Tennessee Supreme Court Applies 2019 Law to Uphold Circuit Court’s Subject Matter Jurisdiction over Post-Divorce Petitions

May 29, 2019

The Tennessee Supreme Court today issued two opinions that presented the same legal question: whether a Circuit Court retains jurisdiction (authority) to decide post-divorce petitions seeking modifications of permanent parenting plans if the petitions include allegations that satisfy the statutory definitions of claims of dependency and neglect or of an unruly child—claims over which juvenile courts have exclusive original jurisdiction. 

In Cox v. Lucas and Minyard v. Lucas, both Bradley James Cox and Lewis Alvin Minyard were divorced from the same woman, Laura Nicole Lucas. Initially, Ms. Lucas had custody of the minor children born of these marriages.  Subsequently Mr. Cox and Mr. Minyard separately filed emergency petitions for relief in the Circuit Court of Knox County, seeking custody of their children.  The Circuit Court granted the petitions, and after a final hearing on the matter, awarded custody to Mr. Cox and Mr. Minyard. The Circuit Court entered orders modifying the permanent parenting plans to reflect this change.  Ms. Lucas responded to this outcome by filing a tardy motion to dismiss the cases for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  She argued that, because the allegations of the petitions satisfied the statutory definition of claims of dependency and neglect and of an unruly child, the Circuit Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

The Circuit Court denied her motion.  Ms. Lucas appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed.   The Court of Appeals concluded that the petitions did, in fact, include allegations that satisfied the statutory definitions of claims of dependency and neglect and of an unruly child and, thus, the juvenile court had exclusive original jurisdiction of these claims. 

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted Mr. Cox and Mr. Minyard permission to appeal.  After the appeal was granted, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted a law that confirms a circuit court’s continuing subject matter jurisdiction over post-divorce petitions seeking to modify custody, regardless of the allegations of the petitions, until and unless a pleading is filed or relief is sought in juvenile court that invokes the juvenile court’s exclusive original jurisdiction.  Act of April 18, 2019, 2019 Tenn. Laws Pub. Ch. 167. 

The Tennessee Supreme Court applied this 2019 amendment and reversed the Court of Appeals.  The Tennessee Supreme Court explained that, because the juvenile court’s exclusive original jurisdiction was not invoked in any manner in these cases, the Circuit Court retained subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate these post-divorce petitions.  The Tennessee Supreme Court reinstated the Circuit Court’s judgment denying Ms. Lucas’ motions.

To read the unanimous opinions in Cox v. Lucas and Minyard v. Lucas, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.