STATE OF TENNESSEE EX REL. BETTY ANN TORRES (STONE) SPURLOCK
CESAR G. TORRES
Assigned on Briefs April 3, 2017
from the Chancery Court for Weakley County No. 16, 089 W.
Michael Maloan, Chancellor
child support action, the respondent father, who resides in
Texas, filed a motion seeking to vacate the trial court's
previous child support orders, alleging that the court had no
personal jurisdiction over him. The State of Tennessee
("the State"), acting on behalf of the mother,
asserted that the father had consented to the court's
exercise of personal jurisdiction by previously seeking
administrative review of the child support award. The trial
court agreed, determining that its exercise of personal
jurisdiction was proper. The father has appealed. Having
determined that the trial court did not have a proper basis
for the exercise of personal jurisdiction over the father, we
reverse the trial court's adjudication concerning
personal jurisdiction. Because the trial court's prior
child support orders are void, we remand this matter to the
trial court for a determination concerning whether
exceptional circumstances exist that would justify denying
relief from the prior void orders.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery
Court Reversed; Case Remanded
Vanessa Saenz and Justin A. Schober, Nashville, Tennessee,
for the appellant, Cesar G. Torres.
Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter, and
Brian A. Pierce, Assistant Attorney General, for the
appellee, State of Tennessee ex rel. Betty Ann Torres (Stone)
R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in
which Richard H. Dinkins, J., and J. Steven Stafford, P.J.,
R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE.
Factual and Procedural Background
February 2015, the State, acting on behalf of the plaintiff,
Betty Ann Torres (Stone) Spurlock, filed a petition for
contempt in the Chancery Court for Weakley County
("trial court") against the respondent, Cesar G.
Torres, a resident of the State of Texas. In this petition,
the State alleged that Ms. Spurlock was receiving child
support enforcement services pursuant to Tennessee Code
Annotated § 71-3-124 and Title IV-D of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 601, et seq., because
Ms. Spurlock was participating in a state-sponsored public
assistance program or had made application for such services.
The State further averred that the trial court had entered an
order on April 4, 2007, requiring Mr. Torres to pay $200 per
month toward a child support arrearage owed to Ms. Spurlock
for the benefit of their four minor children. According to the
State, this arrearage totaled $106, 297 as of December 31,
2014. The relief requested included that (1) Mr. Torres be
found in contempt; (2) a judgment for such arrearage be
entered against Mr. Torres; (3) an income assignment be
entered, requiring Mr. Torres's employer to deduct child
support payments from his income; and (4) Mr. Torres's
licenses be revoked. The record reflects that an income
withholding order was thereafter sent to "Multi Framing
Incorporated" in Lewisville, Texas.
28, 2015, Mr. Torres's counsel filed a motion seeking to
vacate the trial court's earlier child support orders by
reason of lack of personal jurisdiction. In this motion, Mr.
Torres entered a special limited appearance without waiving
his objection on jurisdictional grounds. Mr. Torres admitted
that he was the father of Ms. Spurlock's four children,
explaining that he and Ms. Spurlock had been married and
living in Texas with the children in 1998 when Ms. Spurlock
suddenly removed the children to the State of Tennessee
without Mr. Torres's knowledge or consent. Mr. Torres
further asserted that he had traveled to Tennessee on one
occasion in 1999 or 2000 in order to find the children,
visiting with them for approximately two hours. According to
Mr. Torres, he remained a resident of the State of Texas and
had no other contacts with the State of Tennessee.
Torres contended that the instant action was controlled by
the Tennessee Uniform Interstate Family Support Act
("UIFSA"), Tennessee Code Annotated §
36-5-2001, et seq., because it involved an
interstate child support action. According to Mr. Torres,
none of the bases for exercising personal jurisdiction over a
nonresident listed in Tennessee Code Annotated §
36-5-2201 were applicable to allow the trial court to
exercise personal jurisdiction over him. Mr. Torres further
argued that even if a sufficient basis for such exercise of
personal jurisdiction did exist, he had never been properly
served with process. Mr. Torres thus sought relief from the
trial court's prior child support orders pursuant to
Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 60.02, asserting that such
prior orders were void. An affidavit was filed in support of
order entered October 30, 2015, the trial court found that a
divorce was granted to Ms. Spurlock on July 26, 1999,
following service on Mr. Torres by publication. The court
also determined that the issue of child support was reserved
in that order until personal service could be obtained on Mr.
Torres. As the court explained, the State subsequently filed
a petition seeking to set child support in December 2000,
finding that "[t]he court record reflects [Mr. Torres]
was personally served in Texas on March 21, 2001." The
court further noted that child support was set by default in
the amount of $796 per month retroactive to August 1, 1999.
2015 order further provides that the State thereafter filed a
petition for modification on December 29, 2006. According to
the trial court, a "United States Postal Service
Domestic Return Receipt (green card) was signed by 'Cesar
Torres' on January 25, 2007." Mr. Torres's child
support obligation was subsequently modified to $673 per
month, with an additional arrearage payment of $200 per month
toward an arrearage of $73, 232. The trial court also noted
that when the State filed the recent petition for contempt,
Mr. Torres was again purportedly served by mail, as evinced
by a "green card" signed by "Cesar
Torrez" on May 27, 2015.
the fact that Ms. Spurlock had not appeared for the hearing,
the trial court continued the matter until Ms. Spurlock could
be summoned to court, finding her to be an indispensible
party. The court indicated that a subsequent hearing would be
conducted to determine whether the court maintained personal
jurisdiction over Mr. Torres and whether its prior child
support orders were valid, voidable, or void.
next entry in the record is a February 10, 2016 "Order
of Dismissal, " providing that the State's petition
for contempt was dismissed without prejudice. This order
listed the basis for dismissal as "Respondent is making
payments." On April 11, 2016, Mr. Torres filed a motion
seeking a default judgment granting his motion to vacate,
inasmuch as Ms. Spurlock had failed to appear or respond to
his earlier motion.
trial court conducted a hearing with respect to Mr.
Torres's motion to vacate on June 24, 2016. The
court's subsequent order, entered on July 5, 2016, stated
that Ms. Spurlock was present for the hearing but that no
testimony was given. The court's order delineated the
eight bases for exercising personal jurisdiction over a
nonresident defendant in order to establish a child support
award pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated §
36-5-2201. The court determined that subsection (2),
concerning an individual who submits to the jurisdiction of
the court, constituted a proper basis for asserting personal
jurisdiction over Mr. Torres. The court found that Mr. Torres
"requested an administrative review of a child support
arrearage on November 19, 2002, " which was "in
effect 'filing a responsive pleading having the effect of
waiving any contest to personal jurisdiction.'"
trial court also determined that personal jurisdiction
regarding Mr. Torres could be predicated on subsection (8),
which the court described as a "catch all"
provision. In support, the court noted that Mr. Torres was
personally served with process in Texas in 2001, was also
served by mail in 2007 and 2015, had visited the children in
Tennessee, and had made some child support payments for the
children's benefit while they were residing in Tennessee.
The court also found that Mr. Torres failed to challenge
jurisdiction "within a reasonable time as required by
Rule 60 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure." The
court therefore denied Mr. Torres's motion to vacate the
prior child support orders. Mr. Torres timely appealed.
Torres presents the following issues for our review, which we
have restated slightly:
1. Whether the trial court erred by determining that a
request for administrative review of a child support
arrearage constitutes "filing a responsive document
having the effect of waiving any contest to personal
jurisdiction" pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated
2. Whether the trial court erred by determining that Mr.
Torres had sufficient contacts with Tennessee to satisfy
Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-2201(8).
3. Whether the trial court erred by determining that there
was no factual evidence to overcome the presumption of valid
service of process in 2001 and 2007.
State raises a single additional issue, which we have also
4. Whether the trial court properly denied Mr. Torres's
motion seeking to vacate the prior child support orders.
Standard of Review
Torres sought to vacate the trial court's prior orders
pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 60.02(3),
arguing that the orders were void for lack of personal
jurisdiction. See Hood v. Jenkins, 432 S.W.3d 814,
825 (Tenn. 2013) ("[A] void judgment is one that is
invalid on its face because the issuing court either lacked
subject matter or personal jurisdiction over the proceedings,
or the judgment itself was outside of the
pleadings."). As our Supreme Court has explained
regarding the proper standard of review with respect to a
denial of relief pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil
In general, we review a trial court's ruling on a request
for relief from a final judgment under Rule 60.02 of the
Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure ("Tennessee Rule
60.02") pursuant to the abuse of discretion standard.
Discover Bank v. Morgan, 363 S.W.3d 479, 487 (Tenn.
2012) (citing Henry v. Goins, 104 S.W.3d 475, 479
(Tenn. 2003)). We have not previously considered whether this
standard applies to a trial court's ruling on a motion
alleging that a judgment is void for lack of jurisdiction
under Tennessee Rule 60.02(3). Nevertheless, we have
previously held that "[w]hether a trial court has
subject matter jurisdiction over a case is a question of law
that we review de novo with no presumption of
correctness." Furlough v. Spherion Atl. Workforce,
LLC, 397 S.W.3d 114, 122 (Tenn. 2013) (citing Word
v. Metro Air Servs., Inc., 377 S.W.3d 671');">377 S.W.3d 671, 674 (Tenn.
2012)). Moreover "[a] decision regarding the exercise of
personal jurisdiction over a defendant involves a question of
law" to which de novo review applies, Gordon v.
Greenview Hosp., Inc., 300 S.W.3d 635, 645 (Tenn. 2009),
and de novo review also applies when we are interpreting the
Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, Thomas v.
Oldfield, 279 S.W.3d 259, 261 (Tenn. 2009).
Furthermore, when interpreting our own rules of civil
procedure, we consult and are guided by the interpretation
that has been applied to comparable federal rules of
procedure. Id. at 261-62; see also Williamson
Cnty. v. Twin Lawn Dev. Co.,498 S.W.2d 317, 320 (Tenn.
1973) ("[O]ur Rules having been taken from the Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure, and the object of our virtual
adoption of the federal rules being to have similar rules of
procedure in state trial courts and ...