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Stringer v. Stringer

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

June 16, 2017

RONALD STRINGER
v.
ALECIA STRINGER

          Session May 16, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 15D-1423 Philip E. Smith, Judge.

         This post-divorce case concerns parental relocation. Mother, the primary residential parent, sought to relocate to Texas, citing an employment offer. Father objected to the relocation, arguing that the move had no reasonable purpose and that Mother's real purpose for relocating is to be closer to her boyfriend. The trial court denied mother's request to relocate based on mother's perjury in the trial court's presence and on the finding that the real purpose of mother's proposed move is to be closer to her boyfriend. We reverse the trial court's decision because we determine that father failed to carry his burden of proof.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed.

          Thomas F. Bloom, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Alecia Stringer.

          Thomas F. Mink, Charles M. Duke, and William M. Leech, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Ronald Stringer.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Arnold B. Goldin, and Brandon O. Gibson, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE

         Background

         Plaintiff/Appellee Ronald Stringer ("Father") and Defendant/Appellant Alecia Stringer ("Mother") married in 1998. During the marriage, the parties moved often because of Father's job as a preacher, living in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas. A daughter ("the child") was born in November 2006. In the summer of 2013, the parties separated, and Mother moved to Middle Tennessee. Father at some point after moved to Lawrence County, Tennessee, to be closer to the child. On April 29, 2014, the parties were divorced in Texas, and on July 28, 2015, the decree of divorce nunc pro tunc was domesticated in Tennessee. Mother was designated the primary residential parent, and Father was named the alternate residential parent.

         Mother returned to Texas in March 2015 and June 2015 to visit with an old high school friend ("boyfriend"). In a letter dated August 3, 2015, Mother notified Father by certified mail that she intended to relocate to Houston, Texas, in order to accept an employment opportunity; Father received this letter on August 6, 2015. On September 4, 2015, Father filed a petition in opposition to the relocation in the Davidson County Circuit Court, alleging that the proposed relocation was vindictive and not in the child's best interest. Father further alleged that Mother was dating someone who was living in Texas and that Mother and the child would live with him if Mother were allowed to relocate. Mother's answer on September 10, 2015, alleged that the job opportunity in Texas offered her the opportunity to work full-time as a piano, voice, and kindermusik teacher, [1] allowing her to utilize her degree in music education as well as provide increased income. Mother further asserted that she had been unable to secure similar employment in Tennessee. Although Mother denied most of the allegations in Father's petition, Mother "admit[ted] that she has a boyfriend who lives in Texas."

         A trial was held on May 18, 2016. Mother was called first as an adverse witness as part of Father's case-in-chief. Shortly into Mother's testimony, the trial judge began questioning Mother about the nature of her relationship with the boyfriend. Mother asserted that the individual was just a friend and that they were "not dating." When the trial judge questioned whether Mother had a romantic relationship and had sex with the boyfriend in Texas, Mother responded in the negative.[2] After the trial judge allowed Mother to confer with counsel, Mother admitted that she "did have sex [with the boyfriend in June 2015] for one time and had a relationship then."[3] Mother explained that she was confused about which time period the trial judge was referring to, because, according to Mother, "I don't have sex with him now[.]" The trial judge found Mother in criminal contempt and stated that "it's going to be tough for me to believe anything else [you] say after that admission." Although Mother initially stated that she went to Texas to look for a job, Mother eventually admitted that she was more serious about the job search in June 2015.

         Otherwise, Mother generally testified that she moved to Middle Tennessee from her home state of Texas because she needed her parents' and sister's financial support after her separation from Father. Mother testified that she was employed as a substitute teacher on occasion but never landed a permanent position in Tennessee. Mother eventually developed an online business managing web sites and blogs; however, none of her various efforts ever netted more than $10, 000.00 per year. Although Mother has an Arkansas teaching license, Mother does not have one in Tennessee. Mother testified that she could apply for a Tennessee teaching license "[i]f there was a need to." According to Mother, rent in Tennessee and Texas would be the same, approximately $1, 300 per month. Mother asserts that the job offer that she received in Texas would eventually allow her to teach in her chosen profession.

         Father generally testified about his parenting schedule and his efforts in finding a job as a preacher in Tennessee to be near the child. Father testified that his current girlfriend lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. Father admitted that Mother never made any substantial income from her music career or online marketing because her career was secondary to his during the marriage.

         Mother's prospective employer in Texas, Skiles Kelly, testified that he owns three music studios. Mr. Kelly testified that, although the teaching job that he initially offered to Mother was no longer available to her because all of the children have since been placed with another teacher, he offered Mother a job as a part-time administrative assistant at $15.00 per hour for 25 hours per week. However, Mr. Kelly testified that if the school were to take on new piano or voice students, Mother would receive those students. According to Mr. Kelly, teachers in his studios make between $1, 000.00 to $3, 000.00 per month.

         On May 27, 2016, the trial court entered an order finding Mother in willful direct criminal contempt and fined her $50.00. On July 29, 2016, the trial court entered a final order, giving no weight to Mother's testimony because "if you violate that oath, then there are consequences that the [c]ourt believed nothing [Mother] said." According to the trial court, no proof was presented showing that the proposed relocation would be harmful to the child or that the move is for vindictive purposes. With respect to the ground that the move lacks a reasonable purpose, [4] the trial court found that Mother was seeking to move to Texas to be close to the boyfriend, not because of her career in music, that she "is using employment in Houston, Texas, as a basis for the move when she has made no effort to seek employment in the Middle Tennessee area." The trial court further found that most of Mother's support system is located in Tennessee or Northern Alabama. As such, the trial court concluded that Father carried his burden of establishing that the relocation did not have a reasonable purpose. In addition, the trial court noted that Mother waived further hearing as to the best interest of the child. Mother appeals.

         Issue

         Mother raises the following issue for our review: Whether the trial court abused its discretion in rejecting Mother's testimony in its entirety and in failing to ...


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