Facts: Mother and Father are the parents of Child. In 1993, when Mother filed a petition to establish paternity and set child support, the Child Support Services office of the Tennessee Department of Human Services intervened on behalf of Mother. Paternity was established and child support was set. Over the next two decades Father was habitually delinquent in paying child support and Mother obtained judgments from time to time for arrearages. Following a recent hearing, the Magistrate ruled that the principal amount of Father’s child support arrearage was $17,894.26, and that the interest on the principal amount, some of which had been accruing since 1994, was $54,726.64. Thus, judgment was entered in favor of Mother in the amount of $72,620.90.
Although Mother had her own lawyer representing her before the Magistrate, Child Support Services appealed the Magistrate’s order, purportedly on behalf of Mother but over Mother’s objection. The juvenile court reduced the total award to $26,937.36. Mother appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Mother argued that Child Support Services lacked the power to appeal to the Juvenile Court over her objection.
This case tests the legal principle that only an “aggrieved party” has a right to prosecute an appeal. An “aggrieved party” has been defined as “one having an interest recognized by law which is injuriously affected by the judgment, or whose property rights or personal interest are directly affected by its operation.”
Tennessee Code Annotated § 71-3-124 grants Child Support Services the authority to “file any legal actions to establish paternity or to establish, modify or enforce child or spousal support in any judicial or administrative proceeding on behalf of the department and the state for persons who have assigned rights of support to the department pursuant to this section.”
The Court agreed with Mother, reasoning as follows:
Years earlier in these proceedings, when Mother was receiving public assistance, Mother assigned her child support rights to the State; however, that does not bestow upon [Child Support Services] the perpetual right to control all future actions between Mother and Father as they pertain to their child. Although [Child Support Services] claimed it was acting on behalf of Mother when it appealed the ruling of the Magistrate, nothing could be further from the truth. The only party to benefit from the [Child Support Services's] appeal of the Magistrate’s award of a $72,620.90 judgment was Father; in fact that appeal benefited Father by $45,683.54 and financially injured Mother by the same amount. [The Magistrate's] decision had no impact on [Child Support Services].
Father never participated in the [Juvenile Court] proceedings and [Child Support Services], which was purportedly representing Mother, had no right to act on behalf of Father in this matter. In fact, doing so would be a conflict of interest. Accordingly, [Child Support Services] could only act on behalf of Mother in the proceedings before the Magistrate, and Mother was not aggrieved by the Magistrate’s order; therefore [Child Support Services], acting on behalf of Mother, could not appeal the Magistrate’s ruling to the juvenile court judge. Accordingly, the case was never properly before the juvenile court judge.
Finding that the Juvenile Court erred by allowing Child Support Services to prosecute the appeal, the Court vacated the Juvenile Court’s ruling and reinstated the Magistrate’s judgment.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.