Court Divided Over Statutory Interpretation in Greeneville, TN Termination of Parental Rights Case: In re K.J.G.

Facts: Mother and Stepfather filed a petition to terminate Father’s parental rights and adopt the child.

After a trial, the trial court found clear and convincing evidence of grounds to terminate Father’s parental rights and that termination was in the child’s best interest.

The trial court entered an order stating its conclusions and attached a transcript of its oral ruling from the bench detailing its specific factual findings.

Father appealed.

On Appeal: In a 2-1 decision, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

Under Tennessee law, the proof in a termination of parental rights case must show, by clear and convincing evidence, at least one statutory ground and that termination is in the child’s best interest. Clear and convincing evidence is evidence in which there is no serious or substantial doubt about the correctness of the conclusions drawn from the evidence. This heightened standard of review prevents unwarranted termination or interference with a biological parent’s parental rights.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(k) provides that in termination of parental rights matters:

The court shall ensure that the hearing on the petition takes place within six (6) months of the date that the petition is filed, unless the court determines an extension is in the best interests of the child. The court shall enter an order that makes specific findings of fact and conclusions of law within thirty (30) days of the conclusion of the hearing. If such a case has not been completed within six (6) months from the date the petition was served, the petitioner or respondent shall have grounds to request that the court of appeals grant an order expediting the case at the trial level.

The statute explicitly requires trial courts to “enter an order which makes specific findings of fact and conclusions of law” in termination cases. Tennessee courts have interpreted this to require that each parental termination order set forth the findings of fact that underlie the conclusions of law.

In the In re Adoption of Muir opinion, No. M2002-02963-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 25, 2003), the Court held, “Because of Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-113(k), trial courts cannot follow the customary practice of making oral findings from the bench and later adopting them by reference in their final order.” The Muir Court explained that “trial courts must prepare and file written findings of fact and conclusions law with regard to every disposition of a petition to terminate parental rights, whether [such findings] have been requested or not.”

Subsequent decisions held a trial court’s noncompliance with this rule fatally undermines the validity of parental termination order.

After reviewing the record, a majority of the Court concluded:

In this case, the trial court made no written findings of fact in its final order. Instead, the final order attached a transcript of the court’s oral findings given from the bench at the close of the trial. The written order then listed the court’s conclusions of law…. [T]his is insufficient under Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-113(k). When such findings of fact are not made, “we cannot simply review the record de novo and determine for ourselves where the preponderance of the evidence lies as we would in other civil, non-jury cases. . . . [W]e must remand the case for the preparation of appropriate written findings of fact and conclusions of law.” For the reasons stated above, we vacate the trial court’s final order and remand the case with directions to prepare the written findings of fact and conclusions of law as required by Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-113(k).

Accordingly, the trial court order was vacated and the matter remanded for written findings.

Dissent: Judge Swiney wrote a dissenting opinion, explaining:

The majority vacates and remands this case because the trial court attached to its final order a transcript of its oral findings rendered from the bench at the close of trial, which, the majority concludes, is insufficient under the statute as “an order that makes specific findings of fact. . . .” The majority correctly cites the language of In re: Adoption of Muir, wherein this Court stated: “Because of Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-113(k), trial courts cannot follow the customary practice of making oral findings from the bench and later adopting them by reference in their final order.” This Court has invoked this language many times over the years, and I have joined in some of these opinions.

However, upon due consideration, I now question applying the apparent Muir rule that oral findings and conclusions, no matter how thorough or detailed, as transcribed and incorporated into a final order by reference, somehow do not comply with Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-113(k). Why is this so? Provided the findings and conclusions are sufficiently detailed, a separate question, what difference does it make under the statute whether the trial court has its oral findings transcribed and incorporated by reference in its final order, or instead later types them out or has them typed out by an assistant? In each of these scenarios, we have what we need for appellate review as required by statute, an order that makes specific findings of fact and conclusions of law….

I question only whether Tennessee Appellate courts should continue to follow Muir and balk at transcribed oral findings and conclusions in parental rights termination cases simply because they initially were uttered aloud, no matter how very detailed and thorough they are.

K.O.’s Comment: I agree with Judge Swiney. Precedent is sometimes followed just because it’s precedent. Occasionally one needs to ask, “Does this longstanding interpretation make any sense?” Usually it does. But sometimes — as is the case here — it is difficult to see the rationale. I appreciate that Judge Swiney is willing to reconsider things when they no longer make sense to him. I don’t think this merits the prestigious “World’s Most Awesome Judge” designation, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

In re K.J.G. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, March 28, 2016).

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

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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.

One thought on “Court Divided Over Statutory Interpretation in Greeneville, TN Termination of Parental Rights Case: In re K.J.G.

  1. Based on their opinions, it would appear that the Court of Appeals really dislikes termination cases. They bend over backwards to overturn them. There is already a higher standard of proof, but they then insist on effectively creating new criteria for them that do not apply in other cases. So, we rally the legislators because all the Court of Appeals is doing is making it harder to bring stability to children.

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