Ruling Without a Hearing or Evidence Reversed in Somerville, Tennessee Child-Support Dispute: Austin v. Richmond

September 18, 2023 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Mother and Father, the never-married parents of one child, entered an agreed parenting plan that addressed parenting time, joint decision-making authority, child support, private-school tuition, and related matters.

Seven years later, Mother petitioned for Father to be held in civil contempt for not paying child support and private-school tuition as ordered.

One year later, Father responded by claiming Mother received all the child support to which she was entitled. He had to pay the child’s private-school tuition even though the parenting plan made that Mother’s responsibility. He filed a counterclaim asking for reimbursement for $58,000 of educational expenses he argued were owed by Mother.

Five years after Mother’s petition was filed, the trial court appointed a certified public accountant (“CPA”) to “conduct an accounting and return a report to the court.”

One years later, without notice to the parties, the trial court entered an order based on its review of the “voluminous pleadings and exhibits” and noted that it had conducted its accounting of all the “documented exhibits and evidence” without the help of the court-ordered CPA accounting. The trial court awarded Father a judgment of $27,000 for overpaid support plus $16,000 in attorney’s fees. Mother’s petition for civil contempt was dismissed.

Mother appealed.

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

Allegations in pleadings are not evidence. Unless facts are admitted or stipulated, they must be proved by witnesses required to take an oath before testifying, documents, affidavits, oral testimony, or other competent evidence. Also, the statements of counsel are not evidence or a substitute for testimony. Absent stipulations, findings of fact must be based on the evidence introduced.

The Court found the trial court’s findings were not based on any evidence:

Here, there was no evidentiary hearing, no sworn testimony of witnesses, no cross-examination, and no stipulations. The majority of the discovery responses in the file were not sworn to by the parties, and no exhibits were properly introduced. Indeed, the language in the trial court’s order shows that it dismissed Mother’s petition for civil contempt and calculated Father’s award of overpaid child support and attorney’s fees based entirely on the pleadings and other documents on file. It is well-settled that merely attaching a document to a pleading does not place that document in evidence. Without testimonial evidence, stipulations, or properly introduced documentary evidence, there is no evidence in the record from which the trial court could have made its ruling in this case.

Moreover, neither party was aware that the trial court was planning to forgo a formal hearing. Neither party had submitted a pretrial brief. The last document filed in the matter was an order by the trial court appointing the CPA almost an entire year before the trial court’s sua sponte final order….

We have previously held that the most basic principle underpinning procedural due process is that individuals be given an opportunity to have their legal claims heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful matter. And recently, our Supreme Court has emphasized the importance of providing parties with fair notice and an opportunity to be heard on dispositive issues prior to appellate review.

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It appears that there were considerable delays in this case that may have frustrated the trial court. While such frustration may have been justified, it cannot serve as an excuse for short-circuiting the most basic principles of our jurisprudence. Because no evidence was properly submitted on any of the issues on appeal, we must vacate the judgment of the trial court and remand this cause to the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing whereby the parties may have the opportunity to present testimony and introduce evidence.

The Court reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Source: Austin v. Richmond (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, August 31, 2023).

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Ruling Without a Hearing or Evidence Reversed in Somerville, Tennessee Child-Support Dispute: Austin v. Richmond was last modified: September 17th, 2023 by K.O. Herston

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