The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled today on cases involving the statute of repose applicable to legal malpractice actions, fiduciary duties of trustees, and the waiver of the right to arbitration.
On the fiduciary duty issue, the Court affirmed the decision of the Business Court in Heinitsh v. Wachovia Bank on an obscure point of trust law for which it observed there was "surprisingly little guidance." The trustee in Heinitsh was caught between the income beneficiaries and the remaindermen of a substantial trust over a dispute whether millions of dollars from the sale of property should be categorized as income or principal. During the dispute, the trustee took the disputed funds and invested them in a money market account. The plaintiff, an income beneficiary, argued that the trustee's duties required it to maximize income in her favor, and that the trustee had breached its fiduciary duties by placing the funds in a low-yielding money market account. The Court of Appeals held that "holding the retained funds during the pending litigation was reasonable in light of the circumstances and defendant did not breach its fiduciary duty to plaintiff." The Court suggested, however, that "the better practice may be to interplead the funds. . . ."
The legal malpractice case is Goodman v. Holmes & McLaurin Attorneys at Law. The plaintiff had sued outside the four year statute of statute of repose contained in N.C. Gen. Stat. §1-15(c), but contended that the law firm was equitably estopped from asserting the statute given a lawyer's active conduct in trying to hide the fact of his malpractice. The Court of Appeals found that conduct of concealment to be "particularly egregious," but held that "this Court has consistently refused to apply equitable doctrines to estop a defendant from asserting a statute of repose defense in the legal malpractice context. . . ." It found plaintiff's claims therefore to be barred by the statute of repose.
In Gemini Drilling and Foundation, LLC v. National Fire Insurance Co. of Hartford, the Court found that the defendant had waived its right to arbitration. The defendant had filed a motion to compel arbitration, and lost. Instead of taking an immediate interlocutory appeal, which it had the right to do, it participated in discovery and then a bench trial of the claim. The Court held that the purpose of arbitration "would be defeated if a party could reserve its right to appeal an interlocutory order denying arbitration, allow the substantive lawsuit to run its course (which could take years), and then, if dissatisfied with the result, seek to enforce the right to arbitration on appeal from the final judgment."
The photo of the Court of Appeals building is from Juliet Sperling.