Court Of Appeals Cases Today: Arbitrator Immunity, Sanctions, And Work Product Decisions

It was a busy opinion day today in the North Carolina Court of Appeals: there were 44 published opinions, three of which I'm commenting about briefly below.  The three involve a range of issues, including arbitrator immunity, Rule 11 sanctions, and an technical point about subpoenas in state tax refund litigation and also work product privilege.

The arbitrator case, Dalenko v. Collier, addressed an issue of first impression in North Carolina, whether an arbitrator is entitled to judicial immunityPlaintiff, a pro se litigant who had been unsuccessful in an arbitration heard by former Judge Collier, sued him for allegedly being personally interested in the case and biased.  The Court of Appeals held (relying on Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478 (1991)) that whether a private citizen acting as an arbitrator is entitled to judicial immunity depends upon a "functionality test."  It stated:

defendant was sitting as an arbitrator to resolve a dispute pending in the courts of Wake County. Under the functionality test, defendant was entitled to judicial immunity and was immune from the claims asserted in the instant case. Plaintiff's complaint alleges conduct which was clearly within the course and scope of the arbitration proceeding. Plaintiff's claims were barred by arbitrator immunity, and the trial court correctly found them to be frivolous.

The Dalenko case also affirmed an award of Rule 11 sanctions against the Plaintiff, and also found that Plaintiff was collaterally estopped from pursuing her claims against the arbitrator since she had raised those same claims in seeking a vacation of the arbitration award.

In Ward v. Jett Properties, LLC, the Court affirmed the entry of Rule 11 sanctions against a pro se litigant who had sued his landlord for allowing other tenants to play football "within striking distance of his car" and to "dart around" on "metal skooters." To me, the significant point worth noting about Ward is that one of the reasons the Court found the Complaint to be "legally insufficient" for Rule 11 purposes was that it had been dismissed on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.  The Court held "though the mere fact that a cause of action is dismissed upon a Rule 12(b)(6) motion does not automatically entitle the moving party to have sanctions imposed. . . . it is often indicative that sanctions are proper."  The fact that Ward had filed forty two other lawsuits in the past six years, at least one of which was identical to the one before the Court, was undoubtedly a factor in the affirmance.

Last, the work product case is In the Matter of the Summons Issued to Ernst & Young, LLPIt involves a subpoena issued by the North Carolina Department of Revenue to the accounting firm of Ernst & Young for documents relating to the tax refund lawsuit between the DOR and Wal-Mart.  Wal-Mart intervened and challenged the subpoena. 

Before it got to the work product issue, the Court resolved a threshold issue whether the Rules of Civil Procedure apply to subpoenas issued by the DOR pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 105-258.  The DOR argued that the Rules didn't apply, the Court of Appeals disagreed and said that they did.  The applicability of the Rules made a difference to Wal-Mart, which was arguing that the Court didn't have subject matter jurisdiction because the DOR hadn't issued a summons and filed a Complaint.  Although Wal-Mart prevailed on its argument about the application of the Rules, the Court denied the Motion to Dismiss because "the statute provides jurisdiction to the Wake County Superior Court upon application by the Secretary of Revenue."

On the work product side of things, the issue was whether some of the documents prepared by E&Y had been done "in anticipation of litigation."  Wal-Mart argued that the documents had been prepared by the accountants specifically for its restructuring, not for tax return purposes and not for purposes of its audit; that it had been billed separately for the work; that the partner who had done the work anticipated that there might be litigation from various tax authorities; and that the documents were not prepared in the ordinary course of business.  The Court found this insufficient to determine the applicability of the privilege, and remanded the case for an in camera review by the trial court.

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