Judicial Confirmation is Necessary for a Magistrate's Order to Become "Final"; Five Day Limit to Request Timely Hearing Before Judge on Disputed Dispositive Issues
In Harris v. Harris, No. E2012-00300-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 31, 2012), Tennessee divorce attorneys learn how courts determine what is necessary for a Magistrate's order to be final and that parties have five days to request a rehearing before a judge on disputed dispositive issues.
The facts of the case are as follows: Father initially owed Mother $80 per week in child support ($110.54 per week after the court ordered that payments be raised). Mother and Father later attempted to terminate the parental rights of Father, after which Mother no longer received said child support from Father. Mother, seeking child support payments, then filed a Petition to Modify and for Civil Contempt; in his answer, Father claimed that Mother would not allow him to have a relationship with the child.
The Knox County Fourth Circuit Court Magistrate required Father to pay $758 per month in current child support, pay $1153.05 for health insurance premiums, and pay toward an arrearage of $41,273.63. The Magistrate, after a second hearing, found that Father should pay $968 per month in current child support, pay toward a $45,142.26 arrearage, and pay Mother's attorney fees. The Judge never entered an Order of Confirmation.
Father then succeeded in having venue transferred to the Trial Court of Sevier County from Knox County. Father then attempted to modify child support owed by claiming the following: the child support was calculated erroneously, no judge ever issued a confirmation order, Mother told Father that he no longer had parental rights, and that because child was a dependent on taxes, Father deserved a set off credit. The Trial Court found that it did not have appropriate jurisdiction and denied Father's motion.
On appeal, the Court decided the following issues: (1) whether the Trial Court erred in holding that it lacked jurisdiction to hear Father's petition and (2) whether Mother was entitled to appellate attorney's fees. In regard to the first issue, Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-405(g)-(i) provides that magistrates must submit written findings and recommendations and other case materials to the judge at the end of every hearing. While magistrates' findings on preliminary matters that are "not dispositive of the ultimate issue in the case" are "unreviewable" and thus "final," on other matters, parties can ask for a hearing before a judge up to five days after the hearing before the magistrate. Then, the Judge shall have discretion to order a rehearing if he/she sees it proper to do so. The magistrates' findings and recommendations will typically turn into the court's final decree if no party asks for a hearing before the judge. The judge should, however, confirm via judicial order the magistrates' findings and recommendations.
The Appellate Court discussed the case State Dept. of Children's Services v. S.A.M.H., 2005 WL 850356 (Tenn. Ct. App. April 13, 2005), in which the court held that "absent a final order of confirmation, the... Judge had the authority under Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-107(e)... to order a full evidentiary rehearing regardless of whether Mother had filed a timely appeal." The Court ruled that there was no finality since there was no judicial order of confirmation of the magistrate, and that in spite of Father's late-filed petition, the judge still had the authority to hold a hearing. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded to the Trial Court, instructing the judge to confirm the magistrate's order if it decides not to hear Father's petition due to its delay. In regard to the second issue, the Court refused to award attorney's fees to Mother since Father won and his claims were meritorious.