Transcript of Factual Findings Dooms Termination of Parental Rights in Rogersville, Tennessee: In re Zoey L.

June 22, 2020 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: After a trial, the trial court terminated Mother’s parental rights. The trial court announced its factual findings and conclusions of law from the bench, which was transcribed by the court reporter into the transcript. The record held the transcript of the court’s ruling with the Chancellor’s handwritten note, “These are my findings and conclusions.” That handwritten note was signed and dated by the Chancellor.

The final order stated the trial court’s conclusions but contained no analysis of the facts.

Mother appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed.

Tennessee termination parental rightsA trial court speaks through its written orders, not through oral statements in the transcript.

In termination of parental rights cases, trial courts are required by Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(k) to enter an order that makes specific findings of fact and conclusions of law. This is required, in part, to enable appellate review. Tennessee courts strictly construe this statute and require meticulous compliance with its mandates.

The Court found the trial court’s handwritten reference to a transcript of its oral ruling inadequate:

Although the trial court’s order references several of the statutory best interest factors, it does not include any analysis of the factors and their applicability to the facts of this case. In fact, here, the trial court’s order fails to reference any of the facts or evidence presented in the case.

Despite the fact that the order contains no analysis, the record includes a portion of the trial transcript, which the trial court purports to make its findings by signing same [with the handwritten notation that, “These are my findings and conclusions.”]

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[T]he trial court does not incorporate the foregoing portion of the transcript by reference in its [final] order. Whether we may consider oral rulings in termination cases, even when incorporated by reference into written orders, has been a subject of some dispute in this Court. In this case, however, the order contains neither a reference to nor an incorporation of the trial court’s oral ruling. Nonetheless, we have read the portion of the transcript that purportedly contains the trial court’s factual findings concerning the child’s best interest. Even if we could consider the transcript to be the trial court’s order, we conclude that the “findings” therein are merely conclusions of law without sufficient analysis or factual basis.

Finding that the “order wholly fails to comply with the requirements” of the statute, the trial court’s judgment was vacated and remanded for entry of a more detailed order.

K.O.’s Comment: (1) This is the same trial court that had another termination case remanded after a transcript of the Court’s oral rulings were incorporated by reference in the final order. There, a divided Court of Appeals held it was improper to do even that. Here, the same trial court relies on a transcript of its oral ruling but didn’t even incorporate the transcript into the final order by reference.

(2) In a footnote, the Court “strongly encourage[s] litigants, attorneys, and trial courts to ensure that all of the trial court’s relevant oral rulings and findings are included in written orders, especially in termination cases.”

In re Zoey L. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, June 3, 2020).

Transcript of Factual Findings Dooms Termination of Parental Rights in Rogersville, Tennessee: In re Zoey L. was last modified: June 21st, 2020 by K.O. Herston

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