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Renner v. Renner

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 27, 2019

ANNE FROST MONTGOMERY RENNER
v.
ROBERT BRUCE RENNER, SR.

          Assigned on Briefs October 23, 2019

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Bradley County No. 2015-CV-6 Jerri Bryant, Chancellor

         Movant, defendant in a divorce case, seeks accelerated review of the denial of his motion for recusal. He claims a lack of impartiality on the part of the chancellor presiding over the divorce case due to her knowledge of unrelated litigation in which the movant was a party. He contends that the chancellor revealed her lack of impartiality in making adverse credibility determinations against movant, determining movant violated a statutory injunction, and ignoring prior orders and agreements of the parties in making factual findings. Movant also complains of the manner in which the chancellor conducted an emergency hearing, alleging that the chancellor "lacked patience and cooperation with the litigants on th[at] day." After a de novo review, we affirm the denial of the motion for recusal.

         Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 10B Interlocutory Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed

          Randy Sellers, Cleveland, Tennessee, for the appellant, Robert Bruce Renner, Sr.

          W. Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., J., and J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., joined.

          OPINION

          W. NEAL McBRAYER, JUDGE

         I.

         A.

         In the first days of 2015, in the Chancery Court for Bradley County, Anne Frost Montgomery Renner filed for divorce from Robert Bruce Renner, Sr. Mr. Renner was no stranger to the Bradley County Chancery Court. The preceding year he had been sued twice in the same court, apparently related to homes he was involved in constructing and selling.

         Not long after the divorce filing, Mr. Renner settled the earlier filed cases. Under the settlements, Mr. Renner agreed to repurchase the homes and make monetary payments to the plaintiffs. Because the earlier cases both involved minors, the parties sought and obtained the chancery court's approval of the settlements. According to Mr. Renner, he had to borrow funds in order to fulfill his obligations under the settlements, which required him to mortgage the homes he repurchased.

         Meanwhile, in the divorce case, the Renners stipulated to a divorce and agreed to a division of personal property and that certain real property would be sold. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-4-129 (2017). But several issues remained unresolved. Among those were the classification and division of marital property. The parties "had a gross estate of over $6, 800, 000" and the "many assets which [Mr. Renner] has held, individually and jointly with [Ms. Renner] and others, creat[ed] a convoluted list of properties and titles and percentages of ownership."

         The day for resolving those issues came on August 1, 2018. Mr. Renner appeared for the hearing with his counsel, but Ms. Renner, despite "advis[ing] the Court . . . that she would be present and ready to move forward . . ., with or without counsel," did not. The hearing proceeded with only Mr. Renner offering proof.

         Following the hearing, the court's order, entered on February 21, 2019, [1] reflected concern over perceived conflicts between Mr. Renner's testimony and documents that were either admitted into evidence at the hearing or that had been previously submitted in the case. Mr. Renner testified to the value of his interest in an entity known as Hole Foods Holding Group, and the court found the testimony "contrary to the documentation provided." The court concluded that the "inconsistency impacts his credibility." He valued his one-half ownership interest in another business, RMG/Bradley Motors, as being "zero." But the court did not find the valuation credible in light of Mr. Renner running "over a million dollars of inventory through th[e] entity" and his payment of "$70, 000 in mortgages on the property during the marriage." Later, Mr. Renner testified that $7, 500 from the sale of realty went into a trust account, although the documentation showed $10, 000 went into the account. The court found this to be "another inconsistent statement that impact[ed] [Mr. Renner's] credibility."

         The court also found Mr. Renner gave inconsistent testimony during the course of the hearing. At one point, Mr. Renner apparently testified that he was "not a partner" in two business entities but later testified that his wife could have the entities if she would assume the debt associated with them. The court was puzzled over how Mr. Renner could owe debt on the business when he did not own them. The order states that "[t]his type of testimony, the lack ...


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