In the case of Clark v. Clark, No. E2012-00684-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 18, 2013), Tennessee family law attorneys learn that appeals of custody matters are heard by the Court of Appeals, but appeals of a dependency and neglect action must be first appealed to the Circuit Court.
Summary: Father voluntarily gave custody of the minor child to the Grandparents. Mother then filed seeking custody, but her requests were denied. The Juvenile Court had described the case as both a custody case and as a dependency and neglect matter at different points throughout the litigation. Mother appealed from Juvenile Court to Circuit Court, but her request was denied based on the holding that the case was a custody matter which should have therefore been appealed to the Court of Appeals instead of Circuit Court. Mother then appealed that ruling. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court was correct in concluding that the case was a custody matter and that the Circuit Court therefore had no jurisdiction to hear Mother's appeal, but her appeal should have been transferred to the Court of Appeals instead of being dismissed.
Facts: After establishing paternity, the parties entered an agreed order giving custody to the grandparents. Mother then filed a motion requesting a hearing, which was denied. At that hearing, the Juvenile Court stated that the action was a visitation and/or custody case, not dependency and neglect. Mother then filed several subsequent requests for custody and visitation, which were denied. However, in denying these subsequent motions, the Juvenile Court classified the action as a dependency and neglect case when the grandparents received custody, thus contradicting the earlier ruling. Mother then appealed to Circuit Court. The Circuit Court found the matter to be a custody case and therefore dismissed the appeal.
Analysis: The issue is whether the Circuit Court erred in denying Mother's appeal because the action sounded in custody rather than dependence and neglect. A case of dependency and neglect is directly appealable to Circuit Court, whereas a custody action is only appealable to the Court of Appeals. Here, the Juvenile Court first labeled this case custody and later labeled it dependence and neglect. The Appeals Court noted that "the nature and substance of a proceeding cannot be transformed simply by the filing of a petition with a different caption." Therefore, the Court looked to the nature of the action. From the record, there was no evidence that this was ever a dependency and neglect action. Instead, the only issue that ever came before the court was a custody arrangement. Therefore, the Circuit Court correctly held that the case sounded in custody. However, the Mother's appeal should not have been dismissed. The appeal should have been transferred to the Court of Appeals. Anytime a court is lacking jurisdiction to hear an appeal, the proper step is a transfer, not a dismissal. Therefore, the Circuit Court is directed to do so upon remand.