Internet Advertising Didn't Subject Defendants To Personal Jurisdiction In North Carolina

Burgess v. Vitola, 2008 NCBC 4 (N.C. Super. Ct. Feb. 26, 2008)(Diaz)

Plaintiff sued the defendants, thirty out-of-state dentists and lawyers, charging that they had forced advertisements for their services onto his computer. He alleged that this had been accomplished by a “bug, worm, or virus.” 

Plaintiff based jurisdiction on N.C.G.S. §1-75.4(4)(a), which allows for the assertion of jurisdiction when “solicitation or services activities were carried on within this State or by or on behalf of the defendant.”

The Court didn't agree and granted the Motion to Dismiss, holding “it makes absolutely no sense that Moving Defendants, all of whom operate law or dental practices in states far removed from North Carolina, would have any interest in soliciting [plaintiff], or any other North Carolina resident.” The defendants, via affidavits, had denied such interest, although many of them did have "passive" Internet websites.

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E-Filing Wins The Race To The Courthouse

Signalife, Inc. v. Rubbermaid, Inc., 2008 NCBC 3 (N.C. Super. Ct. February 8, 2008)(Diaz)

Signalife sued Rubbermaid in Mecklenburg County Superior Court. The lawyers for Signalife camped out on the steps of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse and filed Signalife's lawsuit literally one minute after the courthouse opened, at 9:01 a.m.

Rubbermaid's lawyers, who slept in, sued Signalife in the Western District of North Carolina on the same day.

So, under the settled principle that "where a prior action is pending between the same parties for the same subject matter in a court within the state having jurisdiction, the prior action serves to abate the subsequent action," Signalife was entitled to go forward with its lawsuit, right?

Not here. The Rubbermaid lawyers had electronically filed their complaint in federal court eight hours earlier, at 12:25 a.m. Judge Diaz held that he would apply "the literal, chronological meaning of 'first filed,'" and ruled that priority would belong to Rubbermaid. In reaching that conclusion, the Court rejected cases holding that cases filed on the same day should be deemed to have been filed simultaneously. 

Sanctions For Derivative Action Plaintiff And His Lawyers

Egelhof v. Szulik, 2008 NCBC 2 (N.C. Super. Ct. Feb. 4, 2008)(Tennille)

It’s hard to imagine a more inadequate plaintiff than Egelhof to undertake the fiduciary responsibility of being a plaintiff in a derivative action against Red Hat, a publicly traded company. Egelhof was only 24 years old, and held only a few hundred dollars of Red Hat's stock. He had become a plaintiff in response to a solicitation on the internet. As the Court described Egelhof, "[h]e had little investing experience, no experience in litigation, no prior connection with the [his] law firm, no personal knowledge of [the corporation] and its operations, and a minor criminal record."

The Court concluded that this plaintiff "lacked any credentials to act as a fiduciary for a company in multi-million dollar litigation." Noting Egelhof’s paltry stake in Red Hat, the Court held that "[w]hile the size of ownership is not determinative of standing, a potential plaintiff's lack of a real financial stake in the litigation is a warning sign that he or she may not be willing or able to devote the time necessary to fulfill the fiduciary obligations imposed by law on a shareholder derivative plaintiff."

These factors alone would probably not have warranted sanctions, but Egelhof was completely uninvolved in his case. He relocated, more than once, and never gave his lawyers a forwarding address. He sold his stock during the course of the lawsuit, creating a significant standing issue, but never mentioned this to his lawyers. He had never even met his lawyers until the night before his deposition and had spent a total of five hours on the case by the time he was deposed.

The Court's sanction to Egelhof was to prohibit him from being a plaintiff in a class action or derivative action in North Carolina for the next five years. The lawyers came in for an equally harsh sanction.

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Valuation Formula In Coffee Company's Stockholders Agreement Enforced

Classic Coffee Concepts v. Anderson, 2008 NCBC 1 (N.C. Super. Ct. January 31, 2008)(Diaz)

Defendant, a terminated employee, owned one third of the outstanding stock of Classic Coffee Concepts. The issue in this case was the price to be paid for the stock, which the corporation was obligated to repurchase under a Stockholders Agreement. The Agreement said that the price would be determined by looking to the fair market value of the stock as determined by an independent appraisal of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan. But no ESOP had ever been established. 

A variety of conflicting appraisals were presented to the Court. Defendant would have been entitled to a multi-million recovery under two of them. The first, prepared pre-litigation to address an accounting issue involving goodwill, set the company's "fair value" at $12,500,000. A "fair value" appraisal ignores discounts in value that are typical for closely held corporations, like those for lack of marketability and lack of control. Defendant's shares would have been worth $4 million if this appraisal applied. A second appraisal factored in the discounts applicable to closely held corporations, and concluded that the corporation had a value of $8,390,000. If this appraisal had controlled, defendant's shares would have been worth more than $2.7 million. 

The company obtained a hypothetical appraisal for purposes of the litigation which valued the company as if the ESOP required by the Agreement was in place. The value placed on defendant’s shares under this approach was markedly lower, only $120,000. Another appraisal assuming the existence of the ESOP valued defendant's shares at $192,000, and the last of the many appraisals before the Court valued them at zero.

After analyzing this thicket of conflicting appraisals, the Court held that it would

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History Of The North Carolina Business Court

The Business Court was formed in 1995.  Judge Ben F. Tennille was the first Judge of the Court, appointed by the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1996.  That appointment was pursuant to Rule 2.2 of the North Carolina General Rules of Practice, which provides that the Chief Justice may "designate one or more superior court judges as special judges to hear and decide complex business cases. . . ."  

Rule 2.2 contains commentary on the reasons behind the formation of the Business Court, which was a recommendation of the North Carolina Commission on Business Laws and the Economy.  The Commision noted the lead of Delaware's Chancery Court in the area of specialized courts hearing matters involving corporate law:

many national corporations incorporate in the state of Delaware because of that state's Chancery Court which provides a high level of judicial expertise on corporate law issues. It also observed the desirability of a state having a substantial body of corporate law that provides predictability for business decision making. Also, it is essential that corporations litigating complex business issues receive timely and well reasoned written decisions from an expert judge.

Over the last 12 years, the Business Court has issued nearly 150 "published" opinions (those given an official "NCBC" citation) and numerous unpublished decisions on significant legal issues affecting consumers, shareholders, and businesses operating in North Carolina.

If you are interested in the history of the Court, this article published in the Journal of the North Carolina Banking Institute is excellent.  And if you are delving into that subject, it is worthwhile to read the Report issued by the North Carolina Chief Justice's Commission on the Future of the North Carolina Business Court.  The Commission recommended an expansion of the Court, which led to the addition of Judge Albert Diaz and Judge John Jolly to the Court.  An article about the recent expansion of the Court written by Ben Norman, a Brooks Pierce lawyer who clerked for Judge Tennille, is here.

Judge Tennille reported to the North Carolina Legislature on the first several years of the Court, from 1996-2000, in a detailed report.  Another report, for 2000-2001 is here.  The most recent report, for 2006-2008 is here

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Jurisdiction Of The Business Court

A case cannot be filed directly in the Business Court. It must be designated to the Court either by the Plaintiff, at the time of the filing of the Complaint, or by the Defendant, within 30 days of the receipt of the Complaint. Such a motion will be denied if it is untimely, as happened in this case.  The procedure is similar to removal to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction, and is set out in Section 7A-45.4 of the North Carolina General Statutes.

That statutue, as recently amended, describes seven categories of cases that qualify to be designated as “mandatory complex business cases.”  They are:

(1) The law governing corporations, except charitable and religious organizations qualified under G.S. 55A-1-40(4) on the grounds of religious purpose, partnerships, limited liability companies, and limited liability partnerships, including issues concerning governance, involuntary dissolution of a corporation, mergers and acquisitions, breach of duty of directors, election or removal of directors, enforcement or interpretation of shareholder agreements, and derivative actions.

(2) Securities law, including proxy disputes and tender offer disputes.

(3) Antitrust law, except claims based solely on unfair competition under G.S. 75-1.1.

(4) State trademark or unfair competition law, except claims based solely on unfair competition under G.S. 75-1.1.

(5) Intellectual property law, including software licensing disputes.

(6) The Internet, electronic commerce, and biotechnology.

(7) Tax law, when the dispute has been the subject of a contested tax case for which judicial review is requested under G.S. 105-241.16 or the dispute is a civil action under G.S. 105-241.17.

 

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The Judges Of The Business Court

Judge Ben F. Tennille, the Chief Judge of the Court, sits in Greensboro, North Carolina, in chambers located inside the Elon University Law School.  A bio and a profile of Judge Tennille are here.  This is an article written by Judge Tennille about the use of mediation in the Business Court. 

Judge Albert Diaz sits in Charlotte, North Carolina, where his chambers are in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.  One bio for Judge Diaz is here, and here is another one. Here is an article about the new Business Court courtroom in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.

The third Judge of the Court is Judge John Jolly, who sits in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Judge Jolly's bio is here.