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In re Tyler G.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

May 3, 2017

IN RE TYLER G.

          Assigned on Briefs April 3, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Robertson County No. 74CC12016CV91 Ross H. Hicks, Judge

         This interlocutory appeal concerns whether the circuit court may sever a termination of parental rights proceeding from an adoption proceeding, which were filed together in the circuit court, and transfer only the termination of parental rights proceeding to the juvenile court in another county. Reversed and remanded.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 9 Interlocutory Appeal; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed and Remanded.

          Jennifer L. E. Williams, Springfield, Tennessee, for the appellants, Nita T. and Myers T. Jr.

          John B. Holt, Springfield, Tennessee, for the appellee, Amanda R.

          Zale Dowlen, Goodlettsville, Tennessee, Guardian ad Litem.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Andy D. Bennett, J., joined.

          OPINION

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE

         Background

         On October 5, 2005, Petitioners/Appellants Nita T. and Myers T, Jr.[1]("Grandparents") were granted legal custody of the Tyler G. and Hanna G. (together, "the children") by the Gibson County Juvenile Court. This matter was subsequently transferred to the Lauderdale County Juvenile Court sometime in 2006 for further proceedings, which involved visitation, custody, and contempt issues between the parties for a number of years.[2] At some point, the children were adjudicated dependent and neglected; however, it is unclear from the record which of these two courts made this determination. It does not appear from the record that the Tennessee Department of Children's Services was ever involved in the case.

         From what we can discern based on the exhibits provided to us in the record, Grandparents requested that the Robertson County Juvenile Court exercise emergency temporary jurisdiction in the fall of 2015. An emergency order was subsequently issued by the Robertson County Juvenile Court.[3] After a telephonic conversation with the judge of the Lauderdale County Juvenile Court, the Robertson County Juvenile Court entered an order on November 19, 2015, transferring the case file to the Lauderdale County Juvenile Court. A corresponding jurisdictional order was entered on the same day by the Lauderdale County Juvenile Court, vacating the emergency order and asserting its exclusive jurisdiction.

         According to Grandparents, Respondent/Appellee Amanda R. ("Mother") has not lived in Lauderdale County for a number of years, and Grandparents and the children have continually lived in Robertson County ever since they obtained legal custody of the children in 2005.[4] As a result, on February 25, 2016, Grandparents filed a petition for termination of parental rights and adoption against Mother and Respondent Terry G. ("Father") as to the children in the Robertson County Circuit Court ("Robertson County Circuit Court" or "trial court"). On May 3, 2016, the trial court entered an order granting Grandparents' motion for default judgment against both parents. Mother filed a motion to vacate the judgment and an answer to the petition on May 19, 2016, which the trial court granted by order of July 5, 2016. Because Father never filed any pleadings nor participated in any way, the May 3, 2016 order was never set aside.

         Thereafter, Grandparents filed a motion to modify Mother's visitation, the order of which was previously issued by the Lauderdale County Juvenile Court allowing Mother to visit with the children every weekend. A hearing was conducted on June 7, 2016, wherein the trial court heard testimony from the parties and the children's therapist and was informed of the extensive litigation history in this cause. The trial court granted Grandparents' motion and modified Mother's visitation on a temporary basis, which would be "determined based on the wishes of the children." The trial court deferred the issue of whether this modification would remain in effect to the Lauderdale County Juvenile Court, which issued the previous visitation order. The trial court also sua sponte determined that the Lauderdale County Juvenile Court, which "is familiar with the parties [and] the circumstances" of the case, should determine whether the petition for parental rights termination should be granted or denied.[5] By order of July 5, 2016, the trial court bifurcated the termination of parental rights from the adoption proceeding and transferred only the termination proceeding to the Lauderdale County Juvenile Court for a hearing, while at the same time retained jurisdiction over the adoption proceeding, which the trial court would hear upon completion of the termination proceeding. Specifically, the trial court's order reasoned as follows:

The [c]ourt has heard testimony from all parties that this matter has been litigated in [the Lauderdale County Juvenile Court] for over six . . . years. That particular [c]ourt is familiar with the parties, familiar with the circumstances of this cause and is in a better position to make a determination on the issue of a termination of parental rights in this matter. This [c]ourt, by statute, would retain jurisdiction of ...

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