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Cox v. Lucas

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Knoxville

May 29, 2019

BRADLEY JAMES COX
v.
LAURA NICOLE LUCAS

          Session May 7, 2019

          Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals Circuit Court for Knox County No. 110074 Gregory S. McMillan, Judge

         We granted this appeal to consider whether a circuit court loses continuing, exclusive subject matter jurisdiction if a post-divorce petition seeking modification of a parenting plan adopted in a final divorce decree alleges facts that are tantamount to claims of dependency and neglect, over which juvenile courts have exclusive original jurisdiction pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 37-1-103. After we granted this appeal, the General Assembly amended section 37-1-103 to expressly provide that a circuit court retains subject matter jurisdiction in these circumstances until and unless a pleading is filed or relief is sought in juvenile court and the juvenile court's exclusive original jurisdiction is invoked. Act of April 18, 2019, 2019 Tenn. Pub. Acts ch. 167. The General Assembly applied this amendment to all cases pending on its April 18, 2019 effective date, including this appeal. Id. § 2. Because no pleading was filed in juvenile court nor was the juvenile court's exclusive jurisdiction invoked in any other manner in this case, the circuit court retained subject matter jurisdiction of the post-divorce petition. Therefore, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the judgment of the circuit court is reinstated.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Appeals Reversed and Judgment of the Trial Court Reinstated

          R. Deno Cole, Darren V. Berg, and R. Samuel English (at trial), Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Bradley James Cox.

          Austin Brett Lucas, Brentwood, Tennessee, for the appellee, Laura Nicole Lucas.

          Cornelia A. Clark, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., and Sharon G. Lee, Holly Kirby, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.

          OPINION[1]

          CORNELIA A. CLARK, JUSTICE

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Bradley James Cox ("Father") and Laura Nicole Lucas ("Mother") were divorced by a final decree of the Circuit Court for Knox County, Tennessee ("Circuit Court"), entered on July 7, 2008. This final decree adopted and incorporated the parties' Marital Dissolution Agreement, which in turn, adopted and incorporated their Permanent Parenting Plan ("PPP"). The PPP designated Mother as primary residential parent of the parties' five-year-old child and gave Mother major decision-making authority. Father received substantial parenting time under the PPP.

         Seven years later, on November 10, 2015, Father returned to the Circuit Court and filed a petition seeking modification of the PPP and emergency relief pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated sections 36-6-101 et seq. In support of these requests, Father alleged certain facts concerning Mother's conduct and her care of the minor child. Father requested exclusive care, custody, and control of the minor child, and he alleged that the minor child lacked proper care and supervision and was in danger of immediate and irreparable harm in Mother's care. On the same day Father filed this petition, the Circuit Court entered an interim emergency order granting Father immediate sole custody of the minor child and setting a hearing within fifteen days. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-405(b) (2017) (authorizing this process).

         On December 8, 2015, Mother filed an answer denying the allegations of Father's petition. After a hearing on December 8, 2015, the Circuit Court granted Mother supervised visitation and telephonic communication with the minor child but reserved all other issues. On December 29, 2015, the Circuit Court entered an order granting Mother's lawyer's motion to withdraw. More than eighteen months later, on July 10, 2017, the Circuit Court entered a modified PPP designating Father the primary residential parent with sole decision-making authority.[2] Mother did not file an appeal from this order.

         On September 15, 2017, after the time for filing an appeal had expired, [3] Mother, represented by new counsel, filed a document in the Circuit Court styled as a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12.02(2) of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. In substance, however, this motion sought relief that was by then only available under Rule 60.02(3) of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.[4]Mother argued that the factual allegations of Father's petition were "tantamount to alleging dependency and neglect" as those terms are defined by statute. Cox v. Lucas, No. E2017-02264-COA-R3-CV, 2018 WL 5778969, at *5 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 2, 2018), perm. app. granted (Tenn. Feb. 22, 2019). Mother claimed that these dependency and neglect allegations divested the Circuit Court of subject matter jurisdiction because juvenile courts have exclusive jurisdiction of proceedings involving dependency and neglect allegations pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 37-1-103. As a result, Mother claimed that all of the Circuit Court's orders in the case were void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Cox, 2018 WL 5778969, at *3. The Circuit Court held a hearing but denied Mother's motion by a February 20, 2018 order.

         Mother appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed. The Court of Appeals noted that it had located only three prior decisions involving arguments like the one Mother raised. Id. at *4. In the first case, the Court of Appeals flatly rejected the argument and held that the allegations of the post-divorce petition did not divest the chancery court of its continuing jurisdiction to modify the custodial arrangement in the divorce decree. Munday v. Munday, No. E1999-02605-COA-R3-CV, 2000 WL 1154500, at *7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 15, 2000). In the second case, the Court of Appeals avoided definitively ruling on the question because it concluded that the allegations of the post-divorce petition were not tantamount to a dependency and neglect claim. Holley v. Holley, 420 S.W.3d 756, 760 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2013). In the third case, the Court of Appeals agreed with the argument and held that the chancery court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the allegations in the post-divorce petition constituted a dependency and neglect claim. Tavino v. Tavino, No. E2013-02587-COA-R3-CV, 2014 WL 5430014, at *11 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 27, 2014). The Court of Appeals in this appeal followed Tavino and ...


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