Judicial Recusal Fails in Cleveland, Tennessee Divorce: Renner v. Renner

January 13, 2020 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Husband is a building contractor. In 2014, he was sued twice in the Bradley County Chancery Court regarding homes he helped build and sell.

In 2015, Wife sued Husband for divorce in the same court.

Shortly after the divorce filing, Husband settled the construction lawsuits. Because of both of those cases involved minors, the Chancellor had to approve the settlements.

In the divorce case, unresolved issues regarding the classification and division of a complex web of properties, titles, and percentages of ownership proceeded to trial.

Husband appeared for the trial, and Wife did not. The trial proceeded with only Husband offering proof.

Tennessee witness courtDespite Wife’s absence, the Court found inconsistencies and conflicts between Husband’s testimony and the documentary evidence, all of which adversely affected Husband’s credibility and led the Court to conclude that Husband’s testimony “shows a lack of transparency and credibility.” Because of this, the Court concluded that another hearing would be necessary to obtain additional information.

Fourteen months after the hearing, seven months after the Court’s order, and two days before a scheduled hearing on a “global settlement,” Husband moved to disqualify the Chancellor because, Husband argued, the Chancellor’s knowledge of the facts from the construction lawsuits affected her view of his credibility in the divorce. Husband also argued that the Court’s request for additional proof created the appearance of bias.

The Court denied Husband’s motion, observing that the construction settlements were approved on agreed orders and without a court hearing. The Court further found that the need for additional proof was created by Husband’s failure to appropriately document various transactions and because his testimony contradicted the documentary proof.

Husband appealed.

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

Litigants have a fundamental right to a fair trial before an impartial tribunal. The right to question the trial court’s impartiality may be waived, however. The party seeking recusal must file the recusal motion promptly after the facts supporting the motion become known. Parties may not silently preserve the event as an “ace in the hole” to be used if an adverse decision occurs.

The Court found Husband’s arguments to be without merit:

[Husband] waived his right to challenge the Chancellor’s impartiality based on the events stemming from the [evidentiary] hearing or the Court’s ruling following the hearing. [Husband’s] motion for recusal or disqualification came 14 months after the hearing and over seven months after the Court’s Order.

Even had [Husband] not waived his right to challenge the Chancellor’s impartiality due to the [evidentiary] hearing, we conclude that the record presented does not support reversal of the Chancellor’s ruling. . . . [T]he mere fact that a judge has ruled adversely to a party in a prior judicial proceeding is not grounds for recusal.

* * * * *

The mere fact that a witness takes offense at the Court’s assessment of the witness cannot serve as a valid basis for a motion to recuse.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of Husband’s motion for recusal.

Renner v. Renner (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, December 27, 2019).

Judicial Recusal Fails in Cleveland, Tennessee Divorce: Renner v. Renner was last modified: January 13th, 2020 by K.O. Herston

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