Posted by: koherston | December 10, 2012

Grandparent Visitation Effort Barred by Doctrine of Claim Preclusion in Tennessee: Jackson v. Smith

Facts: Parents of Child were married and lived in Mississippi. At some point, they separated. Child lived with Mother for approximately seven months in Mississippi. Child then lived with Father in Tennessee for about two months. Two months later, Mother died unexpectedly. Maternal Grandmother requested and received visitation with Child on several occasions. Eventually, Father declined to permit Maternal Grandmother to visit Child, her granddaughter.

Maternal Grandmother filed a petition for grandparent visitation. After a hearing, the trial court ruled that Maternal Grandmother had failed to satisfy her burden of proof. Maternal Grandmother did not appeal that decision, thereby making the trial court’s judgment final.

The following year, the Tennessee Legislature amended the grandparent visitation statute to create a new “rebuttable presumption of substantial harm to the child based upon the cessation of the relationship between the child and grandparent” when the child’s parent is deceased and the grandparent seeking visitation is the parent of the deceased parent. Maternal Grandmother played a prominent role in the Legislatures adoption of this amendment.

Shortly thereafter, Maternal Grandmother filed a second petition for grandparent visitation. The petition relied  entirely upon the new amendment to the statute. It alleged no new facts. Father filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that the final disposition of Maternal Grandmother’s first petition precluded her from relitigating the issue. The trial court granted Father’s motion and dismissed Maternal Grandmother’s second petition. Maternal Grandmother appealed. The Court of Appeals declined to review the trial court’s decision on the grounds that Maternal Grandmother failed to provide an adequate record on appeal. Maternal Grandmother then appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

On Appeal: The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the trial court.

As a threshold matter, the Supreme Court determined that the record on appeal was sufficient, thereby disagreeing with the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court then proceeded to address the procedural issue presented.

The doctrine of res judicata or claim preclusion bars a second suit between the same parties or their privies on the same claim with respect to all issues which were, or could have been, litigated in the former suit. It promotes finality in litigation, prevents inconsistent or contradictory judgments, conserves judicial resources, and protects litigants from the cost and aggravation of multiple lawsuits. 

The party asserting a defense predicated on res judicata or claim preclusion must demonstrate (1) that the underlying judgment was rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction, (2) that the same parties or their privies were involved in both suits, (3) that the same claim or cause of action was asserted in both suits, and (4) that the underlying judgment was final and on the merits. A trial court’s decision that a claim is barred by the doctrine of res judicata or claim preclusion involves a question of law which will be reviewed de novo on appeal without a presumption of correctness.

Maternal grandmother argued that, based solely on the change in the law, she could file a second petition seeking grandparent visitation with her granddaughter, even though the material facts have not changed. The Supreme Court disagreed for two reasons.

First, the general rule, recognized throughout this nation, is that a change in the law occurring after a final judgment ordinarily does not create an exception to the application of the doctrine of res judicata or claim preclusion. . . . However, on “rare occasions,” the courts have recognized exceptions to the preclusive effect of a prior judgment following a change in the law. For example, the courts have permitted a second action based on a new statute “when a new statute provides an independent basis for relief which did not exist at the time of the prior action.” Similarly, the courts have relaxed the res judicata doctrine in circumstances in which a party has been deprived of a fair opportunity to litigate its claim. . . . In addition, the courts have declined to apply the res judicata doctrine when a dispute involved matters of special sensitivity. Matters of special sensitivity most often arise in cases of developing constitutional principles and issues of broad public importance.

None of these exceptions are applicable in this case.

The second reason is the doctrine of separation of powers reflected in Article II, Sections 1 and 2 of the Constitution of Tennessee.

The power to fully and finally adjudicate cases and controversies is constitutionally assigned to the judiciary of this state, and the Tennessee General Assembly may not interfere with the adjudicative functions of the courts.

The courts must decide the cases brought before them based on the law existing at the time of their decisions and on the facts presented to them. Litigants have a vested interest in a court’s judgment once it becomes final. Accordingly, acts of the Tennessee General Assembly are construed to operate prospectively in order to avoid being found to be retrospective and therefore proscribed by Article I, Section 20 of the Constitution of Tennessee.

Because Maternal Grandmother’s first petition was fully and fairly litigated in accordance with existing law, and the trial court’s judgment became final when Maternal Grandmother elected not to appeal it, the Tennessee Supreme Court declined to interpret the grandparent visitation statute to permit Maternal Grandmother to seek visitation with her granddaughter in the absence of new facts occurring after the entry of the trial court’s first judgment. Accordingly, the trial court was affirmed.

Jackson v. Smith (Tennessee Supreme Court, November 16, 2012).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.


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