reverse the trial court‘s award of alimony in solido for attorney‘s fees. This matter is remanded for such further proceedings as may be necessary and are consistent with this Opinion.

Shelby County Court of Appeals 01/29/16
In re Estate of Marie Anderson Young
W2015-01753-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Presiding Judge J. Steven Stafford
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor George R. Ellis

The trial court denied a personal representative's fee request after concluding that the request did not comply with a local rule setting a personal representative's fee as a percentage of the value of the estate. We reverse and remand for the trial court to reconsider Appellant's fee request “in light of all the relevant circumstances.” In re Estate of Schorn, No. E2013-02245-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 1778292, at *8 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 17, 2015).

Haywood County Court of Appeals 01/29/16
W & H LLC, et al v. Community Bank N.A. v. Willie Nelson
W2015-00878-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Presiding Judge J. Steven Stafford
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Walter L. Evans

The trial court entered a final judgment confirming an arbitration award in favor of the appellee. Appellants appealed. Due to deficiencies in the appellants' brief to this Court, we conclude that they have waived their issues on appeal. The appeal is dismissed.

Shelby County Court of Appeals 01/29/16
In re M.A.P. et al.
E2014-02413-COA-R3-PT
Authoring Judge: Judge Charles D. Susano, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Judge Randy M. Kennedy

This is a termination of parental rights case. The Department of Children's Services (DCS) filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of A.C.P. (Mother) with respect to her three minor children, ages twenty-two months to six years at the time of trial. The trial court found clear and convincing evidence of grounds. The court found the same quantum of evidence supporting the conclusion that termination of Mother‟s rights is in the children's best interest. Mother appeals. As modified, we affirm the trial court's judgment.

Sullivan County Court of Appeals 01/29/16
National Coal, LLC v. Brent Galloway
E2015-00723-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge John W. McClarty
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Elizabeth C. Asbury

This action concerns a petition to set aside a tax sale as void for lack of notice to the original property owner. The purchaser of the property filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the original owner was not entitled to notice, that the petitioner received actual notice as the current owner, and that the petition was untimely. The petitioner countered with a motion for summary judgment. Following a hearing, the trial court dismissed the petition, finding that the petitioner received actual notice of the sale and that the time for filing such actions had passed. The petitioner appeals. We affirm.

Campbell County Court of Appeals 01/29/16
In re Michael B.M., et al.
E2014-02481-COA-R3-JV
Authoring Judge: Judge John W. McClarty
Trial Court Judge: Judge Gregory McMillan

This action concerns a petition for custody filed by the maternal grandmother of three minor children. The juvenile court denied the petition, and the circuit court affirmed the denial on appeal following a de novo hearing. The maternal grandmother now appeals to this court. We dismiss the appeal in light of the adoption of the children during the pendency of this appeal.

Knox County Court of Appeals 01/29/16
Sylvia Folger v. Robert Folger
E2014-02069-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge D. Michael Swiney
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Ronald Thurman

This appeal arises from a divorce. Sylvia Folger (“Wife”) sued Robert Folger (“Husband”) for divorce in the Chancery Court for Cumberland County (“the Trial Court”). After a trial, the Trial Court, among other things, awarded Wife transitional alimony. On appeal, Wife raises a number of issues. Because of Wife's pronounced economic disadvantage relative to Husband, we modify the judgment of the Trial Court to increase the amount of Wife's transitional alimony, and remand this case for the Trial Court to award Wife attorney's fees as alimony in solido as well as her reasonable attorney's fees incurred on appeal. Otherwise, we affirm the judgment of the Trial Court.

Cumberland County Court of Appeals 01/28/16
Mimi Hiatt v. Kevin L. Hiatt
E2015-00090-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge D. Michael Swiney
Trial Court Judge: Judge Tammy M. Harrington

This appeal concerns post-divorce matters. Mimi Hiatt (“Wife”) and Kevin L. Hiatt (“Husband”) divorced. Wife some years later filed a motion to modify the final decree of divorce in the Circuit Court for Blount County (“the Trial Court”) seeking to increase Husband’s child support and alimony obligations. Husband, in turn, filed a motion to recover claimed overpayments he made on the marital residence because Wife had transferred it to a trust. The Trial Court found, among other things, that Wife was voluntarily underemployed and declined to increase her spousal support for that reason. The Trial Court also ruled that Wife’s divestment of the marital residence constituted a “sale” under the Marital Dissolution Agreement (“the MDA”) and awarded a judgment to Husband for payments he made on the mortgage after Wife’s transfer of the marital residence to the trust. Wife appeals to this Court. We hold that Wife’s transfer of the marital residence to a trust constituted a sale per the MDA, and we affirm the Trial Court in its award to Husband for overpayment. However, we find that Wife proved a substantial and material change in circumstances, and we remand for the Trial Court to determine an increase in Wife’s alimony in light of this change and all relevant factors. We find further that the Trial Court erred in declining to award Wife her attorney’s fees relative to alimony. As a final matter, we award Wife her attorney’s fees incurred on appeal related to the alimony issue, and remand for the Trial Court to determine Wife’s reasonable attorney’s fees related to the alimony issue on appeal. The judgment of the Trial Court is affirmed, in part, and, reversed, in part.

Blount County Court of Appeals 01/28/16
Greg Layman v. Aaron Acor et al.
E2015-00750-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge Thomas R. Frierson, II
Trial Court Judge: Judge O. Duane Slone

This action was originally filed in general sessions court against three defendants and resulted in a judgment for the plaintiff. Two of the co-defendants appealed to circuit court. The remaining co-defendant successfully sought to have the general sessions judgment set aside for insufficient service of process. Thereafter, the general sessions court transferred the claim against the one remaining co-defendant to circuit court to be consolidated with the pending appeal filed by the other co-defendants. The plaintiff subsequently voluntarily dismissed the action. One co-defendant filed a motion to alter or amend, asserting that the circuit court should not have allowed the plaintiff to voluntarily nonsuit the action. The circuit court denied the motion, and the co-defendant timely appealed. Discerning no error, we affirm the circuit court’s judgment.

Sevier County Court of Appeals 01/28/16
Church of God in Christ, Inc., et al v. L.M. Haley Ministries, Inc., et al. - DISSENT
W2015-00509-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge Arnold B. Goldin
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Martha Brasfield

ARNOLD B. GOLDIN, J., Dissenting.
In light of the facts that are presented by the pleadings in this case, I must respectfully dissent from the majority's decision to affirm the trial court's dismissal of this property dispute. The majority opinion places much emphasis on the fact that the local church has not “withdrawn” from COGIC, and by citing to Church of God in Christ, Inc. v. Middle City Church of God in Christ, 774 S.W.2d 950 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989), it suggests that judicial intervention would be improper at this time. Although the Appellees, an apparently vocal group within the local church, still claim that they want to remain a part of COGIC, they refuse to abide by the decisions of the hierarchal church's Ecclesiastical Council, thereby creating, if not an actual withdrawal from the hierarchal church, a schism between the members of the local church. The ecclesiastical decisions having, therefore, been made by the hierarchal church, I am of the opinion that the alleged facts of this case do not prevent judicial intervention to decide the property issues that have arisen between the hierarchal church and members of the local church. From my perspective, they necessitate it. Because resolution of the dispute among the parties is not dependent on the trial court's ruling on matters of conscience or religious doctrine or polity, the trial court should not be precluded from exercising jurisdiction over the case.

Fayette County Court of Appeals 01/27/16
Church of God in Christ, Inc., et al v. L.M. Haley Ministries, Inc., et al.
W2015-00509-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Presiding Judge J. Steven Stafford
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Martha Brasfield

A hierarchical church filed a complaint against one of its local churches, seeking an order establishing the hierarchical church's control over the local church's real and personal property. The trial court dismissed the complaint on the basis of the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention. Discerning no error, we affirm.

Fayette County Court of Appeals 01/27/16
In re Makendra E.
W2015-01374-COA-R3-PT
Authoring Judge: Judge Arnold B. Goldin
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Martha Brasfield

This is a termination of parental rights case. The child at issue in this case was placed in foster care at age two. When the child was ten years old, the child‘s foster parents filed a petition in Dyer County Chancery Court seeking to terminate the parental rights of the child‘s parents and to adopt the child. The trial court entered an order terminating the parental rights of the child‘s mother and father and granting the foster parents‘ petition to adopt the child. The mother has appealed the termination of her parental rights on the ground of abandonment by willful failure to visit in the four months prior to the filing of the petition to terminate her parental rights. The mother also appeals the trial court‘s finding that termination of her parental rights is in the child‘s best interest. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

Dyer County Court of Appeals 01/27/16
Dr. Robin M. Stevenson v. American Casualty Company of Reading, Pennsylvania
W2015-00425-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge Brandon O. Gibson
Trial Court Judge: Judge Robert L. Childers

This appeal involves a lawsuit filed by an insured against his insurer due to the insurer's failure to pay a claim for a theft loss. The trial court granted summary judgment to the insurer, finding no coverage under the policy. We affirm.

Shelby County Court of Appeals 01/27/16
In re Aaliyah E
E2015-00602-COA-R3-PT
Authoring Judge: Judge Thomas R. Frierson, II
Trial Court Judge: Judge Dwaine B. Thomas

This is a termination of parental rights case, focusing on Aaliyah E., the minor child (“the Child”) of Wanda M. (“Mother”) and Christopher E. (“Father”). The Child was taken into protective custody by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (“DCS”) on November 19, 2013, upon investigation of the Child’s lack of legal guardianship while the parents were incarcerated. On October 30, 2014, DCS filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of Mother and Father. Following a bench trial, the trial court found that statutory grounds existed to terminate the parental rights of both parents upon its finding by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the parents abandoned the Child by failing to provide a suitable home, (2) the parents failed to substantially comply with the reasonable responsibilities and requirements of the permanency plans, and (3) the conditions leading to the Child’s removal from the home persisted. As to Father, the court also found by clear and convincing evidence that prior to incarceration, he had abandoned the Child by showing wanton disregard for the Child’s welfare. The court further found by clear and convincing evidence that termination of Mother’s and Father’s parental rights was in the Child’s best interest. Mother and Father have each appealed. Having determined that, as DCS concedes, Mother was incarcerated during the entire applicable four-month statutory period following the Child’s removal into protective custody, we reverse the trial court’s finding regarding the ground of abandonment through failure to provide a suitable home as to Mother only. We affirm the trial court’s judgment in all other respects, including the termination of Mother’s and Father’s parental rights to the Child.

Monroe County Court of Appeals 01/26/16
In re Saliace P., et al.
W2015-01191-COA-R3-PT
Authoring Judge: Judge Brandon O. Gibson
Trial Court Judge: Judge Jason L. Hudson

This case involves the termination of a mother's parental rights to her three daughters. The children were previously adjudicated dependent and neglected due to physical abuse of the children by the mother's boyfriend. After the children were in foster care for about a year, the Department of Children's Services filed a petition to terminate the mother's parental rights on several grounds. The trial court found by clear and convincing evidence that three grounds for termination were proven and that termination was in the best interest of the children. The mother appeals. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings. We affirm the termination of the mother's parental rights.

Dyer County Court of Appeals 01/26/16
Krystal Choate Ex Rel. Clayton C. v. Vanderbilt University
M2014-00630-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge W. Neal McBrayer
Trial Court Judge: Judge Hamilton V. Gayden, Jr.

A patient suffered a blunt-force trauma head injury when he fell while attempting to mount a wheelchair accessible scale at a dialysis clinic. Complications from this injury led to his death. Plaintiff, the patient’s former spouse, brought two wrongful death actions on behalf of the patient’s minor child. Each action eventually named as defendants the dialysis clinic and the owner of the property where the dialysis clinic was located. After the trial court consolidated the actions, the property owner filed a motion for summary judgment. The court granted the motion, concluding the property owner had no liability under any legal theory asserted by Plaintiff. We affirm the dismissal of the claims against the property owner.

Davidson County Court of Appeals 01/25/16
Dorothy Harris v. Yolanda Chaffen, et al.
W2015-01996-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Per Curiam
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Jim Kyle

Because the order appealed is not a final judgment, we must dismiss this appeal for lack of jurisdiction.

Shelby County Court of Appeals 01/25/16
Kathleen Barrett et al v. Ocoee Land Holdings, LLC et al.
E2015-00242-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge Charles D. Susano, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Judge Jerri Bryant

The issues in this case bring into sharp focus the question of whether or not the successful litigants below are entitled contractually to an award of attorney's fees and expenses against the losing side, i.e. the plaintiffs. This litigation began in 2010 when Kathleen Barrett and her husband, Gerald Barrett, filed suit against three LLCs and three individuals. The gravamen of the complaint is related to the purchase of, and the planned construction of a house on, a lot in a subdivision. Following a jury trial, the defendants now before us on appeal won a favorable verdict on all allegations and theories of the plaintiffs. Despite this outcome, the trial court denied their request for an award of attorney's fees and expenses. The defendants now appeal. The defendants contend that two of the LLC defendants are entitled to an award of fees and expenses based upon contracts in the record. Furthermore, they argue that the individual defendants also are entitled to attorney's fees and expenses (1) based upon a theory of judicial estoppel and (2) pursuant to the provisions of Tenn. Code Ann. § 48-249-115(c) (2012). The Barretts filed a motion in this Court seeking a dismissal of this appeal. They based their motion primarily on a lack of standing. We hold that the motion is without merit. On the issue of attorney's fees and expenses, we reverse the trial court's decision in part and affirm it in part. This case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Polk County Court of Appeals 01/25/16
Nancy F. Brown v. Nancy Mercer-Defriese et al.
E2015-00755-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge Charles D. Susano, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Judge W. Jeffrey Hollingsworth

Nancy F. Brown (Plaintiff) was walking through and contemplating the rental of a house owned by Nancy Mercer-Defriese and Spencer Defriese (Defendants) when she tripped over a three-inch threshold or step in the doorway between two rooms. She brought this premises liability action, alleging the step was an unreasonably dangerous and defective condition that caused her fall and resulting injuries. During the jury trial that followed, Plaintiff and Defendants presented the testimony of experts. Plaintiff's expert opined that the step was a “trip hazard.” One of the Defendants' experts agreed that the step was a trip hazard, while the other stated that “all stairs are trip hazards.” Plaintiff and Defendants each presented photographs of the doorway showing that the step and the floors on either side of the three-inch change in elevation are in a very similar color. The trial court granted Defendants' motion for a directed verdict at the conclusion of all of the proof, finding that it was not reasonably foreseeable that Plaintiff would trip over the step; that the step was open and obvious; and that Defendants did not owe Plaintiff a duty to warn her of the condition of the step. We hold that the evidence before the trial court and now before us establishes a genuine issue of material facts as to the Defendants' negligence. Accordingly, we vacate the trial court's judgment and remand for further proceedings.

Hamilton County Court of Appeals 01/25/16
In re Estate of Dennie Lamar Trent
E2015-00198-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge D. Michael Swiney
Trial Court Judge: Judge Thomas Wright

Barry Trent, the Executor of the Estate of Dennie Lamar Trent, appeals the order of the Chancery Court for Hawkins County (“the Trial Court”) finding and holding that the claim against the estate filed by Brenda Jefferson for an unpaid $50,000 debt as evidenced by a note is valid. We find and hold that the evidence does not preponderate against the Trial Court's findings, and we affirm.

Hawkins County Court of Appeals 01/25/16
Sima Aryan v. Nicholas Aryan
M2014-02302-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge Andy D. Bennett
Trial Court Judge: Judge Phillip A. Robinson

Former husband filed a post-divorce petition seeking to hold former wife in contempt for her failure to pay and hold former husband harmless for indebtedness on the marital residence as required by the parties’ marital dissolution agreement. The trial court held former wife in contempt for her failure to pay, granted former husband a judgment of $2010.00 for the amount he paid in an attempt to keep the debt current, ordered former wife to sell the marital residence, and awarded former husband attorney’s fees. We hold the trial court’s ruling on contempt was in error because the trial court failed to make a threshold finding that former wife’s conduct was willful. On appeal, former wife asserts the trial court erred in requiring her to sell the former marital home. In support of its decision to require former wife to sell the home, the trial court reasoned that principles of equity demanded the result since former husband had no other remedy at law. We reverse the trial court, finding former husband was not without a remedy because he can file an action for breach of contract. The finding of contempt, judgment of $2010.00, and related award of attorney’s fees are vacated, and the portion of the order requiring former wife to sell the home is reversed.

Davidson County Court of Appeals 01/21/16
Christopher A. Pendola, MD, PC et al v. Associated Neurologists of Kingsport et al.
E2015-00685-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge John W. McClarty
Trial Court Judge: Judge E.G. Moody

This is a breach of contract action in which the plaintiff filed suit after the practice refused to honor the buyout provision in the partnership agreement. The practice filed a counter-complaint, arguing that the plaintiff was liable for his share of the partnership's outstanding financial obligations. Following a bench trial, the court ordered the practice to remit payment. The practice appeals. We affirm.

Sullivan County Court of Appeals 01/21/16
Gary Finley v. Marshall County, et al.
M2015-00313-COA-R3-CV
Authoring Judge: Judge Andy D. Bennett
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor J. B. Cox

Property owner sought recognition that his property had a nonconforming use as a rock quarry. We have determined that the property owner’s previous appeal before the board of zoning appeals, for which he did not file a petition for writ of certiorari in chancery court, is res judicata as to the present matter.

Marshall County Court of Appeals 01/20/16