Appeal

Abuse of Discretion, Meaning of

Editor’s Note:  The “abuse of discretion” standard of review frequently applied by the appellate courts.  Many, many opinions have a brief description of what “abuse of discretion” means and an effort is made to include those statements as part of the material on a given issue.  They are not included herein.

Instead, this chapter is reserved for the occasional decision that includes an extensive discussion of the “abuse of discretion” standard.

Decisions of the Tennessee Supreme Court

Decisions of the Tennessee Court of Appeals

In re the Conservatorship of Kimelah M., No. W2022-00292-COA-R3-CV, p. 6 (Tenn. Ct. App. April 26, 2023). 

As this Court has explained regarding those decisions:

Discretionary decisions require conscientious judgment. They must take the applicable law into account and must also be consistent with the facts before the court. Appellate courts will set aside a discretionary decision only when the trial court has misconstrued or misapplied the controlling legal principles or has acted inconsistently with the substantial weight of the evidence. Thus, a trial court’s discretionary decision should be reviewed to determine: (1) whether the factual basis for the decision is supported by the evidence, (2) whether the trial court identified and applied the applicable legal principles, and (3) whether the trial court’s decision is within the range of acceptable alternatives. Appellate courts should permit a discretionary decision to stand if reasonable judicial minds can differ concerning its soundness.

White v. Vanderbilt Univ., 21 S.W.3d 215, 223 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999) (citations omitted). As a result, “[a] party seeking to have a lower court’s holding overturned on the basis of abuse of discretion undertakes a heavy burden.” State ex rel. Jones v. Looper, 86 S.W.3d 189, 193 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000).

Bannor v. Bannor, No. E2022-00507-COA-R3-CV, p. 6-7 (Tenn. Ct. App. April 25, 2023). 

Furthermore, the trial court’s discretionary decisions are reviewed using the abuse of discretion standard. Lee Med., Inc. v. Beecher, 312 S.W.3d 515, 524 (Tenn. 2010). “Under the abuse of discretion standard, a trial court’s ruling ‘will be upheld so long as reasonable minds can disagree as to propriety of the decision made.’” Eldridge v. Eldridge, 42 S.W.3d 82, 85 (Tenn. 2001) (quoting State v. Scott, 33 S.W.3d 746, 752 (Tenn. 2000); State v. Gilliland, 22 S.W.3d 266, 273 (Tenn. 2000)). The Tennessee Supreme Court has summarized the abuse of discretion standard as follows:

The abuse of discretion standard of review envisions a less rigorous review of the lower court’s decision and a decreased likelihood that the decision will be reversed on appeal. It reflects an awareness that the decision being reviewed involved a choice among several acceptable alternatives. Thus, it does not permit reviewing courts to second-guess the court below . . . or to substitute their discretion for the lower court’s . . . . The abuse of discretion standard of review does not, however, immunize a lower court’s decision from any meaningful appellate scrutiny.

Discretionary decisions must take the applicable law and the relevant facts into account. An abuse of discretion occurs when a court strays beyond the applicable legal standards or when it fails to properly consider the factors customarily used to guide the particular discretionary decision. A court abuses its discretion when it causes an injustice to the party challenging the decision by (1) applying an incorrect legal standard, (2) reaching an illogical or unreasonable decision, or (3) basing its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence.

Lee Med., Inc., 312 S.W.3d at 524 (internal citations omitted). Therefore, we review the trial court’s discretionary decisions “to determine (1) whether the factual basis for the decision is properly supported by evidence in the record, (2) whether the . . . court properly identified and applied the most appropriate legal principles applicable to the decision, and (3) whether the . . . court’s decision was within the range of acceptable alternative dispositions.” Id. at 524-25 (citing Flautt & Mann v. Council of Memphis, 285 S.W.3d 856, 872-73 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2008)).

Hollis v. Hollis, No. E2020-01123-COA-R3-CV, p. 15-17 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 29, 2022).

The issues on appeal implicate the abuse of discretion standard of review. The Tennessee Supreme Court has expounded upon the abuse of discretion standard of review as follows:

This Court has described the abuse of discretion standard in some detail:

The abuse of discretion standard of review envisions a less rigorous review of the lower court’s decision and a decreased likelihood that the decision will be reversed on appeal. It reflects an awareness that the decision being reviewed involved a choice among several acceptable alternatives. Thus, it does not permit reviewing courts to second-guess the court below, or to substitute their discretion for the lower court’s. The abuse of discretion standard of review does not, however, immunize a lower court’s decision from any meaningful appellate scrutiny.

Discretionary decisions must take the applicable law and the relevant facts into account. An abuse of discretion occurs when a court strays beyond the applicable legal standards or when it fails to properly consider the factors customarily used to guide the particular discretionary decision. A court abuses its discretion when it causes an injustice to the party challenging the decision by (1) applying an incorrect legal standard, (2) reaching an illogical or unreasonable decision, or (3) basing its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence.

Lee Med., Inc. v. Beecher, 312 S.W.3d 515, 524 (Tenn. 2010) (citations omitted); see also BIF, a Div. of Gen. Signals Controls, Inc. v. Serv. Const. Co., No. 87-136-II, 1988 WL 72409, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 13, 1988) (citations omitted) (“The standard conveys two notions. First, it indicates that the trial court has the authority to choose among several legally permissible, sometimes even conflicting, answers. Second, it indicates that the appellate court will not interfere with the trial court’s decision simply because it did not choose the alternative the appellate court would have chosen.”).

Lee Medical provided the framework for determining whether a trial court has properly exercised its discretion:

To avoid result-oriented decisions or seemingly irreconcilable precedents, reviewing courts should review a lower court’s discretionary decision to determine (1) whether the factual basis for the decision is properly supported by evidence in the record, (2) whether the lower court properly identified and applied the most appropriate legal principles applicable to the decision, and (3) whether the lower court’s decision was within the range of acceptable alternative dispositions.

Lee Med., 312 S.W.3d at 524-25 (citing Flautt & Mann v. Council of City of Memphis, 285 S.W.3d 856, 872-73 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2008) (quoting BIF, 1988 WL 72409, at *3)); see also Vodafone Americas Holdings, Inc. & Subsidiaries v. Roberts, 486 S.W.3d 496, 514 (Tenn. 2016).

Harmon v. Hickman Cmty. Healthcare Servs., Inc., 594 S.W.3d 297, 305-06 (Tenn. 2020). “A trial court abuses its discretion only when it applies an incorrect legal standard, or reaches a decision which is against logic or reasoning that causes an injustice to the party complaining. The abuse of discretion standard does not permit the appellate court to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court.” Borne v. Celadon Trucking Servs., Inc., 532 S.W.3d 274, 294 (Tenn. 2017) (internal quotation marks, brackets, and citations omitted). With respect to credibility determinations, the Tennessee Supreme Court has instructed:

When it comes to live, in-court witnesses, appellate courts should afford trial courts considerable deference when reviewing issues that hinge on the witnesses’ credibility because trial courts are “uniquely positioned to observe the demeanor and conduct of witnesses.” State v. Binette, 33 S.W.3d 215, 217 (Tenn. 2000). “[A]ppellate courts will not re-evaluate a trial judge’s assessment of witness credibility absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.” Wells v. Tennessee Bd. of Regents, 9 S.W.3d 779, 783 (Tenn. 1999); see also Hughes v. Metro. Gov’t of Nashville & Davidson Cnty., 340 S.W.3d 352, 360 (Tenn. 2011). In order for evidence to be clear and convincing, it must eliminate any “serious or substantial doubt about the correctness of the conclusions drawn from the evidence.” State v. Sexton, 368 S.W.3d 371, 404 (Tenn. 2012) (quoting Grindstaff v. State, 297 S.W.3d 208, 221 (Tenn. 2009)). Whether the evidence is clear and convincing is a question of law that appellate courts review de novo without a presumption of correctness. Reid ex rel. Martiniano v. State, 396 S.W.3d 478, 515 (Tenn. 2013), (citing In re Bernard T., 319 S.W.3d 586, 596-97 (Tenn. 2010)), cert. denied, ––– U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 224, 187 L.Ed.2d 167 (2013).

Kelly, 445 S.W.3d at 692-93.

Guo v. Rogers,  No. M2020-01209-COA-R3-CV, p. 14-16 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 26, 2022).

This Court has described the abuse of discretion standard in some detail:

The abuse of discretion standard of review envisions a less rigorous review of the lower court’s decision and a decreased likelihood that the decision will be reversed on appeal. It reflects an awareness that the decision being reviewed involved a choice among several acceptable alternatives. Thus, it does not permit reviewing courts to second-guess the court below, or to substitute their discretion for the lower court’s. The abuse of discretion standard of review does not, however, immunize a lower court’s decision from any meaningful appellate scrutiny.

Discretionary decisions must take the applicable law and the relevant facts into account. An abuse of discretion occurs when a court strays beyond the applicable legal standards or when it fails to properly consider the factors customarily used to guide the particular discretionary decision. A court abuses its discretion when it causes an injustice to the party challenging the decision by (1) applying an incorrect legal standard, (2) reaching an illogical or unreasonable decision, or (3) basing its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence.

Lee Med., Inc. v. Beecher, 312 S.W.3d 515, 524 (Tenn. 2010) (citations omitted); see also BIF, a Div. of Gen. Signals Controls, Inc. v. Serv. Const. Co., No. 87-136-II, 1988 WL 72409, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 13, 1988) (citations omitted) (“The standard conveys two notions. First, it indicates that the trial court has the authority to choose among several legally permissible, sometimes even conflicting, answers. Second, it indicates that the appellate court will not interfere with the trial court’s decision simply because it did not choose the alternative the appellate court would have chosen.”).

Lee Medical provided the framework for determining whether a trial court has properly exercised its discretion:

To avoid result-oriented decisions or seemingly irreconcilable precedents, reviewing courts should review a lower court’s discretionary decision to determine (1) whether the factual basis for the decision is properly supported by evidence in the record, (2) whether the lower court properly identified and applied the most appropriate legal principles applicable to the decision, and (3) whether the lower court’s decision was within the range of acceptable alternative dispositions.

Lee Med., 312 S.W.3d at 524-25 (citing Flautt & Mann v. Council of City of Memphis, 285 S.W.3d 856, 872-73 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2008) (quoting BIF, 1988 WL 72409, at *3)); see also Vodafone Americas Holdings, Inc. & Subsidiaries v. Roberts, 486 S.W.3d 496, 514 (Tenn. 2016). Harmon v. Hickman Cmty. Healthcare Servs., Inc., 594 S.W.3d 297, 305-06 (Tenn. 2020). “A trial court abuses its discretion only when it applies an incorrect legal standard, or reaches a decision which is against logic or reasoning that causes an injustice to the party complaining. The abuse of discretion standard does not permit the appellate court to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court.” Borne v. Celadon Trucking Servs., Inc., 532 S.W.3d 274, 294 (Tenn. 2017) (internal quotation marks, brackets, and citations omitted).

 

Moore Freight Services, Inc. v. Mize, No. E2021-00590-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 3, 2022).

As our Supreme Court has elucidated concerning the abuse of discretion standard of review:

The abuse of discretion standard of review envisions a less rigorous review of the lower court’s decision and a decreased likelihood that the decision will be reversed on appeal. Beard v. Bd. of Prof’l Responsibility, 288 S.W.3d 838, 860 (Tenn. 2009); State ex rel. Jones v. Looper, 86 S.W.3d 189, 193 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000). It reflects an awareness that the decision being reviewed involved a choice among several acceptable alternatives. Overstreet v. Shoney’s, Inc., 4 S.W.3d 694, 708 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999). Thus, it does not permit reviewing courts to second-guess the court below, White v. Vanderbilt Univ., 21 S.W.3d 215, 223 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999), or to substitute their discretion for the lower court’s, Henry v. Goins, 104 S.W.3d 475, 479 (Tenn. 2003); Myint v. Allstate Ins. Co., 970 S.W.2d 920, 927 (Tenn. 1998). The abuse of discretion standard of review does not, however, immunize a lower court’s decision from any meaningful appellate scrutiny. Boyd v. Comdata Network, Inc., 88 S.W.3d 203, 211 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002). Discretionary decisions must take the applicable law and the relevant facts into account. Konvalinka v. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hosp. Auth., 249 S.W.3d 346, 358 (Tenn. 2008); Ballard v. Herzke, 924 S.W.2d 652, 661 (Tenn. 1996). An abuse of discretion occurs when a court strays beyond the applicable legal standards or when it fails to properly consider the factors customarily used to guide the particular discretionary decision. State v. Lewis, 235 S.W.3d 136, 141 (Tenn. 2007). A court abuses its discretion when it causes an injustice to the party challenging the decision by (1) applying an incorrect legal standard, (2) reaching an illogical or unreasonable decision, or (3) basing its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence. State v. Ostein, 293 S.W.3d 519, 526 (Tenn. 2009); Konvalinka v. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hosp. Auth., 249 S.W.3d at 358; Doe 1 ex rel. Doe 1 v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville, 154 S.W.3d [22,] 42 [(Tenn. 2005)].

To avoid result-oriented decisions or seemingly irreconcilable precedents, reviewing courts should review a lower court’s discretionary decision to determine (1) whether the factual basis for the decision is properly supported by evidence in the record, (2) whether the lower court properly identified and applied the most appropriate legal principles applicable to the decision, and (3) whether the lower court’s decision was within the range of acceptable alternative dispositions. Flautt & Mann v. Council of Memphis, 285 S.W.3d 856, 872-73 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2008) (quoting BIF, a Div. of Gen. Signal Controls, Inc. v. Service Constr. Co., No. 87-136-II, 1988 WL 72409, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 13, 1988) (No Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application filed)). When called upon to review a lower court’s discretionary decision, the reviewing court should review the underlying factual findings using the preponderance of the evidence standard contained in Tenn. R. App. P. 13(d) and should review the lower court’s legal determinations de novo without any presumption of correctness. Johnson v. Nissan N. Am., Inc., 146 S.W.3d 600, 604 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004); Boyd v. Comdata Network, Inc., 88 S.W.3d at 212.

Lee Med., Inc. v. Beecher, 312 S.W.3d 515, 524-25 (Tenn. 2010)

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