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In re Leyna A.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

September 15, 2017

IN RE LEYNA A.

          Session September 5, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Williamson County No. 2016-249 Deanna B. Johnson, Judge

         The parents of a minor child filed a petition to change the first and middle names of their child but not the surname. The trial court denied the petition without a hearing on the ground: "The Petition fails to state a valid reason for the name change, especially in light of the fact that Petitioners seek to change someone else's name." The parents filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment. They supported their motion with letters written by the sixteen-year-old child, the child's doctor, the child's therapist, and one of the child's teachers, each explaining why the name change was in the child's best interest. Without ruling on the motion, the trial court set the matter for an evidentiary hearing during which the mother, father, and child testified, and the letters from the doctor, therapist, and teacher were admitted into evidence. Thereafter, the trial court denied the motion to alter or amend because "the controlling law has not changed, " no "previously unavailable evidence became available, " and "Petitioners have not shown that there was a clear error of law or that an injustice occurred." The trial court also ruled on the merits of the petition and denied and dismissed the petition. This appeal followed. We have determined that the trial court erred by denying the motion to alter or amend the initial order because the petition stated a claim for which relief could be granted. As for the court's ruling on the merits of the petition following the evidentiary hearing, we have determined that the evidence preponderates against the trial court's finding that Petitioners failed to show that it was in the child's best interest to change his first and middle names. We have also determined that the court's legal conclusions were based on an erroneous assessment of the law. Having determined that (1) Petitioners complied with and satisfied all procedural and legal requirements for a name change, (2) the preponderance of the evidence established that changing the child's first and middle names was in the child's best interest, and (3) there is no legal basis upon which to deny the petition, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand with instructions to enter judgment approving the petition to change the child's name as requested in the petition.

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

          Elizabeth Noel Sitgreaves and Thomas H. Castelli, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellants, Mark and Lynda A.

          Frank G. Clement Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J. and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          FRANK G. CLEMENT, JR., P.J., M.S.

         This action was initiated on May 16, 2016, with the filing of a Petition for Name Change by both parents of the minor child. The parents ("Petitioners") did not seek to change their child's surname, only the child's first and middle names.[1]

         The petition, which was signed by both parents, provided all of the information required by the controlling statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-8-102. The petition also affirmatively stated that the person whose name was to be changed had not been convicted of any of the criminal offenses that prohibit name changes, that there was no desire or intention to mislead any present or potential creditors, and that they had no fraudulent purpose for the requested name change. Three days later, the court denied the petition without a hearing pursuant to a Memorandum and Order entered on May 19, 2016. The order stated:

This matter is before the Court on the Petition for Name Change filed by Petitioners, Lynda and Mark [A.] ("Petitioners") on behalf of their daughter, Leyna Jayne [A.] ("Daughter"). The Petition fails to state a valid reason for the name change, especially in light of the fact that Petitioners seek to change someone else's name. When Daughter is of the age of majority, she can Petition the Court on her own. Accordingly, the Petition for Name Change is hereby denied.

         Immediately thereafter, the parents filed a motion to alter or amend and an amended motion to alter or amend that was supported by written statements from both parents, the child, and the child's treating physician, therapist, and teacher.[2] The supporting statements and letters set forth the following relevant facts:

1. The minor child, who was sixteen years old, had been using the name "Charlie James [A.]" socially for over a year.
2. The child is transgender and is currently undergoing medical transition via hormone therapy from gender female to gender male.
3. Gender identity refers to one's innate sense of oneself as male or female.
4. Gender Dysphoria ("GD") is a medical diagnosis that refers to the emotional distress of having a gender identity that is different from the gender assigned at birth.
5. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders ("DSM-V"), GD is the clinical problem and not simply having a transgender identity.
6. GD may consist of a person adopting the behavior, clothing, and mannerisms of the experienced gender. Treatment for GD includes addressing psychological distress through social transition and medical treatment for the body.
7. Part of the social transition may be changing one's name to reflect the person's experienced gender.
8. The continued use of the feminine name, "Leyna Jayne [A.]" causes the minor child anxiety and embarrassment.
9. Although the child is able to use "Charlie James [A.]" in some settings, the name change is needed in order to change the school records and other legal documents.
10. Both of the child's parents support the name change because of the child's gender identity.
11. In Petitioners' initial motion to alter or amend, they detailed an instance where the child had a severe panic attack during a standardized test upon seeing the feminine name and had to go to the emergency room.
12. The child submitted a statement in support of the petition. In the statement, the child detailed the emotional pain he endured by being "tethered" to his current name.
13. The child's therapist, Adam C. Marshall, stated that the child's birth name caused the child emotional harm. Mr. Marshall stated: "I am recommending this legal change in name because I believe it will aid in improving Charlie's anxiety and depression. Not only do I expect this to have a direct impact on Charlie's emotional well-being, but I expect it to help improve struggles at school, work, and in relationships across the board."
14. The child's doctor, Kristin M. Rager, MD, MPH, FAAP, FSAHM and one of the child's teachers submitted statements in support of the name change.
15. All of the statements and letters demonstrated that the requested name change was in the child's best interest.

         In response to the motion, the trial court entered an order setting the Petition for Name Change for a hearing on September 1, 2016. When the petition came on for an evidentiary hearing, counsel for Petitioners presented three witnesses, both parents and the child, each of whom stated unequivocally that the requested name change was in the child's best interest. Additionally, the written statements from the child's treating physician, therapist, and teacher were admitted into evidence. Following the hearing, the trial court entered an order denying the motion to alter or amend the judgment and denying the petition for a name change, finding Petitioners failed to establish that the requested name change was in the child's best interest. This appeal followed.

         Issues

         Petitioners raise the following issues for our consideration:

1. Whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motion to alter or amend as it made a clear error of law, new evidence was made available, and the motion should have been granted to prevent an injustice.
2. Whether the trial court erred by applying an incorrect legal standard.
3. Whether the trial court erred in holding that Petitioners failed to demonstrate the name change was in the child's best interest.
4. Whether the trial court's denial of the petition violates the child's First Amendment rights because it compels his speech.
5. Whether the trial court's denial of the petition violates a fundamental right of Petitioners to select a name for their child under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

         We have determined that the first three issues are dispositive of this appeal.

         Analysis

         I. Motion to Alter or Amend the Initial Order

         In its initial order, the trial court denied the petition for a name change without specifying the procedural basis for its decision and without affording Petitioners an evidentiary hearing. When the trial court entered its initial order, the only filing in the trial court was the two-page Petition for Name Change. Because the trial court had no evidence, affidavits, or exhibits to additionally consider, it is readily apparent that the court denied the petition pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6) for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted."

         A Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted tests only the legal sufficiency of the petition. Bell ex rel. Snyder v. Icard, Merrill, Cullis, Timm, Furen & Ginsburg, P.A., 986 S.W.2d 550, 554 (Tenn. 1999). When reviewing the sufficiency of a petition or complaint, the court must construe the pleading liberally in favor of the plaintiffs, taking all allegations of fact as true, and the petition should not be dismissed unless the relevant and material averments contained in the petition fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Id. Moreover, the petition should not be dismissed unless it appears that the plaintiffs can prove no set of facts that would entitle them to relief. Id.

         In considering this issue on appeal, we take all allegations of fact in the plaintiff's petition as true, and review the trial court's legal conclusions de novo with no presumption of correctness. Id. (citing Tenn. R. App. P. 13(d); Stein v. Davidson Hotel Co., 945 S.W.2d 714, 716 (Tenn. 1997); Pursell v. First American Nat'l Bank, 937 S.W.2d 838, 840 (Tenn. 1996); Cook v. Spinnaker's of Rivergate, Inc., 878 S.W.2d 934, 938 (Tenn. 1994)).

         In the initial order, the trial court succinctly explained its reasons for denying the petition:

The Petition fails to state a valid reason for the name change, especially in light of the fact that Petitioners seek to change someone else's name. When Daughter is of the age of majority, she can Petition the Court on her own. Accordingly, the Petition for Name Change is hereby denied.

         Having considered the court's reasoning, we conclude that the trial court's decision to deny the petition was based on a misapprehension of the applicable law. The trial court misapprehended not only "what" constitutes "a valid reason" for a name change, but "who" may file a petition seeking a name change. Because the decision was based on an error of law, the trial court should have granted Petitioners' Tenn. R. Civ. P. 59.04 motion to alter or amend.

         "All persons have the right to change their name at will, as long as the change does not interfere with another's rights and is not being made for fraudulent purposes." In re Lackey, No. 01-A-01-9010PB00358, 1991 WL 45394, at *1 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 5, 1991) (citing Dunn v. Palermo, 522 S.W.2d 679, 682 (Tenn.1975)) (emphasis added). And as our Supreme Court stated in a case involving a female lawyer who wanted to keep her maiden name following marriage, a person's legal name is that given at birth, or as changed as provided by law. Palermo, 522 S.W.2d at 688-89. "[U]nless and until changed in the prescribed manner, and absent any fraudulent or legally impermissible intent, the State has no legitimate concern." Id. at 689 (emphasis added).

         Like many states, Tennessee has enacted statutory name change procedures. See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 29-8-101 to -105. "These statutes provide an optional procedure that is intended not to diminish an individual's right to change his or her name, but rather to provide a speedy and authoritative way to exercise it." In re Lackey, 1991 WL 45394, at *1 (citing 57 Am.Jur.2d Name § 17 (1988)). However, Tennessee statutes do not provide a separate procedure for changing a minor's name. Id. Instead, our courts have held that Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 29-8-101 to -105 "are worded broadly enough to include both minors and adults. Thus, minors may use the general name change statutes if they desire judicial assistance in changing their name." Id.

         When the minor lacks the capacity to bring suit on his or her own, the minor's parents, custodian, or legal guardian may do so on the minor's behalf. Id. (citing Tenn. R. Civ. P. 17.03). The minor at issue here has yet to reach the age of majority; thus, the petitioners as his parents are authorized to file the petition for name change on behalf of their child. See id.

         The only restrictions contained in the name change statutes are set forth in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-8-101, and none of these restrictions apply in this case.[3] Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-8-102 lists the requirements for name change applications. It states that applications "shall be by petition, in writing, signed by the applicant and verified by affidavit, stating that the applicant is a resident of the county, and giving the applicant's reasons for desiring the change or correction." Tenn. Code. Ann. § 29-8-102. Petitioners complied with every requirement in the statute.

         The determinative factor in a petition to change the name of a minor child is whether the change is in "the child's best interests." In re Lackey, 1991 WL 45394, at *2 (citing Halloran v. Kostka, 778 S.W.2d at 454, 456 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989)). As the Lackey court explained:

Decisions regarding changing a minor's name should be guided by the child's best interests. While courts have generally declined to change a minor's name solely to avoid insubstantial inconvenience or embarrassment to the child or the custodial parent, they have approved name changes when doing so furthers the child's substantial interests.

Id. at *2 (internal citations omitted) (emphasis added).

         For the foregoing reasons, we have determined that the trial court erred as a matter of law by holding that the petition "fails to state a valid reason for the name change." See Id. ...


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