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State ex rel. Spurlock v. Torres

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

May 30, 2017

STATE OF TENNESSEE EX REL. BETTY ANN TORRES (STONE) SPURLOCK
v.
CESAR G. TORRES

          Assigned on Briefs April 3, 2017

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Weakley County No. 16, 089 W. Michael Maloan, Chancellor

         In this 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.

         Tenn. 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) Spurlock.

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Richard H. Dinkins, J., and J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., joined.

          OPINION

          THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         In 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.[1] 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.

         On July 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.

         Mr. 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 his motion.

         By 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.

         The 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.

         Due to 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.

         The 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.

         The 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.[2] 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.'"

         The 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.

         II. Issues Presented

         Mr. 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 § 36-5-2201(2).
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.

         The State raises a single additional issue, which we have also restated slightly:

4. Whether the trial court properly denied Mr. Torres's motion seeking to vacate the prior child support orders.

         III. Standard of Review

         Mr. 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.").[3] 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 Procedure 60.02(3):

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 ...

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