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Beltz v. Heffner

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

October 30, 2019

JEANIE MORGAN BELTZ ET AL.
v.
BRETT ANTHONY HEFFNER

          Session July 18, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Jefferson County No. 25-339-III Rex H. Ogle, Judge

         This appeal arises from the denial of a petition based on Tennessee's Grandparent Visitation Statute. The parents of the deceased mother of a new-born child filed a petition to obtain visitation with their three-month-old granddaughter. The child's father opposed the petition. Following discovery, the father filed a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment on the ground that there was no danger of substantial harm to the child if visitation was denied because there was no evidence that the grandparents had a significant relationship with the child. The petitioners opposed the motion relying on Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-306(b)(4), which established a rebuttable presumption of substantial harm to the child if visitation was denied because their daughter, the child's mother, was deceased. The trial court found there was no significant existing relationship between the grandparents and the child. After analyzing the child's best interests under Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-307, the court granted summary judgment to the father, finding the petitioners did not meet the requirements of the Grandparent Visitation Statute. We have determined that the trial court misconstrued the statutory scheme. The trial court failed to recognize that because the petitioners are the parents of the child's deceased mother, they were entitled to the rebuttable presumption of substantial harm to the child if visitation was denied without having to establish that a "significant" relationship with their grandchild existed. Moreover, we have determined that more than one conclusion or inference can reasonably be drawn from the facts, thereby precluding summary judgment. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

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

          Felisha B. White, Seymour, Tennessee, for the appellants, Jeanie Morgan Beltz and Andrew Wesley Beltz.

          Jeremy Douglas Churchwell, Dandridge, Tennessee, for the appellee, Brett Anthony Heffner.

          Frank G. Clement Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Thomas R. Frierson II, J., joined.

          OPINION

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

         Naphtali Morgan Heffner ("the Child") was born into the marriage of Britney Heffner ("Mother") and Brett Hefner ("Father") in August 2017. Eight days later, Mother died unexpectedly due to health complications. Thereafter, Mother's parents, Jeanie and Andrew Beltz ("Petitioners"), visited the Child at Father's house every Monday and Thursday and sometimes on the weekends. In October 2017, however, disputes arose between Father and Petitioners regarding when Petitioners could visit, and how to use the proceeds from Mother's life insurance policy. As a result, Father ceased Petitioners' contact with the Child.

         Petitioners filed a verified petition for grandparent visitation on November 13, 2017, asserting that the Child would suffer substantial harm if she were denied a relationship with the maternal side of her family. In late December, Father began allowing Petitioners to visit with the Child for one and a half hours per month. In January 2018, Father filed an answer denying Petitioners were entitled to court-ordered visitation and asserting that Petitioners lacked standing because he had not denied visitation unreasonably.[1]

         Following discovery, Father filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. Father contended there was no evidence that Petitioners had a significant relationship with the Child, as required by Tennessee's Grandparent Visitation Statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-306. Father also contended there was no danger of substantial harm to the Child if Petitioners were not awarded visitation. In response, Petitioners countered arguing that Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-306(b)(4) establishes a rebuttable presumption of substantial harm when the Child's parent is deceased, and the grandparent seeking visitation is the parent of that deceased parent. They also contended that Father had not rebutted the presumption.

         On September 11, 2018, a non-evidentiary hearing was held on Father's motion. At the hearing's conclusion, the trial court announced it was granting Father summary judgment. On October 10, 2018, the court entered its final order. This appeal followed.

         Petitioners raised one issue on appeal: Whether the trial court erred in finding that Petitioners had to show a significant existing relationship with the Child to proceed with the Petition for Grandparent Visitation when the Petitioners are the parents of their grandchild's deceased parent. Father frames the issue as whether the trial court was correct in granting summary judgment after determining that the undisputed facts established that no significant relationship existed between Petitioners and the Child, and there was no danger of substantial harm to the Child absent court-ordered visitation.

         Standard of Review

         This court reviews a trial court's decision on a motion for summary judgment de novo without a presumption of correctness. Rye v. Women's Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 250 (Tenn. 2015). Accordingly, this court must make a fresh determination of whether the requirements of Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56 have been satisfied. Id. In so doing, we consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving ...


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