Criminal Contempt in Clarksville, Tennessee Postdivorce Dispute: Renken v. Renken

FactsMother and Father are the divorced parents of four children.

The parents’ relationship was highly contentious. According to Mother, she and Father could not “agree about what color the sky is.” Father agreed that their relationship had deteriorated to such a degree that he would not sit next to her, even to support the children.

Mother testified that Father failed to return the children on time, forcing her to change her summer vacation plans at the last minute. The parenting plan allowed each parent two consecutive weeks of summer vacation after giving the other parent 30 days’ notice.

In February, Father notified Mother that his vacation weeks would begin at 5:00 p.m. on July 17 through July 22.

Mother requested vacation time from July 23 through August 5.

So far, so good.

Four days before his planned vacation, Father asked Mother to deliver the children at 7:00 a.m. on July 17 so he could get an early start on his travel plans. Mother refused and delivered the children at 5:00 p.m. as previously planned. Father testified that Mother’s delay prevented him from leaving until the morning of July 18. In retaliation, he kept the children an additional two days.

Mother also complained that Father failed to give her a working telephone number to contact the children as required by the parenting plan. Father obtained a new mobile phone with a different carrier but did not provide the new number to Mother until 10 or 11 days later. Father claimed Mother did not need the number because she could use FaceTime instead.

Tennessee criminal contemptMother requested that Father be found guilty of criminal contempt and that the parenting plan be modified to increase her parenting time.

If you’re thinking Father responded to this with a heartfelt apology and vow to be more mature in the future, think again.

After the disputes over summer vacation, Father filed police reports every time he thought Mother violated the parenting plan. He also sent letters to the chief of police (Mother works for the police department) and contacted the city council. He even had a public airing of his grievances with Mother at a city council meeting. Shortly before trial, Mother received notice that Father had requested a copy of her personnel file.

The trial court found Father in criminal contempt and sentenced him to serve two days in jail. The court also modified the parenting schedule to give the parties equal parenting time.

Father appealed.

On AppealThe Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part.

Tennessee courts have the power to inflict punishment for contempt of court. A party can be found guilty of criminal contempt for the willful violation of a court order. In this context, a willful violation is done voluntarily and intentionally and with the specific intent to do something the law forbids.

The Court affirmed the finding of criminal contempt:

Mother’s refusal to shorten her parenting time on July 17 to accommodate [Father’s] travel plans did not justify his unilateral decision to return the children two days late. And Father knew that he was required to provide Mother with a working phone number to contact the children. He failed to do so for 11 days with no justifiable excuse.

The modification of the parenting schedule was vacated because the trial court did not appear to engage in the best-interest analysis beyond making the conclusory statement that an equal parenting schedule was in the children’s best interest. Because the best-interest analysis is a fact-intensive process, this conclusory statement did not satisfy the requirement that it conduct a best-interest analysis.

The case was remanded for further findings as to the statutory best-interest factors found at Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106(a). Meanwhile, the modified parenting schedule, i.e., equal time via alternating weeks, will remain in effect.

And Father will serve his two days in jail.

Renken v. Renken (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, February 20, 2019).

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