Posted by: koherston | July 15, 2013

Knoxville Post-Divorce Child Custody Modification or Dependency and Neglect Action?: Holley v. Holley

Facts: Mother and Father were divorced in Circuit Court in 2008. Mother was designated the primary residential parent for their children. Mother then moved to North Dakota. The following year, the children returned to live with Father in Knoxville for the school year. In 2010, Father petitioned the Circuit Court to change custody on the grounds that Mother was “neglectful regarding the educational and behavioral needs” of the children.

Mother filed a motion to dismiss alleging that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Specifically, Mother argued that Father’s petition alleged dependency and neglect, which put it within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court.

The trial court dismissed Father’s petition on the grounds that Father’s petition that sounded in dependence and neglect and, therefore, the Juvenile Court has exclusive jurisdiction over all such cases.

Father appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

A court must have jurisdiction over the subject matter of the proceeding as well as over the parties. The question of subject matter jurisdiction relates to a court’s power to adjudicate a particular type of controversy. Subject matter jurisdiction relates to the nature of the cause of action and the relief sought and is generally defined by the constitution or statute and conferred by the authority that organizes the courts. The parties cannot confer subject matter jurisdiction on a court by either appearance, plea, consent, silence, or waiver. A court cannot enter a valid, enforceable order without subject matter jurisdiction. Accordingly, when subject matter jurisdiction is questioned the court must first determine the nature of the case and then ascertain whether the Tennessee Constitution, the General Assembly, or the common law have conferred on it the power to adjudicate its cases.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-1-103(a)(1) provides that Juvenile Court has exclusive original jurisdiction over “[p]roceedings in which a child is alleged to be delinquent, unruly or dependent and neglected, or to have committed a juvenile traffic offense . . . .”

Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-1-102(b)(12)(D) defines a dependent and neglected child as one “[w]hose parent, guardian or custodian neglects or refuses to provide necessary medical, surgical, institutional or hospital care for such child.”

After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:

We note that in domestic and family controversies such as the present case, rhetoric often can be intemperate. This heated rhetoric sometimes may manifest itself in the pleadings of these cases. However, we ultimately must look to the substance of what has been alleged. In spite of the tone of urgency and severe language, we believe the allegations in the Petition are not tantamount to allegations of dependency and neglect under the statute. The allegations are more in the nature of a disagreement over the long-term manner of addressing the Children’s psychological, behavioral, and educational issues.

Nothing in our Opinion should be construed to diminish the importance of psychological, behavioral, or educational problems relative to what may be regarded traditionally as medical problems. We, however, do not believe our General Assembly contemplated facts such as those alleged in this case when it vested the juvenile court with exclusive original jurisdiction over dependency and neglect. We find nothing in the statutes to support a determination that our General Assembly intended by enacting Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-103(a)(1) to strip jurisdiction from a court that has handled a divorce and post-divorce matters solely because the parents disagree on how to address their child’s medical needs. Such an intention by our General Assembly would have resulted in a wholesale shifting of custody cases to the juvenile court from the specific courts vested by our General Assembly with the jurisdiction to make custody decisions in divorce cases and post-divorce matters solely because the parents disagree on how best to address their child’s medical needs. We are not holding that a dispute between parents concerning their child’s medical care never can be sufficient to trigger the dependency and neglect provision of Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-103(a)(1). We instead hold here only that the Petition did not do so.

Accordingly, the trial court was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Holley v. Holley (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, May 31, 2013).

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


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