Subject-Matter Jurisdiction Challenged in Decatur, Tennessee Grandparent Visitation Case: In re Paisley H.

September 16, 2020 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: On June 2, Mother petitioned to establish parentage of her two children. Seven days later, she unexpectedly died. Two weeks later, Father’s paternity was established and, as the surviving parent, he received sole custody of the children.

Eight months later, the children’s maternal grandmother petitioned for grandparent visitation, alleging that Father and the children resided in Meigs County.

Father moved to dismiss Grandmother’s petition, alleging that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because neither he nor the children resided in Tennessee.

Although there is nothing in the record regarding the disposition of Father’s motion to dismiss, Father states in his appellate brief that the trial court found it had jurisdiction based on Father’s ownership of real estate in Tennessee and that a Tennessee address was used on his federal income tax form for the previous year.

At a hearing, the trial court awarded Grandmother visitation rights. An order was entered stating that it specifically resolved both the grandparent visitation petition and Father’s motion to dismiss.

Father appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment.

The issue is whether the trial court had subject-matter jurisdiction over Grandmother’s visitation petition.

Subject-matter jurisdiction provides the court with the authority to act, including the authority to modify a child-custody order. Challenges to a court’s subject-matter jurisdiction call into question the court’s lawful authority to adjudicate a controversy brought before it. Where subject-matter jurisdiction is challenged, the party asserting that subject-matter jurisdiction exists has the burden of proof.

Tennessee’s grandparent-visitation statute is a vehicle to provide visitation to grandparents when visitation has been opposed or severely reduced by the custodial parent and denying it would pose a danger of substantial harm to the children. The statute provides that the petition may be filed in the county where the child “currently resides.”

Because a Tennessee court granted Father sole custody and Grandmother seeks to alter that order, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act applies. Under that law, Tennessee may retain its continuing, exclusive subject-matter jurisdiction over the children unless circumstances exist relating to the children’s residence and the parent’s contacts within Tennessee.

The Court found the necessary analysis of these factual issues to be missing from the appellate record:

Grandmother asserted in her petition that both Father and the children continued to reside in Meigs County, Tennessee at the time that she filed her petition. Father asserted, however, that he and the children had long ago moved to Georgia. Resolution of these facts was therefore necessary to determine whether the juvenile court of Meigs County had jurisdiction . . . .

Our review is hampered in this case, however, because there are no findings of any kind by the trial court resolving these disputes. Indeed, although we inferred that the trial court denied Father’s motion to dismiss because it ultimately granted Grandmother’s visitation petition, the record on appeal contains no order specifically adjudicating the motion to dismiss. And while the trial court’s final order indicates that it was intended to adjudicate both Grandmother’s petition and Father’s motion to dismiss, the final order contains no findings, conclusions, or reasoning for the implied denial of Father’s motion. Instead, the record on appeal is essentially silent as to the resolution of Father’s challenge to subject-matter jurisdiction.

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[T]o resolve a factual dispute as to subject-matter jurisdiction, the trial court must find the facts. . . . And it is the trial court’s sole responsibility to find the fact, as this Court is generally not permitted to perform that function.

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The dispute in this case is highly factual, as it involves Father’s residence at the time the petition was filed and his family’s ongoing connection to Tennessee and Meigs County. . . . Resolution of these disputes was necessary to determine whether Grandmother’s request that the trial court exercise subject-matter jurisdiction over her petition was proper. The record on appeal, however, contains no specific findings by the trial court resolving these disputes either pretrial or posttrial. Indeed, the record on appeal is wholly silent as to any adjudication of Father’s challenge to the trial court’s subject-matter jurisdiction. Without factual findings on this issue, however, we cannot properly review the trial court’s decision to exercise subject-matter jurisdiction over Grandmother’s petition.

The trial court’s ruling was vacated and the case remanded for resolution of the necessary factual disputes.

In re Paisley H. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, September 10, 2020).

Subject-Matter Jurisdiction Challenged in Decatur, Tennessee Grandparent Visitation Case: In re Paisley H. was last modified: September 12th, 2020 by K.O. Herston

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