Post-Aragon Parental Relocation; Stringer v. Stringer

Stringer v. Stringer (Tenn. Ct. App.) was filed on June 16, 2017.

This post-divorce case concerns parental relocation. Mother, the primary residential parent, sought to relocate to Texas, citing an employment offer. Father objected to the relocation, arguing that the move had no reasonable purpose and the mother’s real purpose for relocating is to be closer to her boyfriend. Davidson County Circuit Court Judge, Philip E. Smith, denied mother’s request to relocate based on mother’s perjury in the trial court’s presence and on the finding that the real purpose of mothers proposed move is to be closer to her boyfriend. (Mother lied to the trial court about having a boyfriend in Texas.) The Tennessee Court of Appeals, at Nashville, reversed the trial court’s decision determining that the father failed to carry his burden of proof.

The Court wrote that their consideration in this case was guided by the Tennessee Supreme Court’s recent decision in Aragon v. Aragon. “Prior to the Aragon decision, the term “reasonable purpose” in Section 36-6-108(d)(1)(A) was defined in an unpublished Court of Appeals decision — Webster v. Webster — to mean a significant purpose, substantial when weighed against the gravity of the loss of the noncustodial parent’s ability to participate fully in their children’s lives in a more meaningful way. The Supreme Court’s decision in Aragon, however, expressly overruled this definition and held that the term “reasonable purpose” should be giving its ordinary meaning.”

The Court of Appeals, in considering whether Father met his burden to show that Mother’s move served no reasonable purpose, referred to the Trial Court’s following findings.

“The court will find it believes the real purpose of the move is not to advance Mother’s career in music — it is to be close to boyfriend. The court does not believe Mother has set forth any effort toward obtaining employment in the Middle Tennessee area. The court did not believe what the Mother said. She has failed to prove she set forth any effort to seek gainful employment in the Middle Tennessee area. So, in light of the fact Mother has failed to do that or failed to establish that she has, the court looks at the move from a stand point of its reasonableness. Mother is using employment in Houston, Texas as a basis for the move when she has made no effort to seek employment in the Middle Tennessee area. The court finds it is absolutely not reasonable. She has made no effort. Her parents live here, her family lives here, the father of the minor child lives here, and the paternal grandparents and other extended family live in North Alabama. So considering the stated purpose of the move, what the court believes is the real purpose of the move and the fact that Mother has taken no steps to seek gainful employment in Middle Tennessee, the court finds that Father has carried his burden of proof in establishing the move does not have a reasonable purpose.”

The Court of Appeals wrote that “as an initial matter, we note that much like the trial court in Aragon, it appears that the trial court in this case likewise improperly placed the burden of proof on Mother to show a reasonable purpose for the move rather than placing the burden on Father of proving that the relocation does not have a reasonable purpose. Tennessee Code Annotated 36-6-108(d)(1)(A).  The Supreme Court in Aragon, however, explicitly rejected as irrelevant evidence of the custodial parents lack of reasonable efforts in pursuing a job closer to the noncustodial parent because the custodial parent did not have the burden of proof. Rather, the Aragon court held that the trial court’s focus for lack of evidence of the custodial parents efforts to secure employment in Tennessee improperly shifted the burden from the parent opposing relocation.   …  As such, Mother is not required to present any evidence to establish that she diligently pursued job opportunities in Tennessee in order to be allowed to relocate; rather, the burden remains at all times on the parent opposing relocation to show that the move lacks a reasonable purpose.”

In Stringer, the Father argued that the evidence did not preponderate against the trial court’s finding that Mother’s main purpose for relocating is to be close to her boyfriend. The Court noted that from a review of the Aragon decision, their inquiry is far more limited than ascertaining the reasonableness of any and all of the custodial parents parents purposes in relocating. Rather, the Aragon court directed the courts consider only the limited question of whether the relocating parent stated purpose for moving was reasonable.  “The Aragon decision appears to have contemplated the situation where the relocating parent may have multiple reasons for moving, but, as long as there is at least one validly stated purpose for moving, the relocating parent must be allowed to move with the child. Here, Mother’s motivation for moving may very well be that she wants to be closer closer to her boyfriend. Mother’s stated purpose, however, is to accept a job offer that allows her increased income, as well as the opportunity to work in her chosen field. The evidence showed that, giving credence to witnesses testimony, Mother has been offered a job in Texas that could lead to a full-time teaching job in Mother’s chosen profession and Father simply did not show that Mother’s decision to move to pursue better employment is unreasonable.  Father’s reliance on Mother’s purported ulterior motive and lack of reasonable efforts is not enough to meet his burden of proving that there is no reasonable purpose at all for Mother’s proposed relocation.  The Court of Appeals concluded that even considering the trial court’s credibility finding against Mother, Father failed to present evidence that Mother’s move lacks a reasonable purpose, i.e., that Mother’s stated purpose for moving was not reasonable.

Notably, the Court of Appeals commented on the impact of the Aragon decision. “We are mindful that the current standard under Tennessee law places a much more substantial burden on the parent opposing the relocation than before because it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove a negative. … Regardless of our concerns about this standard, however, we are not free to depart from the Tennessee Supreme Court’s unequivocal holding. As such, once the Tennessee Supreme Court has addressed an issue, its decision regarding that issue is binding on the lower courts. It is a controlling principle that inferior courts must abide the orders, decrees and precedents of higher courts. The slightest deviation from this rigid rule would disrupt and destroy the sanctity of the judicial process.

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