Tennessee Divorce Proceedings and “The Law of The Case”

In a recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, Moore v. Taylor, Tenn. Ct. App. (2014), the court dealt with the issue of what happens when a Final Decree of Divorce is appealed more than once.

In the case, the Wife filed for divorce against the Husband in April 2011. Following a hearing, the trial court entered its Final Decree of Divorce in February 2012, which declared the parties divorced, as pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-4-129. In this initial action, the court divided the marital property as follows. The residence was ordered to be sold, and all equity therein awarded to the Wife. The Husband was awarded all equity in his 401k (the Wife’s equity in marital residence in lieu of any in the 401k). Their 2009 Lincoln (encumbered) was awarded to the Wife and their 2007 Jaguar to the Husband. The couple had owned this car together, but the Wife purportedly had gifted it to their son without the Husband’s consent. The court ordered the Wife to either transfer the title of the Jaguar to the Husband, or to pay him $2,500 for his interest in the car. Rehabilitative alimony also was awarded to the Wife in the amount of $1,000 a month for 18 months.

The Husband filed a Notice of Appeal in July 2012 to challenge various financial rulings in the Final Decree of Divorce, and the Tennessee Court of Appeals (the same court as in this opinion) affirmed the trial court’s judgment in all respects in May 2013.

While the first appeal was pending, both of the parties filed several motions at the trial court level, accusing each other of non-compliance with the Final Decree of Divorce regarding their respective financial duties. Four days after the Tennessee Court of Appeals entered its judgment, affirming the trial court’s judgment in all respects, the trial court held a hearing, and it then entered an order modifying the Final Decree of Divorce. The Wife then filed this appeal, challenging the new division of marital property and several other issues.

The court discussed the individual issues that were altered at the trial court level and came to the conclusion that the main reason for affirming the prior decision, which affirmed the initial Final Decree of Divorce from the trial court, was due to the “law of the case.” Under Tennessee law, in divorce proceedings, “an appellate court’s final decision in a case establishes the “law of the case” when a case is remanded for further proceedings. This “law of the case” is binding on the trial court during the remanded proceedings and is also binding on the appellate courts should a second appeal be taken after the trial court enters a judgment in response to the remand order.” Therefore, the initial ruling by the Tennessee Court of Appeals made it such that changes to what it had already affirmed should not have been undertaken by the trial court in the first place.

Regarding other issues raised by the Wife, the court found that because she did not raise those separate issues (challenging the alimony award and seeking attorney’s fees) during the first appeal she is deemed to have waived them. Certain further issues that were not raised at the trial court level could not be raised for the first time on appeal.

The Husband claimed that the appeal was frivolous, and therefore he sought to recover the attorney’s fees incurred as a result. The court stated that, since it decided to affirm the initial trial court findings regarding the Final Decree of Divorce and the initial awarding of the marital estate, the Wife’s appeal was not without merit, and therefore the appeal was not frivolous. Therefore, his claims were denied.

Thus, the judgment of the trial court in the second instance was reversed in part and affirmed in part, and the matter was remanded to be handled in accordance with the opinion. The costs of the appeal were assessed equally for both of the parties.

This case illustrates the importance of raising any and all challenges during the trial, and if necessary at the initial appeal. Once a court enters a Final Decree, a failure to do so could, and in this case, did, constitute a waiver to argue those points at all. Hiring an experienced family law attorney will ensure that your rights are advocated for zealously and that all of the strongest potential arguments are advanced on your behalf.

Divorce can be incredibly stressful and complex, as demonstrated in this case. If you are contemplating a divorce, or are already involved in divorce proceedings and need advice on any other related matter, contact the Nashville family law attorneys at MHPS. Our legal team can guide you through the process of dissolution with compassion and competence. For an initial consultation, contact one of our attorneys today through this website, or by calling (615) 800-7096.

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