Tennessee Supreme Court Reverses Termination of Father’s Parental Rights Based on Insufficient Evidence and Legal Errors

February 5, 2021

Today, the Tennessee Supreme Court, based on legal errors and insufficient evidence, unanimously reversed a Shelby County Chancery Court’s decision to terminate a father’s parental rights and dismissed the petition for termination filed by the mother and stepfather.

In Tennessee, a court may terminate parental rights based on abandonment if there is clear and convincing evidence that a parent willfully failed to support the child, willfully failed to make reasonable or consistent support payments, or willfully failed to visit the child for a period of four consecutive months. The court also must find that termination is in the best interest of the child. Here, the child’s mother and stepfather petitioned the Shelby County Chancery Court to terminate the father’s parental rights, claiming the father had abandoned his child. The father denied the claims of failing to visit and support his child. After hearing evidence, the trial court terminated the father’s parental rights based on proof of abandonment and a finding that termination was in the child’s best interest.

In ruling against the father, the trial court relied, in part, on the “missing witness rule” and the doctrine of “unclean hands.” The missing witness rule allows the court in a civil case to draw an inference that the testimony of a witness who does not appear in court would have been unfavorable to the side who failed to call the witness. The doctrine of unclean hands is an equitable rule requiring a party who seeks equitable relief to come into court with “clean hands,” that is, not guilty of misconduct connected with the matter in litigation.

The father appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court, holding that the missing witness rule did not apply in a non-jury trial and that the trial court erred in applying the doctrine of unclean hands. The Court of Appeals also found that the mother and stepfather’s evidence on abandonment was less than clear and convincing. The Tennessee Supreme Court granted the mother and stepfather’s petition for review.

The Supreme Court held that the missing witness rule may apply in a non-jury trial, but here the trial court erred by applying it too broadly. The father did not testify at trial, and for that reason the trial court presumed, based on the missing witness rule, that all of the father’s testimony would have been unfavorable to him. The Supreme Court pointed out that the father was opposing the termination of his parental rights and presumably would have testified favorably about his efforts to support and visit his child. The Supreme Court held that the trial court erred when it used the missing witness rule as a conclusive presumption that all of the father’s testimony would have been unfavorable to him.

Next, the Supreme Court reviewed the trial court’s reliance on the doctrine of unclean hands against the father. Finding that the father had made several misrepresentations in written documents under oath about his military service and addiction treatment, the trial court held that the father “should be repelled at the courthouse steps” for his misrepresentations. But here the father was defending against a petition for statutory relief and was seeking no equitable relief, and his alleged misconduct had nothing to do with the issue of abandonment. Thus, the Supreme Court ruled the doctrine of unclean hands did not apply.

Finally, the Supreme Court held that the mother and stepfather did not meet their burden of proof on abandonment. A parent’s willful failure to support or failure to visit during the four-month period before the filing of a petition to terminate parental rights may amount to abandonment. But if the parent is financially unable to provide support or is prevented by someone else’s conduct from visiting the child, the failure to support or to visit is not willful. Although the father did not pay child support during the relevant four-month period, the Supreme Court found that the father’s failure to support was not willful because the evidence showed he lacked the financial means and ability to pay support. Likewise, the Supreme Court ruled that even though the father did not visit the child, his failure to visit was not willful based on the mother’s position of “no money--no kid” and her refusal to allow visitation. According to the Supreme Court, the mother’s refusal to allow visitation unless the father paid support was unacceptable. Thus, the Supreme Court held that the evidence presented by the mother and stepfather did not establish by clear and convincing evidence that the father had abandoned his child by willful failure to support and visit.

Based on these findings, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Sharon G. Lee, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision to terminate the father’s parental rights based on the trial court’s errors in applying the missing witness rule and the doctrine of unclean hands and the lack of clear and convincing evidence that the father’s failure to support and visit his child was willful.

To read the opinion of the Court in In re Mattie L., please visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.