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Aragon v. Aragon

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Nashville

March 16, 2017

CASSIDY LYNNE ARAGON
v.
REYNALDO MANUEL ARAGON

          Session October 5, 2016

         Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals Chancery Court for Montgomery County No. MCCHCVDI090483 Ross H. Hicks, Judge

         In this post-divorce litigation, we granted permission to appeal to address the standard for determining what constitutes a "reasonable purpose" for a parent's relocation with the parties' child under Tennessee's parental relocation statute, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108. In this case, the father spent the majority of the residential parenting time with the parties' child. He sought to move with the child to Arizona because he had secured an advantageous job in an area where he and the child would live near his parents and his extended family and have their support, and where he and the child would live near some of the mother's extended family as well. The trial court held that the father did not have a reasonable purpose for the relocation. In a divided opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed. The dissent in the Court of Appeals questioned the interpretation of the term "reasonable purpose" used by the majority, which originated in a prior Court of Appeals decision, Webster v. Webster, No. W2005-01288-COA-R3CV, 2006 WL 3008019 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 24, 2006), that construed the term "reasonable purpose" to mean one that is significant or substantial when weighed against the loss to the parent opposing the relocation. We overrule Webster insofar as it misconstrued the meaning of the term "reasonable purpose" as used in Tennessee's parental relocation statute. Under the natural and ordinary meaning of the term "reasonable purpose, " we hold that the father stated a reasonable purpose for relocating to Arizona with the parties' child and that the mother did not carry her burden of establishing a ground for denying the father permission to relocate with the child. Under section 36-6-108(d)(1), "[t]he parent spending the greater amount of time with the child shall be permitted to relocate with the child unless the court finds" that the parent opposing the relocation has proven one of the enumerated grounds. Because the mother did not prove a ground to deny permission to relocate, we reverse the trial court's denial of permission for the father to relocate to Arizona with the child, and we also reverse the trial court's modification of the parties' parenting plan to designate the mother as the primary residential parent. On remand, the trial court is authorized to fashion an appropriate transitional parenting plan that results, within a reasonable time, in designating the father as the primary residential parent and permitting him to live in Arizona with the parties' child. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court and the Court of Appeals and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Trial Court and Court of Appeals Reversed and Case Remanded to Trial Court

          Steven C. Girsky, Clarksville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Reynaldo Manuel Aragon.

          M. Joel Wallace, Clarksville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Cassidy Lynne Aragon.

          Holly Kirby, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., and Cornelia A. Clark, Sharon G. Lee, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          HOLLY KIRBY, JUSTICE

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Petitioner/Appellee Cassidy Lynne Aragon ("Mother") and Respondent/Appellant Reynaldo Manuel Aragon ("Father") were married in 2006. In June 2007, one child was born of the marriage, daughter A.C.A. ("Daughter"). About a year later, the parties separated. Divorce proceedings ensued in the chancery court of Montgomery County, Tennessee.[1] In 2010, the trial court entered the final divorce decree. The parties' divorce decree incorporated an agreed parenting plan that did not designate a primary residential parent. The parenting plan provided that the parties would equally share parenting time, 182.5 days per year each, and did not require either to pay child support. The parenting plan explained: "The parties anticipate that their child-sharing arrangement with the children will fluctuate radically based upon antic[ip]ated future work schedules of wife, the husband's school schedule and travel costs back and forth to have visitation with the children, in conjunction with issues relative to a step-child of this relationship." For this reason, they decided to deviate from the Child Support Guidelines and impose "no direct obligation to exchange support."

         After the divorce, Father lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, where he pursued an associate's degree in nursing. Mother maintained a residence in Hermitage, Tennessee, about an hour from Clarksville. However, during the parties' separation and after the divorce, Mother spent significant time working overseas as a contractor in human intelligence/targeting analysis.[2]

         Due to Mother's work abroad, it is uncontroverted that, after the divorce, Father spent substantially more residential parenting time with their daughter than did Mother.[3]Father also served as the primary caregiver for Mother's older daughter from a previous relationship; both girls were raised together.

         In her contracting work, Mother made between $8, 000 and $15, 000 per month. She also received $560 per month in child support for her older child from that child's father. At times, Mother sent Father financial support, but the amount of support she sent was a subject of dispute in the trial court and is unclear in the record. Mother testified that she sent Father approximately $2, 000 per month during the months she was working overseas. She also claimed that she often also forwarded to Father the child support she received for her older child, because Father was caring for both children. Father characterized Mother's payment of child support as "inconsistent, " and Mother conceded that she did not always send Father the child support she received for her older daughter even though he was the primary caregiver for both girls and paid for childcare for both.

         Prior to Father's anticipated May 2012 graduation from nursing school, Father sought and was offered a nursing job at the Tucson Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona. In March 2012, Father notified Mother that he intended to relocate to Tucson with their child. The notice contained the elements required under Tennessee's Parental Relocation Statute, Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-108. The parties could not agree on Father's relocation to Tucson, so on March 26, 2012, Father filed a petition in the trial court asking the trial court to modify the parenting plan and permit Father to relocate to Tucson with Daughter.[4] The petition asserted that the relocation to Tucson was for a reasonable purpose and was in Daughter's best interest. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-108(e). Father claimed in the petition that his anticipated employment in Tucson offered him "the opportunity for greater income over his current options in the state of Tennessee." Father's petition also noted that he "has an extensive family support system in the Tucson, Arizona area including his parents and several aunts, uncles and cousins" and that the relocation could "provide many opportunities for the minor child to interact with the Father's family that are otherwise unavailable in Tennessee." With the petition, Father proffered a proposed parenting plan that designated him as primary residential parent; it allotted Mother 90 days of residential parenting time and gave Father 275 days of residential parenting time.

         In April 2012, Mother filed a response opposing Father's petition to relocate with their child. She asserted that the relocation would cause hardship for her in exercising her residential parenting with Daughter. She claimed that Father's proposed relocation would serve "no purpose, " was not in the child's best interest, and would "separate the child from her extended family [including] her half-sister with whom she has a close sister-like relationship."[5]

         Pending trial, the parties entered into an agreed order permitting Father to relocate to Arizona with Daughter and establishing a temporary parenting schedule. The temporary schedule gave each party approximately a month of residential parenting time prior to the trial.

         Trial Court Proceedings

         The trial was held on non-consecutive days, beginning on July 26, 2012, and resuming on August 3, 2012. The trial court heard testimony from both parties and from Father's parents, and Father submitted the testimony of several more witnesses as well.[6]

         In his testimony, Father said that he wanted to relocate because he believed that the overall life he could provide Daughter in Arizona would be better than what he could provide her in Clarksville. He sought stability and the opportunity for her to develop relationships with extended family.

         Father testified that he had secured a job as a registered nurse on the neurology floor at Tucson Medical Center, the same hospital where his mother had worked for thirty years. He would earn "$24 an hour plus a 10 percent premium for night shift and then overnight 17 percent added onto that." He chose not to pursue a nursing job in the Clarksville area because it provided no opportunity for them to have support and assistance from his family. Father emphasized that, while neither he nor Mother have family in the Clarksville area, both of them have family in and around Tucson. Relocating to Arizona would allow him to "foster those relationships" and provide a support network for him and the parties' child.

         Father said that he had tried to maintain a stable home for the parties' daughter and his stepdaughter while Mother worked overseas. He claimed that Mother "would bounce back and forth between several contracts, either quitting them, doing layoffs, or being fired from them." He said he encouraged the children to maintain a relationship with Mother while she was working abroad.

         Father conceded that he had struggled with "trying to find a course in life." During the marriage, he worked at various jobs, each for less than a year. Most of the time while he was in nursing school, Father spent his time studying and caring for the children and did not work outside the home. While he attended nursing school, Father relied on a combination of Mother's financial support, student loans, and credit cards for income.

         Mother testified as well. During the marriage, after both Mother and Father spent several months unemployed, she secured a job in Iraq, with the goal of earning enough money for her and Father to both get further schooling. After their divorce, Father expressed a desire to attend nursing school. Mother claimed they agreed that, if Father enrolled in and completed nursing school, "he'd be able to go anywhere and work anywhere . . . and [Mother] could pursue [her] degree as well." Mother testified that she worked several contracting jobs abroad, including a position in Afghanistan. She maintained that she agreed to remain in the Afghanistan position until Father graduated from nursing school. Mother said it was her understanding that, once Father graduated from nursing school, both parties would live in middle Tennessee and equally share residential parenting time; she claimed that Father "said that would be the best situation because it's close to me, the girls could be in a great Mt. Juliet school system, I already have a house there, and we could just do the 50/50."

         While working outside of the United States, Mother obtained her bachelor's degree in eighteen months. She believed that leaving the country to ―better herself was the "most sensible option." Mother felt at the time that the "sacrifice" of her being abroad while Father took care of the children and went to school would be "worth it, because both of us would be educated, " able to "support ourselves and [the] children and split them 50/50." Mother testified that she earned between $8, 000 and $15, 000 per month while working outside of the country. She also received $560 a month in child support from her older daughter's father. Mother said that she "often" passed this child support on to Father, who was caring for her older daughter in addition to the parties' daughter.

         At the time of trial, Mother was "confident" that she would be offered a job as a research analyst in a criminal justice position in Nashville, but she did not yet actually have a job. She had received several job offers in Washington, D.C., but had not yet made a decision. Mother was considering attending Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, relocating to New Hampshire to attend the University of New Hampshire, or relocating to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to be closer to her older daughter's father. Mother noted that her then-boyfriend was scheduled to be stationed in Fayetteville.

         Mother testified that her residence at the time of trial, in Hermitage, Tennessee, was in a beautiful neighborhood. She claimed she would be able to "do everything I need to do to take care of them and to keep them together and make sure they have what they need."

         Father called his parents as witnesses. Father's mother, Daughter's paternal grandmother, worked as manager for patient relations at the facility where Father intended to work, the Tucson Medical Center. She had worked at that facility for thirty years. The grandmother said that her work hours were typically from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but she had some flexibility. The grandmother said that she and her husband, Daughter's paternal grandfather, would be available for some childcare for Daughter, including staying at Father's home overnight while Father was working. This testimony was corroborated by the testimony of the paternal grandfather, who described his work schedule as flexible and said it would be no problem for him to care for Daughter overnight in Father's home while Father worked. He confirmed that Father has considerable extended family in the Tucson area. The grandfather described having the parties' daughter in Arizona as a "grandfather's dream come true."

         Father called several other witnesses. The director of the nursing program at Hopkinsville Community College, where Father received his nursing degree, testified that Father had received the program's "outstanding student" award. She recalled Father often referring affectionately to his children. The program director acknowledged that there was an overall nursing shortage and particular shortages in long-term-care facilities, but added that, nevertheless, some facilities were not hiring because they had "learned to do with less." Father also called an instructor at Hopkinsville Community College as a witness. She described the nursing program as very challenging. The instructor said that Father took her class for two semesters. She recalled that Father brought Daughter to class on several occasions and that he seemed to have great affection for her. Father also called as a witness a nursing school classmate, who testified that she and Father often studied together and interacted socially. The classmate said that the nursing program was strenuous but the children were Father's main priority.

         A childcare worker at Daughter's daycare center testified that Father was an exceptionally attentive and caring parent. Another childcare worker at the daycare center testified that Father was a "great dad, " well-informed about the children's needs and "very patient." Noting that Mother's older daughter also attended the same daycare center, the childcare worker agreed that the children had a "sister-like" relationship but described both as very independent.

         Father's neighbor in Clarksville testified that she had been Father's neighbor for the past six years. The neighbor considered Father a friend, and she said that her children often had play dates with Daughter and her half-sister. The neighbor described Father as an "absolutely amazing parent" who went "above and beyond" for both children. She said that her children were at Father's house "often" and she was comfortable with Father supervising her children.

         Finally, the trial court heard testimony from Father's friend and former military colleague, who testified that he knew both Mother and Father. He described Father as putting the children "first" and, in contrast, saw Mother as "playing her game or doing her own thing." Of the two parents, he said, he perceived Father as more involved with the children. The former military colleague said that he and his children socialized with Father at least monthly. He acknowledged that he and Father at one point had discussed starting a real estate business but the idea never came to fruition. He said that he had occasionally gifted small amounts of money to Father and once purchased Father's trailer from him when Father needed money. That concluded the testimony and the trial court took the case under advisement.

         Shortly after the trial, because the parties' child had to enroll in school, the trial court issued a temporary order. The temporary order held that Father's proposed relocation was not reasonable. It directed the entry of a new parenting plan designating Mother as the primary residential parent, with alternate residential parenting time for Father during the summer and extended school holidays.

         On January 7, 2013, the trial court issued a memorandum opinion that included findings of fact and conclusions of law. The trial court summarized the testimony, generally crediting Mother's testimony, and said that there was ―no proof that Father had better career opportunities in Tucson than in Tennessee because Father had not pursued nursing jobs in Tennessee. It specifically credited Mother's testimony that she gave up her equal residential parenting to work abroad with the understanding that Father would get his nursing education and eventually obtain nursing employment in middle Tennessee. After getting the benefit of this agreement, the trial court found, Father decided to move to Tucson with the parties' daughter. The trial court conceded that Father "posits a rational basis for his move, " but it nevertheless held that the proposed relocation was "not reasonable under all the circumstances."

         On August 2, 2013, the trial court entered a modified parenting plan that designated Mother as the primary residential parent. The parenting plan gave Mother 285 days of residential parenting time and Father 80 days; it also ordered Father to pay Mother $455 per month in child support. Father appealed.

         Appellate Proceedings

         There were two appeals in this case. In the first, Father argued that the trial court erred in concluding that the requested relocation did not have a reasonable purpose and in concluding that it was in the child's best interest to reside primarily with Mother. Aragon v. Aragon, No. M2013-01962-COA-R3CV, 2014 WL 1607350, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 21, 2014).

         Noting that the trial court had made no specific factual findings regarding the best interest of the child, the Court of Appeals declined to address the trial court's finding that the proposed relocation had no reasonable purpose. Id. at *6. It stated that "[t]he custody of the child at issue turns on the child's best interest, " so consideration of the trial court's holding on reasonable purpose "would be premature" because Tennessee's Parental Relocation Statute required the trial court to make findings on best interest once it concluded that the proposed relocation was not for a reasonable purpose. Id. at *6, *8 (citing Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-108(e)). It instead vacated the trial court's decision and remanded the case with directions for the trial court to consider the child's best interest in accordance with Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-108(e) and to make appropriate findings of fact pursuant to Rule 52.01 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. Id. at *9.

         On remand, the trial court took no additional proof and both parties filed proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. On October 24, 2014, the trial court entered an order in which it reviewed the factors relative to the child's best interest set forth in Tennessee Code Annotated sections 36-6-108(e) and 106(a). The trial court restated its earlier holding that Father's relocation did not have a reasonable purpose and then concluded that the evidence on the best interest of the child weighed in favor of naming Mother as the primary residential parent. Father appealed again.

         In the second appeal, Father again argued that the trial court erred in holding that his requested relocation did not have a reasonable purpose and in holding that it was in Daughter's best interest to designate Mother as the primary residential parent. In a split opinion, the majority of the Court of Appeals affirmed. Aragon v. Aragon, No. M2014-02292-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 7752440, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 30, 2015), appeal granted (Mar. 23, 2016).

         With respect to the determination that Father's relocation served no reasonable purpose, the majority recited the trial court's view of the testimony, namely, that Father chose not to seek a nursing position in the Clarksville area and that this fact undermined his assertion that he sought to relocate because of better job opportunities in Tucson. Id. at *7. It acknowledged the testimony about Father's family support in Tucson but pointed out that the testimony from multiple witnesses in Tennessee indicated that Father also had a support system of friends in the Clarksville area. Id. The majority stated that "the trial court implicitly found that the support available in Clarksville was entitled to greater weight in the context of the reasonable purpose inquiry than that in Arizona." Id. It deferred to the trial court on the testimony "because the trial court is the sole judge of the weight to be given testimony." Id.

         Describing the "reasonable purpose" necessary to support a request for relocation, the majority stated: "[T]he =reasonable purpose' of relocating must be 'substantial when weighed against the gravity of the loss of the non-custodial parent's ability to participate fully in their children's lives ....'" Id. at *8 (quoting Redmon v. Redmon, No. W2013- 01017-COA-R3CV, 2014 WL 1694708, at *5 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 29, 2014) (quoting Webster v. Webster, No. W2005-01288-COA-R3-CV, 2006 WL 3008019, at *14 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006)). Under this standard, the majority concluded that the evidence did not preponderate against the trial court's holding on reasonable purpose. Id. It affirmed the trial court's holding on best interest, and it also affirmed the trial court's decision to deny permission for Father to relocate with Daughter and to designate Mother as the primary residential parent. Id. at *9.

         The dissent disagreed with the majority's holding on reasonable purpose. The dissent viewed the description of "reasonable purpose" recited by the majority as incongruent with the natural and ordinary meaning of the term "reasonable purpose" as used in the Parental Relocation Statute. Id. at *9 (McBrayer, J., dissenting). The dissent concluded that Mother had failed to show Father lacked a reasonable purpose for relocating with Daughter. Id. Finding no other ground for denying the request to relocate, the dissent would have reversed the trial court's decision and remanded with instructions to approve Father's request to relocate with Daughter. Id.

         Father sought permission to appeal to this Court, which we granted.

         Analysis

         "One of the most common post-divorce flashpoints occurs when the primary residential parent decides to move with his or her child or children to another city or state." Collins v. Coode, No. M2002-02557-COA-R3-CV, 2004 WL 904097, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 27, 2004). Parental relocation cases are often wrenching, with weighty competing considerations and a profound impact on both parents and children. Except for one opinion on the limited issue of how to measure each parent's time with their child, see Kawatra v. Kawatra, 182 S.W.3d 800, 802 (Tenn. 2005), this Court has not addressed Tennessee's Parental Relocation Statute, Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-108, since its enactment. We do so now.

         Overview

         For many years prior to the enactment of the Parental Relocation Statute, under Tennessee caselaw, custodial parents[7] had virtually unfettered authority to move their children away from non-custodial parents, regardless of reason. See Thomas v. Thomas,335 S.W.2d 827, 828 (Tenn. 1960) (―[T]he mother had the right to control the child's whereabouts and the father had no voice where the child should reside .....). As time went on, the value of having both parents involved in child-rearing became more broadly recognized. Tennessee courts began to hold that a non-custodial parent could prevent relocation of his child under some circumstances, provided the non-custodial parent could prove that the move was not in the best interest of the child. See, e.g, Walker v. Walker, 656 S.W.2d 11, 18 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1983), overrul ...


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