C.W.H. v. L.A.S. (Tenn.Sup.Ct. filed December 19, 2017)
Hamilton County Juvenile Court: This is a custody case involving the minor children of unmarried parties. Father and Mother agreed to a modification of an existing parenting plan in 2013. Subsequently, Father learned information to which he was not privy during the settlement conference, namely, that Mother had relocated from her state of residence (Ohio) to Nevada with the parties’ minor children, where she was employed as a prostitute at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch. Father filed a motion for an emergency temporary custody order and a temporary restraining order. Father prevailed in a hearing before the juvenile court magistrate and was designated as the primary residential parent. Mother requested a hearing before the juvenile court. Following a hearing, the juvenile court found a material change in circumstances and upheld the magistrate’s determination. The Juvenile Court decision provided as follows:
At the time of the hearing before the Magistrate on August 1, 2013, Mother was still working full-time as a legal prostitute in Nevada. At the time of the rehearing, Mother testified that she is now working full-time as a social worker in Nevada.
Although Mother testified that she has no plans to work as a prostitute any more, there apparently is no other reasonable tie for her in Nevada. Mother’s extended family is in Chattanooga. Father’s wife’s extended family is in Chattanooga. It is the Court’s opinion that Mother lacks integrity on several issues, including this one.
While both Father and Mother have at times acted irresponsibly and seemed to lack sound parenting judgment, the Court finds that there was a material change in the circumstances of the children because of Mother’s deceit, Mother’s occupation as a prostitute, and Mother’s hostility toward Father and his wife.
Court of Appeals: Mother appealed to the Court of Appeals, which vacated and remanded the case for the juvenile court to conduct a best interest analysis. On remand, the juvenile court affirmed its earlier findings regarding a material change in circumstances and, in addition, concluded that changing the primary residential parent from Mother to Father was in the best interest of the children. Mother again appealed to the Court of Appeals, which concluded “that the evidence preponderate[d], in part but significantly, against the juvenile court’s factual findings,” reversed the juvenile court, and mandated that its order be carried out within twenty days.
In reversing the juvenile court’s determination, the Court of Appeals concluded that neither the juvenile court’s finding of Mother’s deceit nor her former employment as a prostitute constituted a material change in circumstance without a finding of how the circumstances affected the children. The Court of Appeals further concluded that the evidence did not preponderate against the juvenile court’s factual findings of Mother’s hostility toward Father and Stepmother or its finding that said hostility constituted a material change in circumstances because it had affected the children. However, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the juvenile court abused its discretion in determining that it was in the best interest of the children for Father to be designated as the primary residential parent because the juvenile court relied heavily on Mother’s employment as a prostitute and failed to consider in its analysis Father’s child support arrearage and his ingesting cocaine in his home while the children were present.
Tennessee Supreme Court: The Supreme Court granted Father’s application for permission to appeal. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court noted the limited scope of review to be employed by an appellate court in reviewing a trial court’s factual determination in matters involving child custody and parenting plan developments.
On appeal, we review a trial court’s decision regarding parenting schedules for an abuse of discretion. An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court applies an incorrect legal standard, reaches an illogical result, resolves the case on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence, or relies on reasoning that causes an injustice. Appellate courts should reverse custody decisions ‘only when the trial court’s ruling falls outside the spectrum of rulings that might reasonably result from an application of the correct legal standards to the evidence.
The Tennessee Supreme Court applying this limited standard of review reversed the Court of Appeals:
Based upon its observations of the witnesses at trial, the juvenile court concluded that Mother “lacked integrity” on several issues. The Court of Appeals specifically declined to defer to the juvenile court with regard to this finding vis-à-vis Mother’s continued employment as a prostitute, in light of the documentary evidence to the contrary. The appellate court also seemingly declined to extend deference to the juvenile court’s finding regarding lack of integrity during its consideration of the other issues addressed in its opinion. See, e.g., Kelly, 445 S.W.3d at 692-93 (stating that “appellate courts should afford trial courts considerable deference when reviewing issues that hinge on the witnesses’ credibility because trial courts are ‘uniquely positioned to observe the demeanor and conduct of witnesses’” While there was documentary evidence to negate the juvenile court’s finding with regard to prostitution, our review of the record reveals no such evidence sufficient to negate the deference owed the juvenile court as to this finding in other areas. By declining to defer to the juvenile court on this matter, the Court of Appeals improperly usurped the role of the juvenile court.