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Appellate Update: Personal Signature of Party Not Required in Parental Termination Cases

In the case in re Bentley D., the Tennessee Court of Appeals considered an appeal of the judgment terminating a father's parental rights in which the father appealing the final order did not personally sign the Notice of Appeal. Upon filing, the Court of Appeals ordered the father to show cause why his appeal should not be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because of his failure to personally sign the notice of appeal pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-124(d), which states, "Any notice of appeal filed in a termination of parental rights action shall be signed by the appellant." The father filed a response to the show cause order, which included a challenge to the constitutionality of the statute at issue. The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that an appeal of the judgment terminating a parent's rights submitted within thirty days without the father's signature was untimely, and dismissed the father's appeal.

The Tennessee Supreme Court actually assumed jurisdiction over the case upon its own motion, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 16-3-201(d)(3), due to the compelling public interest that the case presented. The father contested the constitutionality of Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-124(d) signature requirement. The Tennessee Attorney General filed a notice of intent to defend the statute's constitutionality arguing that the procedural requirements of the statute dictated the dismissal of appeals pertaining to the termination of parental rights by Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-124(d), where the notice was not signed by the appellant. Historically, in such cases, the Tennessee Court of Appeals has found that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction and must dismiss the case.

The Tennessee Supreme Court noted that the timely filing of a notice does not determine it validity, only whether a court may act to dismiss it and as such, it is the duty of the court to observe and execute the law through the perpetuation of legislative intent without increasing or decreasing the breadth of its scope. Furthermore, the Supreme Court found the Court of Appeals was required to review findings to each ground and as to whether termination of the father's parental rights was in the child's best interest and examined the degree to which parents have a fundamental right to full and fair process in parental termination proceedings. Ultimately, the Tennessee Supreme Court found that attorneys are empowered to execute in a client's name, court papers at any stage of litigation with the implied authorization to carry out representation if done specifically to accomplish the goal of the appellant.

Tennessee Code Annotated does not specifically distinguish between the appellant and his or her attorney, and thus, the attorney's 'signature is an appropriate balance between the parties' interest and what is best for the child. These provisions were found to satisfy the substantive means necessary for subject jurisdiction within the Tennessee Court of Appeals which led to the ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court that an appeal concerning the termination of parental rights is not subject to dismissal under the provisions of Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-124(d), and that the Tennessee Court of Appeals must consider the father's appeal on its merits. This decision is representative of a keen sensitivity to the procedural requirements necessary to provide standing within the Tennessee Court of Appeals and confer its jurisdiction appropriately.

You can read the Tennessee Supreme Court's opinion in In re Bentley D., authored by Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, here:

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