Facts: Mother and Father are the divorced parents of four children.
They lived in Texas until, according to Father, Mother moved the children to Tennessee in 1998 without his knowledge or consent. He admitted traveling to Tennessee on one occasion in 1999 or 2000 to visit with the children for approximately two hours. Aside from that, he had no other contacts with the State of Tennessee. Thereafter, Father resided in Texas while Mother and the children resided in Tennessee.
Mother obtained a divorce by default in Tennessee in 1999. Father’s child-support obligation was also established by default in 2001.
In 2002, Father’s lawyer in Texas wrote a letter to Tennessee’s Child Support Services requesting an administrative review of their determination that Father’s child support was in arrears.
In February 2015, Tennessee petitioned to hold Father in contempt for not paying his court-ordered child support.
Father made a limited appearance to vacate Tennessee’s child-support orders because Tennessee lacked personal jurisdiction over him.
The trial court determined that Tennessee had personal jurisdiction over Father because he requested an administrative review of his child-support arrearage and the fact that he visited the children in Tennessee. Father’s motion to vacate the prior orders was denied.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
The lawful authority of a court to adjudicate a case before it depends upon the court having jurisdiction over the subject matter and the parties.
Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to adjudicate the particular type of case brought before it.
Personal jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to render a binding judgment over the parties to the case.
The Tennessee Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (“UIFSA”) governs child-support cases between residents of different states, including when Tennessee may exercise personal jurisdiction over a nonresident.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-2201 says when Tennessee may exercise personal jurisdiction over a nonresident in an interstate child-support matter. Subsection (a)(2) allows for personal jurisdiction when the nonresident enters a general appearance or files a “responsive document having the effect of waiving any contest to personal jurisdiction.” Subsection (a)(8) provides a catchall allowing personal jurisdiction on any basis consistent with the Tennessee or U.S. constitutions.
General appearances consist of acts from which it can reasonably be inferred that the party recognizes and submits itself to the jurisdiction of the court. A general appearance may be made by the filing of pleadings or orally in open court. Any appearance that contests the merits of the complaint without raising the jurisdictional defense is considered a general appearance.
The Court determined that Father’s request for an administrative review did not constitute a general appearance for filing of a responsive document:
Assuming, arguendo, that [Father] sent a letter or some type of document to the State seeking administrator review of his child-support obligation, such a request would not be sufficient to constitute an answer or appearance permitting the trial court to exercise personal jurisdiction in this matter. . . . A letter or other document sent to the State that was not intended to be filed with the trial court would not constitute the filing of a pleading sufficient to waive the issue of personal jurisdiction.
After reviewing the applicable constitutional law, the Court explained that Father’s contacts with Tennessee must be sufficient for a court to conclude that the Father should reasonably anticipate being haled into court in Tennessee. The Court held that standard was not satisfied here:
[T]he only contact that [Father] had with Tennessee was his single two-hour visit to Tennessee to locate the children in 1999 or 2000. This one visit, standing alone, is clearly insufficient to establish minimum contacts with Tennessee. Otherwise, [Father] resided in Texas and did not purposefully avail himself of the benefits of Tennessee law in any manner.
Thus, the trial court’s prior child-support orders are void for lack of personal jurisdiction. Mother will have to use a Texas court to establish and collect child support from Father.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.