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State ex rel. Williams v. Woods

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

March 21, 2017


          Assigned on Briefs December 2, 2016 [1]

         Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Shelby County No. H2317 David S. Walker, Special Judge

         This is a child support action involving one child, who was born in 1995 and had reached the age of majority by the time of trial. Upon the father's voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, the trial court entered an order of legitimation in April 1996. The State of Tennessee ("the State"), acting on behalf of the mother, filed a petition to modify a child support order in April 2002. The father filed a motion to dismiss, and the State subsequently withdrew the petition because no prior child support order had been established. The mother then filed a petition for child support in September 2014. Following a bench trial before a special judge, the trial court established the father's retroactive child support obligation in the amount of $79, 647.00, giving credit to the father for $59, 229.00 he previously had paid toward the child's support and expenses. The court incorporated three income shares worksheets representing three different time periods during the child's minority. The father has appealed, asserting, inter alia, that the trial court erred by finding that the child had resided with the mother for 285 days per year during the time period of January 1, 2010, through May 31, 2014, because the child resided with the mother's stepfather on weekdays while attending high school. To correct an apparent mathematical error in the judgment, we modify the number of months for which the first income shares worksheet is to be applied from eighty-one to ninety-two and the number of months for which the third income shares worksheet is to be applied from sixty-four to fifty-three, resulting in a total reduction in the father's retroactive child support obligation from $79, 647.00 to $74, 818.00. We affirm the trial court's judgment in all other respects.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Juvenile Court Affirmed as Modified; Case Remanded

          James Franklin, Jr., Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Deadrick Donnell Woods, Sr.

          Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter, and Brian A. Pierce, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee ex rel. Jamie Joy Williams.

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Andy D. Bennett, J., and J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., joined.



         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The petitioner, Jamie Joy Williams ("Mother"), and the respondent, Deadrick Donnell Woods, Sr. ("Father"), have one child together, a son ("the Child"). At the time of the Child's birth in October 1995, Mother and Father resided together with the Child and continued to do so for approximately six months before separating. On April 4, 1996, the Shelby County Juvenile Court ("trial court") entered an order of legitimation as to the Child upon Father's filing a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity. No further proceedings took place in the trial court at that time, and the court did not enter an order regarding child support.

         It is undisputed that following the parents' separation, the Child resided the majority of the time with Mother until his high school years. Mother also had one other child, and she and both children resided together with the maternal grandmother ("Maternal Grandmother") and a maternal aunt ("Maternal Aunt"). Prior to 2010, Father enjoyed co-parenting time with the Child on at least a semi-regular basis and was active as an assistant coach of the Child's football team through the Child's middle school years. Testimony demonstrated that Father was married in June 1997, and that his wife ("Stepmother") assisted him in caring for the Child when the Child stayed in Father's home.

         During trial in the instant action, Mother testified that in 2002 she sought assistance from the State to obtain support for the Child. The State has provided child support enforcement services to Mother pursuant to Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 651 et seq. On April 19, 2002, the State filed a "Petition to Modify Order, " averring a signficant change in circumstances since the April 1996 order and requesting that the trial court "modify" its prior order to set child support in accordance with the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines. After more than eleven years had passed without the State's taking any additional action, Father filed a motion to dismiss the petition on October 21, 2013. Father requested that the petition be denied pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 4.01 for failure to serve summons and Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 41.02(1) for failure to prosecute.

         Following a hearing conducted on July 7, 2014, the trial court magistrate, Joseph G. Little, recommended, inter alia, that the State's petition be dismissed without prejudice upon the State's request. The trial court judge signed the order the same day, adopting, ratifying, and confirming the magistrate's recommendations.[2] This order was subsequently entered on July 25, 2014. On September 12, 2014, Mother, through her counsel, filed a "Petition for Child Support, " requesting that the trial court set Father's child support obligation, including retroactive child support, and order him to pay support through the Tennessee Central Child Support Receipting Unit.

         Testimony at trial demonstrated that the Child had graduated from high school at the end of the 2013-14 academic year. When the Child entered high school in August 2010, he began to reside with Mother's stepfather ("Step-Grandfather") during the school week. Mother previously had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Although Mother continued to work in her position as a dispatcher with the City of Memphis, she often experienced periods when she needed assistance with some daily living skills. Maternal Grandmother testified that during this time, Maternal Grandmother stopped working outside the home in order to provide care for Mother. It is undisputed that the parents and Step-Grandfather agreed that while the Child attended high school, he should reside with Step-Grandfather on the weekdays, in part because of Mother's condition and in part because the parties believed that the high school for which Step-Grandfather's home was zoned was the best choice for the Child. Step-Grandfather testified that on weekends and during summer vacations, he returned the Child to Mother's home. Although testimony differed regarding the exact amount of time the Child spent with Father during the high school years, it is undisputed that Father continued to be involved in the Child's life and that the Child spent some days during weekends, holidays, and summer vacations with Father.

         On January 28, 2015, Father filed an "Affidavit of Payments Made Toward Arrears, " delineating payments he had purportedly made directly to Mother and expenses he had purportedly paid on behalf of the Child for the years spanning 2003 through 2014. In total, Father requested a credit of $59, 229.00 against any award to Mother of retroactive child support. Following a hearing conducted on May 13, 2015, trial court Magistrate Debra M. Sanders, inter alia, set Father's retroactive child support obligation in the amount of $60, 626.00 for 171 months and found that the Child had reached the age of emancipation such that no current child support obligation would be set. The presiding trial court judge signed the order the same day, adopting, ratifying, and confirming the magistrate's recommendations. This order was subsequently entered on May 27, 2015. Pursuant to the order, the case was continued "for final disposition and a determination of credit for necessaries."

         Following a subsequent hearing regarding the amount of retroactive support with which Father should be credited, Magistrate Sanders entered findings and recommendations on July 29, 2015, establishing retroactive child support in the amount of $5, 147.00 upon finding that Father was entitled to credit for having previously paid $55, 479.00 toward the Child's support and necessary expenses. The magistrate directed Father to pay his retroactive child support obligation at the rate of $10.00 per month to the Central Child Support Receipting Unit. Also on July 29, 2015, the trial court judge signed the magistrate's findings and recommendations, ordering them "adopted, ratified, and confirmed as the Order of this Court." This order was subsequently entered on August 21, 2015. In the meantime, Mother had timely filed on August 5, 2015, a request for hearing before the trial court judge, pursuant to what was then Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-1-107(e) (2014) (providing in pertinent part that following a hearing before the juvenile court magistrate, any party could file within five days, excluding non-judicial days, a request for rehearing before the juvenile court judge).[3] In an order entered September 14, 2015, the trial court granted Mother's request for a hearing before the judge.

         On February 23, 2016, this action came for trial before Special Judge David S. Walker. Although the resultant final judgment contains language to the effect that the trial court judge appointed Mr. Walker as a special judge, the final judgment is signed by Mr. Walker and not the trial court judge. The record on appeal contains no respective appointment order signed by the trial court judge. During trial, the court heard testimony from the parties, the Child, Step-Grandfather, Maternal Grandmother, Maternal Aunt, and Stepmother.

         The trial court entered a final judgment on March 4, 2016. The court set aside the magistrate's July 29, 2015 ruling and established Father's retroactive child support obligation in the amount of $79, 647.00 to be paid to Mother through the Central Child Support Receipting Unit. Father stipulated to Social Security records demonstrating his yearly income as a long-time employee with United Parcel Service. Although Father also testified regarding rental income he had received since inheriting real property from his mother three years prior to trial, the court found that the rental income should not be imputed to Father due to the relatively short time period that Father had owned the property and the lack of evidence presented regarding expenses related to the property. On appeal, the court's findings regarding each party's respective gross monthly income are not in dispute. The court calculated 217 months of retroactive child support through May 31, 2014, at a total amount of $138, 876.00, with $59, 229.00 credited to Father for support and necessary expenses he previously had paid on behalf of the Child. The State does not dispute the $59, 229.00 credit to Father.

         The trial court attached to its judgment three income shares worksheets, respectively reflecting the changing incomes and circumstances of the parties. The court directed that the first worksheet would be used for 81 months from the approximate date the parties separated in 1996 through December 31, 2003 ("Time Period I"), assessing Father with a child support obligation of $404.00 per month for a total retroactive obligation of $32, 724.00; the second worksheet would be used for 72 months from January 1, 2004, through December 31, 2009 ("Time Period II"), assessing Father with a child support obligation of $725.00 per month for a total retroactive support obligation of $52, 200.00; and the third worksheet would be used for 64 months from January 1, 2010, through May 31, 2014 ("Time Period III"), assessing Father with a child support obligation of $843.00 per month for a total child support obligation of $53, 952.00.[4] The court also found that Mother was the primary residential parent ("PRP") and that overall, the Child had resided a presumptive 285 days per year with Mother and 80 days per year with Father throughout the Child's minority. See Tenn. Comp. R. & Regs. 1240-02-04-.04(7)(a). Particularly as to the time period spanning January 2010 through May 2014, the court found that Mother was entitled to child support because, although the Child resided with Step-Grandfather on weekdays during the school year, the Child was still under the care and control of Mother or Mother's family for 285 days per year.

         Father timely appealed. Upon receipt of the record, this Court entered an order directing the parties to address in their respective briefs "whether the special judge was validly appointed to hear this matter and if not, then address the effect on the validity and finality of the judgment appealed." Father and the State each posited in their respective appellate briefs that Mr. Walker had lawful authority to preside over the trial.[5]

         II. Issues Presented

         Father presents four issues on appeal, which we have restated as follows:

1. Whether the trial court erred by allowing Mr. Walker to hear this action as a special judge without an order of appointment signed by the trial court judge.
2. Whether the trial court erred by finding that Mother was entitled to collect retroactive child support for Time Period III, spanning January 1, 2010, through May 31, 2014.
3. Whether the trial court erred by finding that the Child had resided with Mother 285 days per year during Time Period III.
4. Whether the trial court erred by declining to find that the Child had resided with Father for more than the presumptive average of 80 days per year.

         III. Standard of Review

         We review a non-jury case de novo upon the record, with a presumption of correctness as to the findings of fact unless the preponderance of the evidence is otherwise. See Tenn. R. App. P. 13(d); Bowden v. Ward, 27 S.W.3d 913, 916 (Tenn. 2000). "In order for the evidence to preponderate against the trial court's findings of fact, the evidence must support another finding of fact with greater convincing effect." Wood v. Starko, 197 S.W.3d 255, 257 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006). We review questions of law de novo with no presumption of correctness. Bowden, 27 S.W.3d at 916 (citing Myint v. Allstate Ins. Co., 970 S.W.2d 920, 924 (Tenn. 1998)); see also In re Estate of Haskins, 224 S.W.3d 675, 678 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006). The trial court's determinations regarding witness credibility are entitled to great weight on appeal and shall not be disturbed absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. See Morrison v. Allen, 338 S.W.3d 417, 426 (Tenn. 2011); Jones v. Garrett, 92 S.W.3d 835, 838 (Tenn. 2002).

         Determinations regarding child support are reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. See Mayfield v. Mayfield, 395 S.W.3d 108, 114-15 (Tenn. 2012); Richardson v. Spanos, 189 S.W.3d 720, 725 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005). As this Court has explained:

Prior to the adoption of the Child Support Guidelines, trial courts had wide discretion in matters relating to child custody and support. Hopkins v. Hopkins, 152 S.W.3d 447, 452 (Tenn. 2004) (Barker, J., dissenting). Their discretion was guided only by broad equitable principles and rules which took into consideration the condition and means of each parent. Brooks v. Brooks, 166 Tenn. 255, 257, 61 S.W.2d 654, 654 (1933). However, the adoption of the Child Support Guidelines has limited the courts' discretion substantially, and decisions regarding child support must be made within the strictures of the Child Support Guidelines. Berryhill v. Rhodes, 21 S.W.3d 188, 193 (Tenn. 2000); Jones v. Jones, 930 S.W.2d 541, 545 (Tenn. 1996); Smith v. Smith, 165 S.W.3d 279, 282 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004).
* * *
Because child support decisions retain an element of discretion, we review them using the deferential "abuse of discretion" standard. This standard is a review-constraining standard of review that calls for less intense appellate review and, therefore, less likelihood that the trial court's decision will be reversed. State ex rel. Jones v. Looper, 86 S.W.3d 189, 193 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000); White v. Vanderbilt Univ., 21 S.W.3d 215, 222-23 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999). Appellate courts do not have the latitude to substitute their discretion for that of the trial court. Henry v. Goins, 104 S.W.3d 475, 479 (Tenn. 2003); State ex rel. Vaughn v. Kaatrude, 21 S.W.3d 244, 248 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000). Thus, a trial court's discretionary decision will be upheld as long as it is not clearly unreasonable, Bogan v. Bogan, 60 S.W.3d 721, 733 (Tenn. 2001), and reasonable minds can disagree about its correctness. Eldridge v. Eldridge, 42 S.W.3d 82, 85 (Tenn. 2001); State v. Scott, 33 S.W.3d 746, 752 (Tenn. 2000). Discretionary decisions must, however, take the applicable law and the relevant facts into account. Ballard v. Herzke, 924 S.W.2d 652, 661 (Tenn. 1996). Accordingly, a trial court will be found to have "abused its discretion" when it applies an incorrect legal standard, reaches a decision that is illogical, bases its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence, or employs reasoning that causes an injustice to the complaining party. Perry v. Perry, 114 S.W.3d 465, 467 (Tenn. 2003); Clinard v. Blackwood, 46 S.W.3d 177, 182 (Tenn. 2001); Overstreet v. Shoney's, Inc., 4 S.W.3d 694, 709 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999).

Richardson, 189 S.W.3d at 725.

         Regarding adherence to the Child Support Guidelines, this Court has explained:

In Tennessee, awards of child support are governed by the Child Support Guidelines ("the Guidelines") promulgated by the Tennessee Department of Human Services Child Support Services Division. Tenn. Code Ann. § 365-101(e)(2). Tennessee's Child Support Guidelines have the force of law. Jahn v. Jahn, 932 S.W.2d 939, 943 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1996). Statutes and regulations pertaining to child support are intended to "assure that children receive support reasonably consistent with their parent or parents' financial resources." State ex rel. Vaughn v. Kaatrude, 21 S.W.3d 244, 248-49 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000); see also Tenn. Comp. R. & Regs. 1240-02-04.01(3)(e). Courts are therefore required to use the child support guidelines "to promote both efficient child support proceedings and dependable, consistent child support awards." Kaatrude, 21 S.W.3d at 249; see also Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-101(e); Tenn. Comp. R. & Regs. 1240-02-04-.01(3)(b), (c).

Sykes v. Sykes, No. M2012-01146-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 4714369, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 28, 2013) ...

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