NC Business Court On Conflicting Rules Of Civil Procedure: Do You Need Leave Of Court To Amend Your Answer To Add A Counterclaim?

If I asked you if you were familiar with Rule 13(f) of the NC Rules of Civil Procedure, I'm betting that you would respond with a glassy stare and a slack jaw.  That Rule deals with a counterclaim that you should have made in your Answer, but which you left out.  It says that "[w]hen a pleader fails to set up a counterclaim through oversight, inadvertence, or excusable neglect, or when justice requires, he may by leave of court set up the counterclaim by amendment."

Leave of Court?  Asking permission?  Well, how does that square up with NCRCP 15, which deals with "amended pleadings?" That Rule says that you can amend your Complaint "as a matter of course" (i.e. without "leave of the Court") at any time before a "responsive pleading is served."  But Rule 13(f) seems to contemplate that the permission of the Court is needed before amending an Answer to raise an overlooked counterclaim. 

Judge Robinson dealt with these apparently conflicting Rules last week in Recurrent Energy Development Holdings, LLC v. Sunenergy1, LLC, 2017 NCBC 18.  Defendant Sunenergy1 had amended its Answer to add a counterclaim.  It did so within thirty days of filing its original, counterclaim-less Answer, but without asking for the permission of the Business Court.

The Plaintiff moved to strike the Answer, contending that NCRCP 13(f) required leave of Court  to add the counterclaim.

Judge Robinson, finding no North Carolina appellate authority on the point, looked to federal court decisions, though he found the federal case law to be "scant."  The majority of federal courts looking at the federal version of the Rule had decided that:

a party may amend its answer to add a counterclaim as a matter of course under Federal Rule 15(a), and that leave of court under Federal Rule 13(f) was only required after the period for amendment under Federal Rule 15(a) had expired.

Op. ¶87.

Judge Robinson observed that "a few other courts" had found otherwise.  Op. ¶88.

There really wasn't any need to decide which line of federal cases to follow because the Federal Rules were amended in 2009 to delete Rule 13(f).  The reason for the deletion was that the Rule was "largely redundant and potentially misleading."  Op. ¶93 (quoting Notes of Advisory Committee on 2009 amendments).  The Notes to Rule 15 state that the deletion of Rule 13(f) "establishes Rule 15 as the sole rule governing amendment of a pleading to add a counterclaim."

Judge Robinson interpreted the deletion of FRCP 13(f) to confirm that FRCP 15(a) "was always intended to apply to amendments to add counterclaims."

So, you do not need to file a Motion asking the Court to permit you to add a counterclaim to your Answer if you add that counterclaim within 30 days of your original Answer.  You can do that as "a matter of course."

Defending A Former Employee On a Non-Compete Or For Misappropriation Of Trade Secrets? Read This.

Do you really have to rush to Court to obtain an injunction for a misappropriation of trade secrets?  Maybe not.  But for an injunction enforcing a non-compete agreement, maybe yes.  The Plaintiff in American Air Filter Co. v. Price, 2017 NCBC 9 didn't get its non-compete enforced (partly due to its delay in filing suit), but that same delay didn't prevent it from getting an injunction to block its former employee from disclosing its trade secrets to his new employer.

Employers Who Wait Too Long To Seek An Injunction To Enforce A Non-Compete Run A Risk

First, as to non-compete agreements, it's best to move quickly if you want to enjoin a former employee from violating her covenant not to compete.  The Plaintiff in American Air Filter Co. v. Price waited nearly four months to seek a preliminary injunction.  Judge McGuire said its lack of urgency refuted its claim of the irreparable harm essential to the entry of an injunction.

He said that:

It is . . . significant that Plaintiff learned Price was employed with [a competitor] in late August, 2016, but did not file this action until November, 2016, did not seek a TRO to enforce the non-competition covenant, and did not move for a preliminary injunction until December 9, 2016. Plaintiff’s lack of urgency in seeking injunctive relief counsels against the idea that it is likely to suffer irreparable harm.

Op. ¶29 (emphasis added). 

The same delay didn't affect Plaintiff's proof of irreparable harm as to the threatened disclosure of its trade secrets.  Judge McGuire said that:   

The acquisition and potential disclosure or use of the information in Plaintiff’s confidential databases, which contain extensive data collected by Plaintiff from its customers and proprietary costing formulas, would cause irreparable harm to the Plaintiff.
      Op. 51.

Defending A Former Employee Accused Of Misappropriating Trade Secrets

The more interesting points of American Air Filter concern what is necessary to make out the requisites for a trade secrets injunction, and how a former employee can defend against one.

First, Judge McGuire held that it is not necessary to show that misappropriation of a trade secret  has actually occurred in order to obtain an injunction under the TSPA.  Op. 40.  There's nothing groundbreaking here.  The COA held in  Horner Int’l Co. v. McKoy, 232 N.C. App. 559, 569-70, 754 S.E.2d 852, 859-60 (2014), that a "threat of misappropriation was sufficient to warrant an injunction under the TPSA.  And the language of the statute itself does not require actual misappropriation for an injunction.  It says that "actual or threatened misappropriation of a trade secret may be preliminarily enjoined."  N.C. Gen. Stat. § 66-154(a).

Rebutting The Trade Secret Plaintiff's Burden Of Proof

There is a difficult issue regarding the burden of proof in making out a trade secrets case.  You might think that would be an easy matter.  After all, North Carolina's version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act contains a provision titled "burden of proof." That provision is not present in the Uniform Act.  It says that:

Misappropriation of a trade secret is prima facie established by the introduction of substantial evidence that the person against whom relief is sought both:

(1)        Knows or should have known of the trade secret; and

(2)        Has had a specific opportunity to acquire it for disclosure or use or has acquired, disclosed, or used it without the express or implied consent or authority of the owner. 

This prima facie evidence is rebutted by the introduction of substantial evidence that the person against whom relief is sought acquired the information comprising the trade secret by independent development, reverse engineering, or it was obtained from another person with a right to disclose the trade secret. This section shall not be construed to deprive the person against whom relief is sought of any other defenses provided under the law. 

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 66-155.

All of the bases for rebuttal of the prima facie case in North Carolina's statute assume that the Defendant has acquired the trade secrets.  What about a Defendant who had access to the trade secrets but defends on the basis that she never acquired or used trade secrets at all? Are there any other ways to rebut the prima facie case than those specified in the statute?

Judge McGuire framed the problem this way:

If these grounds were exclusive, an absurd result would follow: Every employee in North Carolina who had access to her employer's trade secrets but did not acquire them would have to go to trial to fend off the employer's claim of misappropriation.

Op. 42 (quoting RLM Communications, Inc. v. Tuschen, 831 F.3d 190, 200-01 (4th Cir. 2016).

The author of the RLM decision from the Fourth Circuit relied upon by Judge McGuire, navigating in territory without precedent for a guide, said that "[w]e do not think the Supreme Court of North Carolina, which has not had occasion to consider the meaning of the statute, would adopt such an interpretation." 

If your reaction, like mine, was what expertise could a federal Fourth Circuit Judge have to offer regarding how the NC Supreme Court might interpret North Carolina state trade secrets law, we are wrong.  The author of the RLM decision was Judge Albert Diaz.  If you don't remember Judge Diaz, he was a former (the second) Judge on the NC Business Court. He was nominated by President Obama in 2009 to serve on the Fourth Circuit and confirmed not long after his nomination.

So what is the standard applied to a former employee who admits that he had access to trade secrets, but defends on the basis that he did not acquire them?  Judge McGuire, relying on the RLM decision, said that:

Evidence that a former employee had access to, and therefore an 'opportunity to acquire,' an employer’s trade secrets, without more, is not sufficient to establish a prima facie case of misappropriation.  Rather, the employer must establish either that the former employee accessed its trade secrets without authorization or provide other sufficient evidence of misappropriation to raise an inference of actual acquisition or use of its trade secrets. 
Op. 45 (emphasis added).

Adopting that somewhat more difficult standard didn't help the Defendant before Judge McGuire.  He was working for a direct competitor of the Plaintiff in pretty much the same job he had held with the Plaintiff.  The Defendant had continued to access the Plaintiff's computer systems after being offered a job by the corporate Defendant.  Also, when the individual Defendant resigned from the Plaintiff, he didn't inform his employer that he was going to work for a competitor.  And he continued to access Plaintiff's trade secret information after he resigned.
 
Judge McGuire found that these facts established a likelihood of success on the merits, and granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting the individual Defendant from disclosing the Plaintiff's trade secrets.
 

 

NC Business Court: What Is Intrusion Into Seclusion?

I had never heard before of a "privacy tort" claim for "intrusion into seclusion."  But it exists in North Carolina per Judge Gale's Opinion in Dishner v. Goneau, 2017 NCBC 7, decided in the NC Business Court this week.  This is not a brand new tort.  It has been recognized by the NC Court of Appeals in the cases cited by Judge Gale (see below) and is even spelled out in the Restatement (Second) of Torts §652.

What is it?  "[T]he intentional intrusion, 'physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another or his private affairs or concerns.'”  Op. 43.  (quoting Miller v. Brooks, 123 N.C. App. 20, 26, 472 S.E.2d 350, 354 (1996) (quoting Smith v. Jack Eckerd Corp., 101 N.C. App. 566, 568, 400 S.E.2d 99, 100 (1991)).

The tort typically requires “a physical or sensory intrusion or an unauthorized prying into confidential personal records.”Op. Par. 43 (quoting Broughton v. McClatchy Newspapers, Inc., 161 N.C. App. 20, 29, 588 S.E.2d 20, 27(2003)).

The intrusion furthermore must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person."  Op. 43.

The allegations of the Plaintiff as to the intrusion into seclusion didn't pass muster.  He said that the Defendant, his former partner, had accessed his private email account without authorization and had sent emails to persons who were his contacts.  Judge Gale dismissed that claim without prejudice in the event that the Plaintiff could restate the claim "with adequate supporting detail."  Op. 46.

If you are thinking that this allegedly unauthorized intrusion into Plaintiff's computer sounds like a claim that could be brought under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. §1030, so did the Plaintiff.

But that claim was dismissed as well.  That statute requires that the Plaintiff plead and prove at least $5,000 in loss as a result of the violation.  18 U.S.C. §1030(g).  Judge Gale said that "loss of goodwill, business opportunities, or revenue resulting from improperly acquired information do not constitute 'loss' within the meaning of the CFAA."  Op. 41.  He said that the $5,000 loss required under the statute must be "related to fixing a computer."  Id.

Judge Gale's narrow interpretation of "loss" under the CFAA was based on  Nexans Wires S.A. v. Sark-USA, Inc. 319 F. Supp. 2d 468, 475 (S.D.N.Y. 2004), aff’d, 166 F. App’x 559 (2d Cir. 2006), which contains a pretty thorough discussion of the point.

Internal Affairs Doctrine Leads To Dismissal Of An Aiding And Abetting A Breach Of Fiduciary Duty Claim By NC Business Court

A lot of North Carolina court decisions have questioned whether a claim for "aiding and abetting a breach of fiduciary duty" can be made in North Carolina  (many of them are cited in ¶16 of the Islet Sciences Opinion referenced below). Most of those decisions have cast doubt on whether that claim is recognized at all in North Carolina, including several in the Business Court.  But no Business Court Judge has been willing to dismiss an aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty claim on the basis that it is not a valid claim in North Carolina

So parties keep asserting that questionable claim.  I wish they'd quit.  It's a dead end.

Business Court Judge McGuire dismissed such a claim earlier this month in an Opinion in Islet Sciences, Inc. v. Brighthaven Ventures, LLC, 2017 NCBC 5.  The individual Defendants, Green and Wilkinson, had been officers and directors of the Plaintiff and therefore owed it a fiduciary duty.  They were also the owners of the Defendant Brighthaven, whose merger discussions with the Plaintiff had fallen through.  The Plaintiff alleged in support of its claim that Brighthaven had provided "substantial assistance to Green and Wilkinson in breaching [their] fiduciary duties" and had therefore aided and abetted those breaches. Op. ¶15.

The Internal Affairs Doctrine

The Plaintiff, a Nevada corporation, argued that the law of Nevada -- which recognizes an aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty claim -- should control and that Defendant Brighthaven's Motion to Dismiss should be denied.  The argument for the application of Nevada law was premised on the internal affairs doctrine.

Maybe you don't remember the internal affairs doctrine.  The NC Court of Appeals has defined it as:

a conflict of laws principle which recognizes that only one State should have the authority to regulate a corporation's internal affairs — matters peculiar to the relationships among or between the corporation and its current officers, directors, and shareholders — because otherwise a corporation could be faced with conflicting demands.

Op. ¶18 (quoting Bluebird Corp. v. Aubin, 188 N.C. App. 671, 680, 657 S.E.2d 55, 63).

It wasn't difficult for Judge McGuire to shoot down the internal affairs argument, given that the corporate Defendant was an outsider to the Plaintiff, not one of its officers or directors.  He held that:

While a standard of fiduciary responsibility expected of officers and directors of a corporation generally should be the subject of uniform regulation by the state of incorporation, the same concerns do not necessarily apply to the conduct of third-party corporate outsiders that may lead to tort liability for aiding and abetting.  Such third party conduct does not implicate the standard to which a director or officer should be held; that standard is best left to determination by the state of incorporation.

Op.. ¶22 (emphasis added).

The Pleading Standard For A Non-Existent Claim

After determining that North Carolina law controlled the question of the validity of the aiding and abetting claim, Judge McGuire held the Plaintiff to a heightened pleading standard.  He said that pleading such a claim (even if it doesn't exist) requires "facts supporting an allegation of “substantial assistance by the aider and abettor in the achievement of the primary violation.'”  Conclusory facts like those alleged by the Plaintiff -- that the abettor “was aware of [the fiduciary's] . . . acts and rendered substantial assistance” -- didn't suffice.  Op. ¶27.  The claim was therefore dismissed.

The need for factual specificity in an aiding and abetting claim comes from an NC Court of Appeals decision cited by Judge McGuire (Op. ¶27): Bottom v. Bailey, 238 N.C. App. 202, 767 S.E.2d 883 (2014).  The Bottom case, which relies on another appellate decision, says that:

the tort of aiding and abetting a breach of fiduciary duty, according to Blow [v. Shaughnessy, 88 N.C. App. 484, 364 S.E.2d 444 (1988)], requires “(1) the existence of a securities law violation by the primary party; (2) knowledge of the violation on the part of the aider and abettor; and (3) substantial assistance by the aider and abettor in the achievement of the primary violation.”

Despite its articulation of that standard, the Bottom decision was unsparing in its assessment that an aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty claim cannot be made in North Carolina.  It said:

The court finds that no such cause of action exists in North Carolina. It is undisputed that the Supreme Court of North Carolina has never recognized such a cause of action. The only North Carolina Court of Appeals decision recognizing such a claim, Blow v. Shaughnessy, 88 N.C. App. 484, 489, 364 S.E.2d 444, 447–48 (1988), involved allegations of securities fraud, and its underlying rationale was eliminated by the United States Supreme Court in Central Bank of Denver v. First Interstate Bank of Denver, 511 U.S. 164, 114 S.Ct. 1439, 128 L.Ed.2d 119 (1994).

238 N.C. App. 202, 211.

The Business Court has often dismissed fiduciary duty/aiding and abetting claims.  Like in Tong v. Dunn, 2012 NCBC 16,  Regions Bank v. Regional Property Development Corp., 2008 NCBC 8, Battleground Veterinary Hospital, P.C. v. McGeough, 2007 NCBC 33; and Sompo Japan Insurance Inc. v. Deloitte & Touche, LLP, 2005 NCBC 2.

But the Business Court has never dismissed that type of claim on the basis that it is not recognized in North Carolina.  It is inevitable that that is going to happen, but until then, the Court will find another way to dismiss those claims.  Don't waste your time making that claim.

Five Things You Should Know About Discovery Under The New Business Court Rules

There are new Rules for the NC Business Court In effect, as of January 1, 2017.  If you have a case in the Business Court, or are expecting to designate a case there, you should look them over.  They are applicable to all actions currently pending in the Business Court.

If you are not willing to take the time to read the new Rules (which is not recommended), here are five things which affect discovery in the Business Court under the new Rules:

Be Courteous And Cooperative

New Rules 10.1 through 10.8 govern discovery.  The new Rules dictate cooperation in discovery.  Rule 10.1 (titled "general principles") says that:

The parties should cooperate to ensure that discovery is conducted efficiently. Courtesy and cooperation among counsel advances, rather than hinders, zealous representation.

If you think that this is a new and unfairly burdensome obligation, you are in the wrong profession.  The North Carolina Revised Rules of Professional Conduct say that "[l]awyers are encouraged to treat opposing counsel with courtesy and to cooperate with opposing counsel when it will not prevent or unduly hinder the pursuit of the objective of the representation."  Comment 1 to RRPC 1.2

Proportionality

The Rules make a specific reference to the concept of "proportionality," which was incorporated into the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure with the 2015 amendments to those Rules.  New Rule 10.3(a) says that in the Case Management Conference:

Counsel should discuss the scope of discovery, taking into account the needs of the case,the amount in controversy, limitations on the parties’ resources, the burden and expense of the expected discovery compared with its likely benefit, the importance of the issues at stake in the litigation, and the importance of the discovery for the adjudication of the merits of the case.

If you find this to be a startling limitation on the scope of discovery, it isn't.  NCRCP 26(b)(1a), effective in 2015 and captioned "limitations on frequency and extent," references much the same concepts.  If you have an interest in mastering the challenge of proportionality, the drafters of the new Business Court Rules recommend studying A Practical Guide in Achieving Proportionality under New Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26, 9 The Fed. Cts. L. Rev. 20 (2015).

Electronically Stored Information (ESI)

The new Rules speak more specifically to electronically stored information (ESI), more so than did Old Rule 17.1(t), which mentioned only "metadata.".  New Rule 10.3(c) says that counsel for the parties should prepare an ESI protocol —an agreement between the parties for the identification, preservation, collection, and production of ESI."  The Rule goes on to suggest the items that should be covered, like "the specific sources, location, and estimated volume of ESI" and how the search should be conducted.  When should this happen?  Per new Rule 9.1(d), at the Case Management Meeting.  That meeting is required to happen no more than sixty days after the designation of the case to the Business Court.  (new Rule 9.1(b)).

Interrogatories, Requests For Admission, And Depositions

Interrogatories and requests for admission are limited to no more than twenty-five (new Rule 10.4(b)).  That's half the number permitted by the past set of Rules, which allowed for fifty of each (old Rule 18.2).  The number of depositions allowed remains unchanged-- to no more than twelve by each party.  (new Rule 10.4(c); old Rule 18.2),  Though under the old Rules, Rule 18.2 excluded "testifying experts" from the limitation of twelve.  The new Rules make no such exclusion, so this represents somewhat of a limitation.

All depositions are subject to a time limit of seven hours.  New Rule 10.7(a).  You might remember that when Rule 30 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were amended in 2000  to provide for the same time limit, that there initially was debate about whether the time taken for breaks -- like coffee, lunch, or a trip to the bathroom -- was included in the time limit.  It wasn't really much of a debate, since the federal advisory committee notes actually resolved that question. The notes say “[t]]his limitation contemplates that there will be reasonable breaks during the day for lunch and other reasons, and that the only time to be counted is the time occupied by the actual deposition.”

The new Business Court Rule 10.7(a) resolves that practical issue on its face, it says that the seven hours is measured by "on--the-record time."

The new Rule contains some clarification for 30(b)(6) depositions.  A party providing a 30(b)(6) witness may often present multiple witnesses, each addressing a separate 30(b)(6) topic.  Rule 10.4(c) says that "for depositions conducted pursuant to Rule 30(b)(6), each period of seven hours of testimony will count as a single deposition, regardless of the number of designees presented during that seven-hour period."

Streamlined Procedure For Resolving Discovery Disputes

In a new approach for resolving discovery disputes, new Rule 10.9(b)(1) requires the moving party to "initiate a telephone conference among counsel and the presiding Business Court judge about the dispute."  in order to initiate this telephone conference, the moving party a party first must e-mail a summary of the dispute [of less than 700 words] "to the judicial assistant and law clerk for the presiding Business Court judge and to opposing counsel."  The opposing party has seven calendar days to respond with an equally pithy (700 word) response.  After receiving the response, the Judge can either require the filing of a formal motion and a brief, or rule based on the summaries.

It will be interesting to see how this approach works.  Maybe the Business Court Judges will be innundated with telephone conferences.  Or maybe, after the lawyers exchange the summaries, they will be infected with the spirit of courtesy and cooperation dictated by new Business Court Rule 10.1.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I was guided in preparing this post by a document prepared by the principal drafters of the new Rules, including my partner Jennifer Van Zant, who seems to get mentioned on this blog more than any other Brooks Pierce lawyer.  The document was prepared quite a while ago (in May 2016), so the Rule changes actually implemented may vary from what are described in it.  It is titled Key Features of Proposed Changes to the North Carolina Business Court Rules.

I am working on adding the Revised Rules to the Sidebar of this blog.  They have been hyperlinked by my assistant Nancy Preslan, who is undoubtedly the best legal assistant in the world.  "Hyperlinked," in this case, means that you can clink on any Rule in the table of contents and hop to that Rule, and then click on the Rule itself to return to the Table of Contents.  That saves a lot of paging back and forth.  For now, they are here.

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NC Business Court Starts Off 2017 By Denying A Motion For Sanctions And Adding A New Judge

In the NC Business Court's first Opinion of the new year, Judge Bledsoe denied Defendants' Motion for Rule 11 Sanctions in Kure Corp. v. Peterson, 2017 NCBC 1.  The decision holds a few lessons about the operation of Rule 11 of the NC Rules of Civil Procedure.

You Can't Avoid A Rule 11 Sanction in North Carolina By Withdrawing Your Complaint

Maybe you got carried away and filed a Complaint that you discovered later wasn't "well grounded in fact" or "warranted by existing law" and was therefore in violation of Rule 11.  That  conduct exposed you (and your client) to a sanction of having to pay "the reasonable expenses incurred because of the filing of the pleading . . . including a reasonable attorney's fee."  NCRCP 11(a).

Can you avoid the whole problem by dismissing or amending the Complaint?  If you are in federal court, the answer would be "yes."  There is a "safe harbor" under FRCP 11.  Judge Bledsoe observed that under the Federal Rules, "once a party serves a Rule 11 motion on the opposing party, the motion 'must not be filed or be presented to the court if the challenged paper, claim, defense, contention, or denial is withdrawn or appropriately corrected within 21 days after service or within another time the court sets.'  Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(c))."  Op. 7 & n.2.

The Federal Rules were amended in 1993 to add that "safe harbor" language.  The North Carolina Rule was last amended in 1986 and was nearly identical to the federal rule in effect at that time.  It therefore doesn't provide for any "safe harbor."

So even though the Plaintiff in the Kure case had amended its Complaint, and even though the counsel filing the Complaint had had new counsel substituted for them, the lawyers filing the original Complaint were still subject to Rule 11 sanctions.

Suing On Behalf Of An Incorrect Party Is Not Sanctionable Under Rule 11

The Plaintiff Kure Corp. was suing as a result of alleged misrepresentations made to it.  As the Defendant pointed out in its Rule 11 Motion, however, Kure had not been formed as a corporation until after the alleged misrepresentations were made.  The Defendant said that the Plaintiff's counsel were subject to Rule 11 sanctions because they had sued on behalf of the wrong party.

The Business Court, looking to the terms of NCRCP 17, which says in part that "[n]o action shall be dismissed on the ground that it is not prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest until a reasonable time has been allowed" for substitution of the proper party, denied that aspect of the Rule 11 Motion.

Judge Bledsoe's ruling was bolstered by an NC Court of Appeals decision holding that “[c]ourts should not impose sanctions under Rule 11 when relief is available under another provision which more specifically addresses the situation.”  Op. 21(quoting Overcash v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield, 94 N.C. App. 602, 618, 381 S.E.2d 330, 340 (1989)).

Wanting To Be The First To File Isn't An "Improper Purpose" Per Rule 11

The parties to the Kure case had met to discuss a resolution of their dispute before the lawsuit was filed.  Defendants alleged that at that meeting, Plaintiff's representative had demanded that the Defendants sign a settlement agreement or that "plaintiff would file its Complaint within the hour." Op. 27.

In addition to its requirement that a pleading be "well grounded in fact" or "warranted by existing law" Rule 11(a) also condemns filing for an "improper purpose."  It says that a signature on a Complaint is a certification that litigation it is not "interposed for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation."

An improper purpose is “any purpose other than one to vindicate rights . . . or to put claims of right to a proper test.” Op. 26 (quoting Mack v. Moore, 107 N.C. App. 87, 93, 418 S.E.2d 685, 689).  Judge Bledsoe ruled that the sort of conduct complained of by the Defendants was not sanctionable.  He said that:

Defendants. . . have not pointed to any authority demonstrating that a desire to gain a litigation advantage is beyond the scope of 'vindicating rights' or 'putting claims of right to a proper test.' Finding that Plaintiff acted with an improper purpose would expose to sanctions countless attorneys who make pre-filing settlement demands or seek to file before the opposing party does.

Op. 28.

A Couple More Things: New Judge(s?) for the Business Court And My Resolution

The Business Court also started off 2017 with at least one new Judge.  Adam M. Conrad was nominated a Special Superior Court Judge by outgoing Governor Pat McCrory in December 2016.  I don't know new Judge Conrad, but he has an outstanding background including a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship and formerly being a partner at King & Spalding.  Judge Conrad takes his Business Court judgeship by way of the General Assembly's enactment of N.C. Gen. Stat. sec. 7A-45.1(a9), which created  a new special superior court judgeship which the Governor, prior to submitting the nominee for confirmation and in consultation with the Chief Justice, shall determine has the requisite expertise and experience" to be designated as a business court judge."  His nomination was confirmed by the NC General Assembly last month.

Judge Conrad has assumed his position and will be residing in the Business Court in the Mecklenburg County courthouse.

Governor McCrory also nominated Andrew Heath as a Special Superior Court Judge.  Mr. Heath, confirmed by the General Assembly last month, is the former North Carolina Budget Director and former Chairman of the North Carolina Industrial Commission.  I'm pretty sure that I've read somewhere that Judge Heath is in line for an assignment to the Business Court, but don't count on me being correct on that. In any event, a seat on the Business Court may become available, possibly due to Judge Gale's resignation from the Court last October, which is referenced in the General Assembly's confirmation of Judge Heath (What!?  I spoke with Judge Gale about whether he had resigned, and he explained a complicated series of events, including his retirement, which led to him being named a "Senior Business Court Judge" (per a 2015 amendment to the General Statutes, codified in N.C. Gen. Stat. §7A-52(a1)).  That position allows him to be recalled from retirement to serve on the Business Court and to continue to hear cases beyond the mandatory retirement age of 72.  He continues to be the Chief Judge of the Business Court.

Finally, I made the ill-advised resolution in 2014 to write about every numbered Business Court decision.  I have failed miserably at that and please know that this year I have resolved that I definitely will NOT write about every numbered Business Court decision going forward.  That will be an easier resolution to keep.  I hope that this won't cause you to stop reading.

Think You Can Appeal The Business Court's Denial Of Your Opposition To Designation? You Probably Can't

The NC Supreme Court's jurisdiction over appeals from the Business Court expanded significantly with the passage of a bill by the NC General Assembly "modernizing" the Business Court in 2014.  A party can appeal even interlocutory orders of the Business Court to the state's highest Court.  N.C. Gen. Stat. §7A-27(a).

What about an Order from the Business Court denying an opposition to a designation to the Business Court?  That's surely "interlocutory," so appealable, right?  Yes, sure, if it affects a "substantial right," as provided in  G.S. §7A-27(a).

Given a ruling from the NC Supreme Court this week, however, it seems unlikely that being forced against your will to litigate in the Business Court will ever be deemed to affect a "substantial right."

The case is Hanesbrands Inc. v. FowlerPlaintiff, suing the Defendant for breaching stock grant agreements, designated the case to the Business Court at the time it filed its Complaint in August 2015.  The Defendant objected to the designation in September 2015.  Judge Gale denied the Opposition the next month and the interlocutory ruling was appealed to the NC Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled that a "substantial right" was not affected by the case remaining in the Business Court and dismissed the appeal.  It rejected the Defendant's argument that she was just an "ordinary" human being who shouldn't have to fight a large corporation in a "special court" designed for sophisticated business entities.  The Defendant had argued:

that requiring her 'to defend a case filed against her by a large, public corporation in a special court established primarily for disputes between businesses' denies her the substantial right to 'have this matter heard in the same manner as ordinary disputes involving ordinary citizens.'

Op. at 5.

I wonder if a "substantial right" would be affected if the Business Court were to grant an Opposition to a Designation in a case appropriate for designation, requiring the designating party to litigate its case outside of the Business Court.  That would involve being in regular NC Superior Court, a Court without electronic filing, without law clerks to assist the Judge in ruling on its claims, without a Judge with the business expertise of a Business Court Judge dedicated to the case from start to finish and without a blog focused on the Court.  If that's not "substantial" enough, it is at least probably unconstitutional.

Before the Business Court was "modernized," the General Statutes allowed precisely that sort of appeal.  Section 7A-45.4(e) used to say that a party dissatisfied with an Order kicking a case out of the Business Court "may appeal to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court."  There was no procedure for that unique kind of appeal to a single Judge.  The only time I think that it was exercised resulted in nothing more than a form Order from the NC Supreme Court.  I wrote about that case back in 2012.

But even looking back at that no longer effective statute, it seems unlikely that there ever was a right of appeal to the NC Supreme Court for an Order refusing to overturn a designation.

I would not  have been aware of the interesting Hanesbrands decision but for my partner Jennifer Van Zant emailing it to me a couple of days ago.  Thanks, Jennifer.

Who Would Ever Have Thought That Sending A Preservation Letter Might Be Dangerous?

There is probably nothing more routine in litigation today than a Plaintiff's counsel sending a "preservation letter."    A preservation letter, if you've never sent or received one, is a letter sent at the outset of litigation -- or even before it begins -- telling the opposing counsel or party (or even a non-party) to make sure to withhold from destruction documents relevant to the claims.

But who would have ever thought that sending such a routine letter could form the basis for an abuse of process claim?  Apparently it can, based on Judge Robinson's Opinion last month in DDM&S Holdings, LLLC v. Doc Watson Enterprises, LLC, 2016 NCBC 86.

Abuse Of Process

if you need a refresher on what a claim for abuse of process is, it is "the misuse of legal process for an ulterior purpose."  Op. ¶23 (quoting  Chidnese v. Chidnese, 210 N.C. App. 299, 310, 708 S.E.2d 725, 734 (2011)). 

The requirement of an "ulterior purpose"?  That is met when the party accused of the abuse of process takes some willful action after the lawsuit is filed which is aimed at getting the advantage of the opposing party in "some collateral matter."  Op. ¶23.

Judge Robinson spoke to the routine nature of a preservation letter:

Plaintiffs argue that a preservation of evidence letter can never serve as the basis for an abuse of process claim. Indeed, all other things equal, there is nothing inherently improper about a plaintiff sending a letter to individuals who may have relevant evidence requesting that they preserve such evidence. It is a routine litigation practice. The fact that is a routine litigation practice, however, does not mean that such an act can never be used to gain an advantage with respect to some collateral matter. North Carolina courts consistently hold that acts otherwise routine and permissible can constitute an improper act sufficient to satisfy the “act” element of an abuse of process claim.

Op. ¶27 (emphasis added).

The parties to the lawsuit had sold a database, which collected police reports from across the United States, to LexisNexis.  The ulterior motive alleged by the Defendants (via a counterclaim) was that the preservation letter sent to LexisNexis to cause it to withhold distributions from a $2 million escrow fund established in connection with the sale. LexisNexiss did indeed instruct the escrow agent to withhold any distribution from the escrow fund.  The non-payment of money from the escrow fund was alleged by the Defendants to be aimed at coercing and pressuring them to pay more money to the Plaintiffs (which the Defendants said they were not due per the terms of the sale to LexisNexis).

The Allegations Of A Pleading Are Assumed By A Court To Be True

Judge Robinson rejected the argument that a "preservation of evidence letter can never serve as the basis for an abuse of process claim."  Op. ¶27.  The allegations of the Defendants' counterclaim satisfied the bare bones pleading requirements for an abuse of process claim.  As Judge Robinson observed, "[c]oercing a party into paying additional monies is not a purpose for which a preservation of evidence letter is intended." Op. ¶28.  Even though the Plaintiffs denied that coercion was the purpose of their preservation letter, that wasn't enough for them to succeed on their motion to dismiss, as all allegations in a Complaint or counterclaim are accepted as true at the motion to dismiss stage.

This decision highlights the broad latitude that judges, both state and federal, are required to accord to the allegations in a pleading.  Skepticism about the truth of the allegations in a Complaint or Counterclaim is hardly ever sufficient to support a dismissal.  The U.S. Supreme Court said way back in 2009 (in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 566 U.S. 662 (Souter, J., dissenting) that "[t]he sole exception to this rule lies with allegations that are sufficiently fantastic to defy reality as we know it: claims about little green men, or the plaintiff's recent trip to Pluto, or experiences in time travel."

The allegations surrounding the preservation letter in the DDM&S Holdings case aren't so "sufficient[ly] fantastical" as to fall into the category of little green men, trips to Pluto, or experiences in time travel.

But it remains to be seen whether this abuse of process claim can survive a motion for summary judgment.

What other innocent acts performed in connection with a lawsuit might form the basis for an abuse of process claim?  What about talking to the press?  Sending a notice of deposition or a subpoena?

I don't see an increase in abuse of process claims lying head based on preservation letters being sent.  This ruling wouldn't stop me from sending a preservation letter.

 

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NC Business Court Sends Some Important Messages About Fees To Lawyers For Class Action Plaintiffs

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I am very sour on substantial attorneys' fees being awarded to the lawyers for class action plaintiffs who obtain nothing more for the class than valueless additional disclosures with regard to a merger transaction.  You can read some of those posts here and here.

The Business Court has routinely been awarding substantial fees for disclosure only settlements up until now, but the Business Court's decision last week in In re Newbridge Bancorp Shareholder Litig., 2016 NCBC 87 sends the message that its relaxed examination of the value of such settlements is probably at an end.  That is partly based on the Delaware Court of Chancery's decision in In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litig., 129 A.3d 886 (Del. Ch. 2016), which was characterized as the "death knell" there for such settlements.

Judge Bledsoe said in the Newbridge Opinion:

the North Carolina Business Court has historically been guided in its consideration of motions to approve, and award attorneys’ fees in connection with, “disclosure-based” settlements of merger-based class action litigation by the body of persuasive case law developed by the Delaware courts over a period of many years. The Court is also aware that the Delaware courts have recently subjected such motions to much more exacting scrutiny than they have in the past.  See, e.g., In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litig., 129 A.3d 886 (Del. Ch. 2016).

In the absence of contrary instructions from the North Carolina appellate courts, the Court finds the recent trend in the Delaware case law requiring enhanced scrutiny of disclosure-based settlements to merit careful consideration for potential application in this State.  The Court recognizes, however, that the application of Delaware’s recent case law to the Motions would represent a marked departure from this Court’s past practices in connection with the consideration of such motions. As a result, the Court declines to apply enhanced scrutiny to its consideration of the Motions in this case but expressly advises the practicing bar that judges of the North Carolina Business Court, including the undersigned, may be prepared to apply enhanced scrutiny of the sort exercised in Trulia to the approval of disclosure-based settlements and attendant motions for attorneys’ fees hereafter.

Op. Pars. 4 and 5.

Notwithstanding Judge Bledsoe's decision that "enhanced scrutiny" would not be applied in the case before him, he did undertake a pretty close review of the value of the disclosures obtained for the class, and also the amount of the attorneys fees being awarded.

The Disclosures Obtained By Class Counsel Did Not Justify The Amount Of Fees Sought

He said that some of the disclosures touted as the basis for the fee award were "not material" or of "marginal benefit." Op. Pars. 64-65, 71 & n. 10.  He said that the Delaware Court of Chancery had "long rejected" the fallacy "that increasingly detailed disclosure is always material and beneficial disclosure."  Op. ¶64 (quoting Dent v. Ramtron Int’l Corp., No. 7950-VCP, 2014 Del. Ch. LEXIS 110, at *47  (Del. Ch. June 30, 2014)).

After that review, he sliced in half the amount of fees sought by class counsel, finding their fee request (of almost $275,000 based on an implied hourly rate of almost $525) was "not fair and reasonable, but rather excessive based on the circumstances of this case and the record before the Court."  Op. ¶69.

On the limited fee information provided by the class plaintiff's counsel, Judge Gale said that the $135,000 fee award he made yielded an implied average hourly rate of $258.  That probably seemed pretty skimpy to those lawyers, who said that the "usual and customary rates" for  the senior lawyers for the Court-approved Co-Lead Counsel ranged from $650-$850 per hour.  Op. ¶50.

But the lawyers for the class did little to justify their fees.  They did not offer any affidavits of North Carolina attorneys attesting to “the fees customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services,”  as contemplated by the Revised Rule 1.5(a)(3) of Professional Conduct.  Instead, they premised their fee request on a 2015 survey of billing rates published in the National Law Journal.  Judge Bledsoe rejected that, saying that "the NLJ Survey does not report the specific range of hourly rates customarily charged in North Carolina for legal services of the sort Plaintiffs’ counsel provided here."  Op. ¶51.

The Business Court Said That "Typical Fees" In North Carolina For Complex Litigation Are $250-$450 Per Hour

Left without any benchmarks for what North Carolina lawyers charged as "customary rates" for complex commercial litigation, Judge Bledsoe looked to affidavits offered to the Business Court in other class action fee applications which stated that "typical fees charged in North Carolina for handling complex commercial litigation range from $250 to $450 per hour."  Op. ¶52.  He also relied on the hourly fees charged by lawyers appointed by the Business Court to serve as receivers or as counsel for receivers (which ranged from $225 to $475 per hour). Op. ¶54.

Another Important Caution For Future Fee Applications

Another deficiency in the fee application was the failure to supply detailed time records justifying the time spent.  The fee applicants instead presented only summary charts showing the total hours spent on the lawsuit.  In another caution for lawyers requesting approval of fee applications, Judge Bledsoe said:

the Court notes that attorneys’ fees’ petitions in this Court are typically supported by detailed attorney time records and advises that the Court will be reluctant to approve future petitions for attorneys’ fees lacking such evidentiary support.

Op. ¶45 & n. 8 (emphasis added).

Judge Bledsoe also said that there was nothing so special about the work done by class counsel to justify the higher hourly rate that they requested.  He said that: the nature of the work performed by Plaintiffs’ counsel "could have been performed fully by competent North Carolina counsel and that the demands of the [litigation] did not require Plaintiffs to retain counsel from outside North Carolina in order to prosecute the [litigation].  Op. ¶55.

If you think that I am being too hard on Plaintiffs' counsel, I should point out that Judge Bledsoe said he found that:

Plaintiffs’ counsel are highly-regarded, highly-experienced class action counsel that have been involved in a number of significant class action matters including matters resulting in substantial monetary recovery for the class.

Op. ¶46.

Regardless of their qualifications, in the future these lawyers (who were undoubtedly disappointed in this ruling due to their success last year in getting a $550,000 fee award approved by a different Business Court Judge) and other lawyers for class action plaintiffs expecting big fees for anticipated disclosure only settlements of marginal value might need to find some other state in which to file those claims.

No more feeding at the trough in North Carolina.

A Couple Of Other Notes On This Opinion

One of the remarkable things about this Opinion is that there were no objections to the fees sought by the attorneys for the class.  Judge Bledsoe resolved, on his own accord, to closely review and reduce the fees sought.

Second, I recognize that even class actions leading to immaterial disclosure only settlements involve the need for North Carolina lawyers to defend those claims.  So it would be a shame if those out of state lawyers filing the suits leading to these settlements were to stay away from North Carolina altogether.

 

 

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Who Knew That A Motion To Transfer Venue Could Be So Complicated?

North Carolina cases that are filed in an "improper county" can be transferred to the "proper county" if the "defendant, before the time of answering expires, demands in writing that the trial be conducted in the proper county."  N.C. Gen Stat. §§1-83.

Multiple Claims With Different Venue Requirements

Well, what if there's a multiple count complaint, and only one of the claims was filed in an "improper county?"  That was the situation dealt with by Judge Robinson last week in Aldridge v. Kiger, 2016 NCBC 83.

Plaintiff a resident of Union County, sued the Defendants, including a corporation and an LLC which were based in Mecklenburg County, in Union County.  If there wasn't a specific venue provision applicable to the claims, the case was appropriately filed in Union County.  That would be so per G.S. §1-82, which says that an "action must be tried in the county in which the plaintiffs or the defendants, or any of them, reside at its commencement."

Dissolution Claims Have Their Own Venue Requirement

But Plaintiff's county of residency didn't control, because his complaint included a claim for dissolution of the corporate Defendant.  That claim has a specific venue provision which applies to it.  That provision isn't in Subchapter 4 of Chapter 1 of the General Statutes (G.S. §§ 1-76 to -87), where most of the provisions relating to venue are contained.

Instead, there is a provision regarding proper venue for corporate dissolution claims buried in the North Carolina Business Corporation Act.  Section 55-14-31(a) says that:

Venue for a proceeding to dissolve a corporation lies in the county where a corporation's principal office (or, if none in this State, its registered office) is or was last located.

Maybe you were aware of that provision.  I wasn't, and the attorneys for the Plaintiff obviously weren't either.

So Judge Robinson had no choice but to transfer the venue of the dissolution claim from Union County to Mecklenburg County.  But what about the other claims, which were properly venued in Union County?  Should they stay there?

The Court Did Not Sever The Claims So As To Let the Properly Venued Claims To Remain In The County Of Filing

Rule 42(b)(1) of the NC Rules of Civil Procedure allows the trial court to sever claims and it specifically speaks to venue considerations.  It says:

The court may in furtherance of convenience or to avoid prejudice and shall for considerations of venue upon timely motion order a separate trial of any . . .  number of claims.

While that Rule would seem to allow a severing of the claims, with one to be transferred to Mecklenburg County and the others to remain in Union County, Judge Robinson found the outcome to be dictated by one of the other venue statutes.  Section 1-87(a) of the General Statutes says that:

When a cause is directed to be removed. . .  all other proceedings shall be had in the county to which the place of trial is changed,

He ruled that  "[b]ecause all claims were brought in a single action in Union County , and Union County is an improper venue for the judicial dissolution claim, the entire action must be transferred to Mecklenburg County."  (emphasis added).

For those of you familiar with North Carolina geography, you know that there is not much inconvenience to the Plaintiff in having to litigate all his claims in Mecklenburg County as opposed to Union County.  Those two counties are right next to each other. The courthouses are about 25 miles apart!  The inconvenience is even less, since the case is in the Business Court, and will be overseen by the same Judge until conclusion.

It's hard to see how the Defendants will see this "win" as accomplishing anything much.  They might have thought that they would succeed in getting a dismissal of the case due to improper venue, but "North Carolina case law is clear that a motion to dismiss based on improper venue made pursuant to Rule 12(b)(3) shall be treated as a motion to transfer, rather than a motion to dismiss."  Op. ¶14 (citing Coats v. Sampson Cty. Mem’l Hosp., Inc., 264 N.C. 332, 334, 141 S.E.2d 490, 492 (1965)).