Supreme Court Holds Personal Signature of Party Appealing in Parental Termination Case Not Required

November 22, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court concluded that a father’s notice of appeal, signed by his attorney but not the father personally, satisfies the statutory signature requirement for appeals in parental termination cases.  The Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for consideration of the father’s appeal on the merits.

In this parental termination case, the trial court terminated the father’s parental rights of his minor child.  The father filed a timely notice of appeal, which was signed by his attorney but not by the father personally.  The Court of Appeals ordered the father to show cause why his appeal should not be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because of his failure to personally sign the notice of appeal based on Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-124(d): “Any notice of appeal filed in a termination of parental rights action shall be signed by the appellant.”

The father filed a response to the show cause order, which included a challenge to the constitutionality of the statute at issue.  The Tennessee Attorney General filed a notice of intent to defend the statute’s constitutionality.

The Tennessee Supreme Court assumed jurisdiction over the case upon its own motion, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 16-3-201(d)(3), which allows the Court to assume jurisdiction over undecided cases pending before an intermediate state appellate court due to a compelling public interest.  In assuming jurisdiction, the Court ordered the parties and the Tennessee Attorney General to address whether a party’s failure to sign the notice of appeal results in a jurisdictional defect and whether the statute at issue is unconstitutional on the grounds of separation of powers, due process, and/or equal protection. 

In a unanimous opinion, the Court carefully reviewed the specific language of the statutory provision at issue in this case and compared that language to existing language in other current relevant statutes and court rules.  Based on this analysis, the Court determined that Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-124(d) does not require the party appealing the trial court’s decision to personally sign a notice of appeal.  In this case, the timely notice of appeal signed by the father’s attorney satisfied this statutory signature requirement.  As a result, the Court held that the father’s case was not subject to dismissal and remanded it to the Court of Appeals for consideration on the merits.  The Court’s holding as to the interpretation of the statutory signature requirement rendered the constitutional issues moot.

To read the Supreme Court’s opinion in In re Bentley D., authored by Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.