Subject-Matter Jurisdiction When Child Abuse Alleged in Murfreesboro, Tennessee Parenting Plan Modification: Massey v. Massey

May 6, 2020 K.O. Herston 6 Comments

Facts: Mother and Father, the parents of three children, divorced in 2015. Their agreed parenting plan provided for equal parenting time and no child support.

Shortly thereafter, Mother’s finances worsened, so the parties agreed the children would reside primarily with Father until Mother’s situation improved.

Over a year later, Mother petitioned to modify the parenting plan, alleging that Father has engaged in abusive behavior toward the children.

Tennessee subject matter jurisdictionThree weeks later, the trial court found the children were being abused by Father and temporarily modified the parenting plan. Father was limited to supervised telephone contact with the children.

After two days of trial, the trial court found Father abused the children and adopted Mother’s parenting plan.

Thirty days later, Father moved to dismiss Mother’s petition as lacking subject-matter jurisdiction, alleging that juvenile court has exclusive jurisdiction over dependency and neglect matters.

The trial court denied Father’s motion.

Father appealed.

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

Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-1-103(g) provides that while the juvenile court has exclusive original jurisdiction over dependency and neglect matters, that does not prevent the divorce court from exercising its domestic relations jurisdiction, regardless of the allegations, until relief is sought in a juvenile court invoking its exclusive original jurisdiction.

The Court made quick work of Father’s argument:

Mother invoked the subject-matter jurisdiction of the [trial] court when she filed her petition to modify pursuant to § 36-6-101. . . . We hold that § 37-1-103 [] applies in this case and conclude that the trial court did not err in denying Father’s motion to dismiss the petition. Father argued that he was denied certain substantive due process rights that he would have been entitled to in juvenile court, such as the right to have counsel appointed, an additional opportunity to appeal, and the right to a heightened standard of proof. Father, however, did not file a pleading in juvenile court invoking its original jurisdiction or seeking relief therein; consequently, there is not error to assign in this regard to the ruling of the [trial] court.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

K.O.’s Comment: Father tried to assert the argument from Cox v. Lucas without having sought relief in juvenile court and having the juvenile court agree to assert its jurisdiction.

Is it too late for Father to file a petition in juvenile court? Could the juvenile court still assert exclusive original jurisdiction and declare the trial court’s ruling void for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction?

Massey v. Massey (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, April 17, 2020).

Subject-Matter Jurisdiction When Child Abuse Alleged in Murfreesboro, Tennessee Parenting Plan Modification: Massey v. Massey was last modified: May 4th, 2020 by K.O. Herston

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  1. 37-1-103(a) The juvenile court has exclusive original jurisdiction of the following proceedings, which are governed by this part: (1) Proceedings in which a child is alleged to be… dependent and neglected…;

    37-1-102(b)(13) “Dependent and neglected child” means a child:(G) Who is suffering from abuse or neglect;

    The circuit court had no subject matter jurisdiction to determine if the child had been abused because the basis of Mother’s petition involved the abuse of the child, which fell in the exclusive jurisdiction of the juvenile court. The circuit court’s only legal option would be to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

    37-1-104(f) …Nothing in this subsection (f) shall be construed as vesting the circuit and chancery court with jurisdiction over matters that are in the exclusive jurisdiction of the juvenile court under § 37-1-103.

    “The concepts of subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction are fundamentally different. Ins. Corp. of Ireland v. Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinee,456 U.S. 694, 701–03, 102 S.Ct. 2099, 72 L.Ed.2d 492 (1982); Landers,872 S.W.2d at 675. Subject matter jurisdiction confines judicial power to the boundaries drawn in constitutional and statutory provisions. Ins. Corp. of Ireland,456 U.S. at 702, 102 S.Ct. 2099; Word,377 S.W.3d at 674; Northland Ins. Co. v. State,33 S.W.3d 727, 729 (Tenn.2000). As a result, “[a] party’s consent, silence, waiver, entered plea, or appearance before the court, is not sufficient to confer subject matter jurisdiction.” Estate of Brown,402 S.W.3d at 198 (citing In Re Estate of Trigg,368 S.W.3d 483, 489 (Tenn.2012); Caton v. Pic–Walsh Freight Co.,211 Tenn. 334, 364 S.W.2d 931, 933 (1963)). See alsoTenn. R. Civ. P. 12.08 (stating that subject matter jurisdiction may not be waived). As a result, subject matter jurisdiction may be challenged at any time and may be raised by a court on its own motion, even if the parties have not raised the issue. Johnson v. Hopkins,432 S.W.3d 840, 844 (Tenn.2013).”, Turner v. Turner, 473 S.W.3d 257, 269-70 (Tenn. 2015).

    1. You conclude, “The circuit court had no subject matter jurisdiction to determine if the child had been abused because the basis of Mother’s petition involved the abuse of the child, which fell in the exclusive jurisdiction of the juvenile court. The circuit court’s only legal option would be to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.”

      How do you reconcile the numerous references to abuse in Title 36, e.g., the best-interest factors, 36-6-406(a), etc.? If the intent was to deprive the divorce court from hearing cases involving abuse, why does the Tennessee Code repeatedly permit that very thing?

      1. The issue of jurisdiction is once again addressed in 36-6-411. Juvenile court jurisdiction, (a) Nothing in this part shall be construed to alter, modify or restrict the exclusive jurisdiction of the juvenile court pursuant to § 37-1-103.

      2. 36-6-106(a)(11) “Evidence of physical or emotional abuse to the child, to the other parent or to any other person. The court shall, where appropriate, refer any issues of abuse to juvenile court for further proceedings;”

        37-1-103(g) “Notwithstanding this section, nothing in subdivision (a)(1) shall be construed to preclude a court from exercising domestic relations jurisdiction pursuant to title 36, regardless of the nature of the allegations, unless and until a pleading is filed or relief is otherwise sought in a juvenile court invoking its exclusive original jurisdiction.”

        The legislative intent is clear here. Once the circuit court heard evidence of physical or emotional abuse, 36-6-106(a)(11) came into play. The circuit court was then required by statute, 36-6-106(a)(11), to refer any issues of abuse to the juvenile court. 37-1-103(g) would then come into play granting the circuit court domestic relations jurisdiction unless and until relief was sought in a juvenile court. The statutory scheme limits the circuit court to collecting evidence proving abuse then referring the abuse case to the juvenile court. If the circuit court had an order from the juvenile court proving abuse, it would have jurisdiction to modify custody based on the juvenile court’s findings alone. This would be true in Stark v. Burks as well.

  2. 36-6-405(a) “…If the parties cannot agree to a modification of a permanent parenting plan, the process established by § 36-6-404(b) shall be used to establish an amended permanent parenting plan or final decree or judgment.”

    § 36-6-404(b) “Any permanent parenting plan shall include a residential schedule as defined in § 36-6-402. The court shall make residential provisions for each child, consistent with the child’s developmental level and the family’s social and economic circumstances, which encourage each parent to maintain a loving, stable, and nurturing relationship with the child. The child’s residential schedule shall be consistent with this part. If the limitations of § 36-6-406 are not dispositive of the child’s residential schedule, the court shall consider the factors found in § 36-6-106(a)(1)–(15).”

    36-6-106(a)(11) “Evidence of physical or emotional abuse to the child, to the other parent or to any other person. The court shall, where appropriate, refer any issues of abuse to juvenile court for further proceedings;”

    By statute, the circuit court was required to refer the issue of physical and emotional abuse to the juvenile court for further proceedings.

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