In Re: Shyronne D.H, No. W2011-00328-COA-R3-PT, 2011 WL 2651097 (Tenn.Ct.App. July 7, 2011) has further established the limits of res judicata in Tennessee courts.
On October 14, 2008, the Criminal Court of Shelby County indicted Mother on one count of aggravated child neglect or endangerment and one count of aggravated child abuse of a child under eight years of age. The Department of Children's Services (DCS) placed Mother's children in foster care while Mother was incarcerated. DCS subsequently petitioned to the juvenile court, who ruled that the children were not only dependent and neglected but were also victims of severe child abuse. Consequently, the juvenile court ordered the children to remain in DCS's custody and that Mother could have no contact with them. Mother appealed the juvenile court's decision to the Shelby County Circuit Court.
The circuit court judge upheld the juvenile court's decision, basing the ruling on permanent mental and physical damage that mother inflicted on one of her children. The day after the circuit court's ruling, DCS also petitioned to terminate Mother's parental rights in a different circuit court, introducing the ruling made the previous day that Mother's children were dependent, neglected, and severely abused. By introducing this ruling, DCS sought to keep the issue of whether Mother committed severe child abuse from being relitigated under res judicata. Since the dependency and neglect order was actually signed on the same day that the parental termination proceeding began, Mother argued that res judicata did not apply because it could still be appealed or revised within thirty days of the order's entry. The court disagreed, deciding that res judicata did, in fact, apply. The court then ruled that Mother's parental rights should be terminated.
Mother appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, who reversed the circuit court's decision. According to the appellate court, res judicata should not have applied to the instant case. While a minority view, in Tennessee res judicata cannot be applied until all appellate remedies have been used. In other words, a judgment is not final if an appeal is still pending. This is different from most other jurisdictions who rule that even if an appeal is taken up or pending it does not affect the finality of a judgment for res judicata purposes. If Mother had either denied her permission to appeal or failed to appeal the court would have come to a different outcome; but such was not the case here.
Because of the trial court's misapplication of res judicata, the appellate court reversed the trial court's decision to terminate since Mother did not have an opportunity to assert a defense. Since Tennessee courts "place decrees forever terminating parental rights in the category of cases in which the state may not bolt the door to equal justice," it was necessary for the trial court to allow Mother to fully litigate whether she committed severe child abuse sufficient to provide grounds to terminate her parental rights.