Tennessee Supreme Court Creates Exceptions to Void Judgment in Adoption Dispute

Facts: The facts of this sad case are set forth in my blog post on the Court of Appeals’ opinion. Click HERE to see that post. I suggest you read that post before proceeding.

On Appeal: The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the courts below.

Holding #1: The judgment terminating Mother’s parental rights is void.

The record of the proceedings in which Mother’s parental rights were terminated thus demonstrates that Father failed to submit the statutorily required affidavit detailing his diligent efforts to locate Mother’s whereabouts or residence. Father’s evident failure to comply with the statutory requirements necessary for dispensing with personal service and resorting to constructive service by publication deprived the trial court of personal jurisdiction over Mother. Therefore, as the trial court and Court of Appeals determined, the judgment terminating Mother’s parental rights is void….

The record reflects clearly that Father failed to abide by these statutory procedures. Therefore, constructive service by publication was ineffective, and the judgment terminating Mother’s parental rights is void for lack of personal jurisdiction.

The Court also commented that it cannot excuse Father’s “blatant noncompliance” with the law.

Holding #2: There is no time bar for attacking a void judgment.

Tennessee Rule 60.02 does not abrogate the longstanding rule that void judgments may be attacked at any time. The reasonable time filing requirement [at the end of Rule 60.02] thus may not be applied to bar motions seeking relief from void judgments pursuant to Tennessee Rule 60.02(3).

Holding #3: Relief from a void judgment may be denied if certain exceptional circumstances exist.

exceptionalUntil now, no Tennessee court has attempted to define the exceptional circumstances that justify denying relief from a void judgment. The Supreme Court expressly adopts § 66 of the Restatement (Second) of Judgments, which provides:

Relief from a default judgment on the ground that the judgment is invalid will be denied if:

(1) The party seeking relief, after having had actual notice of the judgment, manifested an intention to treat the judgment as valid; and

(2) Granting the relief would impair another person’s substantial interest of reliance on the judgment.

After adopting § 66, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the exceptional circumstances defined by § 66 justify denying Mother relief from the void judgment terminating her parental rights.

As to the first prong — whether Mother manifested an intention to treat the void judgment as valid — the Court says:

[S]ection 66 will require the trial court on remand to determine whether, after receiving actual notice of the judgment terminating her parental rights, Mother manifested her intention to treat the judgment as valid. The undisputed facts in the record on appeal establish that Mother waited approximately two years after receiving actual notice of the default judgment terminating her parental rights before filing her petition for relief from it under Tennessee Rule 60.02(3). During this two-year period, the proof in the record indicates that Mother did not attempt to contact, visit, or provide financial support for the children, although she knew where Father was employed. On remand, the trial court should consider these circumstances, and any other relevant proof the parties present, when determining if Mother’s inaction can be taken as an affirmation of the judgment because the circumstances invited an expression of a contrary position.

Regarding the second prong — whether granting relief to Mother would impair another person’s substantial interest of reliance on the void judgment — the Court comments:

[W]e note that one child is no longer a minor, and the other child will reach majority on January 4, 2016. A person eighteen or older may choose to be adopted, and when this choice is made, only the sworn, written consent of the person sought to be adopted shall be required…. The record on appeal contains no proof establishing: (1) whether the children have ever been adopted by the woman Father married after divorcing Mother; (2) whether either child has a preference concerning a maternal relationship with Mother or the woman Father married after divorcing Mother; and (3) whether the adult child has already made legal choices concerning adoption, as the law permits. These are factual matters the trial court must resolve on remand when determining whether granting Mother relief from the void judgment would impair another person’s substantial reliance interests in status…. Whether Father’s decision to refrain from seeking child support also amounts to a substantial reliance interest that would be impaired by granting Mother relief from the void judgment is another factual matter that should be developed and considered on remand.

Furthermore, in determining whether granting relief from the void judgment would impair another person’s substantial reliance interest, the trial court may consider the relative equities between the parties. Mother’s failure to make any effort to contact her children or financially support them from January 2001 until July 29, 2010, when she filed her petition is relevant to determining where the relative equities lie. This is particularly true here, where, although Father’s residence changed, his place of employment remained the same throughout the years of Mother’s inaction. Thus, the record on appeal establishes that Mother could have attempted to contact and support her children during this time by contacting Father at his place of employment but failed to do so. On remand, the trial court may consider this circumstance, and any other fact relevant to the relative equities of the parties, when determining whether granting relief from the void judgment would substantially impair another person’s substantial reliance interest on the judgment.

Accordingly, the case is remanded to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing on whether “exceptional circumstances” justify denying relief from the void judgment terminating Mother’s parental rights.

K.O.’s Comment: (1) Does anyone think the trial court will not find exceptional circumstances here?

(2) Why didn’t the Court of Appeals address the “exceptional circumstances” question at all? The concurring opinion begged the Supreme Court to reverse the decision. The Supreme Court had no trouble finding the means to do so. Why didn’t the Court of Appeals do it first?

(3) This is a sad case in every way. Father blatantly ignored the law and Mother’s constitutional right to due process. Once Mother learned of Father’s actions, she sat on her hands for two years and did nothing. Meanwhile, the children’s lives went on. One child is now an adult and the other likely will be before the evidentiary hearing can be had in the trial court. When it’s all said and done, the children’s (now adults’) desires and interests must determine the outcome. What a mess. There are no winners here.

Turner v. Turner (Tennessee Supreme Court, October 21, 2015).

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

Posted by

K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

Leave a Comment