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'must not be filed or be presented to the court if the challenged paper, claim, defense, contention, or denial is withdrawn or appropriately corrected within 21 days after service or within another time the court sets.'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.

Rule 11 Sanctions (Again!) From The NC Business Court

This month, for the second time in the last two months, Judge McGuire of the NC Business Court entered Rule 11 sanctions against a party whose attorney relied on inaccurate information from the client in making claims against the opposing party.

This month's decision was in NC Bioremediation, LLC v. Sea Winds, LLC, 2015 NCBC 94. The issue relevant to the Motion for Sanctions was whether the person representing himself to Plaintiff's counsel that he was a manager and member of NC Bioremediation in fact had the authority to file the lawsuit.  Or, more bluntly, was he even a member or a manager at all?

Counsel's Investigation Before Filing The Complaint Was Not A Reasonable One Under The Circumstances, And Violated Rule 11

It turned out, of course, that he wasn't.  But could the attorney for the Plaintiff, who had filed his lawsuit in the name of the LLC have known this and not filed the Complaint?  As Judge McGuire put it, "the question for the Court is what inquiry into the facts did Plaintiff's counsel conduct prior to filing the Complaint and was that inquiry a reasonable one under the circumstances?"  Op. ¶16.

It was not, said Judge McGuire.  It consisted mostly of hearsay support from Mauney's former office assistant who said that he had an ownership interest in NC Bioremediation and financial documents that implied that Mauney was a member of the LLC along with another person (Overton).

But public filings --- annual reports filed by NC Bioremediation with the NC Secretary of State -- showed only Overton as a member/manager of the LLC.

Overton delivered an Affidavit to Plaintiff's counsel in which he said that Mauney had never had an ownership interest or member status with the LLC.  Given that it was the Plaintiff which filed that Affidavit with the Court, Judge McGuire questioned why Overton had not been contacted earlier.  He said:

the Court can only conclude that contacting Overton to get his position on Mauney's contended ownership . . . could have been accomplished relatively quickly and with little additional effort.  Counsel has offered no explanation as to why the information in the Overton Affidavit could not have been discovered before the Complaint was filed.

Op. ¶20.

The Court concluded that the factual investigation done by Plaintiff's counsel fell short of Rule 11's requirement that such an inquiry be reasonable under the circumstances."  Op. ¶20.

The Sanction Entered By The Court Was The Dismissal Of The Action (Without Prejudice)

In an earlier decision in Southeast Air Charter, Inc. v. Stroud, 2015 NCBC 79, Judge McGuire sanctioned a Plaintiff whose lawyer relied inappropriately on its client's representation that some of the Defendants had positions with the Plaintiff corporation that warranted them being sued for breach of fiduciary duty.  (You can read about that decision here) .  The sanction imposed there was the payment of $35,887.01 in attorneys' fees.

What was the sanction in NC Bioremediation?  A dismissal without prejudice, with no attorneys' fees awarded.

Was that sanction harsh enough?  Maybe not, given that Overton stated in his Affidavit that he wishes the action to continue. The dismissal without prejudice leave the door open for Overton to recommence the action. 

It's hard to say who would be a worse representative to sue on behalf of the LLC.  Mauney, a North Carolina lawyer, was disbarred by the North Carolina State Bar In July 2013 for, among other professional violations, "mak[ing] demonstrably false statements under oath."  Op. ¶6 & n.9.  And Overton has "been accused of embezzling approximately $500,000 from" Defendant Sea Winds (which Overton denies in his Affidavit at ¶10).  Op. ¶11 & n.28

 

 

 

 

One Superior Court Judge Can't Overrule Another, Right?

North Carolina law says that "one judge may not modify, overrule, or change the judgment of another Superior Court judge previously made in the same action."  In a Business Court decision last week, Phillips and Jordan, Inc. v. Bostic, the Court granted a motion for Rule 11 sanctions on a fraud claim that another Superior Court Judge had refused to dismiss on a 12(b)(6) motion. It did so over the objection of the Plaintiff that the grant of the sanctions motion would be an overruling of the first Judge's Order on the motion to dismiss.

The procedural facts are quirky. A group of defendants (the "Bostic Defendants") had made and lost a motion to dismiss a fraud claim before the case was designated to the Business Court. After the designation, another defendant moved to dismiss the same fraud claim made in an amended complaint. That dismissal motion was granted by the Business Court on Rule 9(b) grounds.

Judge Diaz referenced in his Order facts showing the Plaintiff had not relied on the statements it claimed were misrepresentations. He said, however, that he wouldn't consider these facts as to the fraud claim against the Bostic Defendants because that would be "a backdoor attempt . . . to re-litigate the legal sufficiency of the fraud . . . claims in the face of a prior court order denying their Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss."

He nevertheless admonished Plaintiff and its counsel to "consider carefully their obligations under Rule 11 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure before . . . pursuing the fraud claim against the remaining Defendants."  Plaintiff didn't take that advice, and in August 2009 the Bostic Defendants filed their motion for sanctions. Judge Diaz "again suggested to Plaintiff's counsel that they consider the merits of the claim alleging fraud" after the motion was fully briefed. This time, the Plaintiff took the Court's advice and dismissed its fraud claim.

Judge Diaz went ahead and granted the motion for sanctions. He applied a standard of objective reasonableness, and said that "a legal position violates Rule 11 if it "has absolutely no chance of success under the existing precedent." He found that total lack of potential success to be present because the basis of the fraud claim was that the Plaintiff had been deprived of information necessary to make a lien claim against a construction project, but Plaintiff had in fact been able to make this very claim. The Court ruled that the claimed misrepresentation "did not deceive Plaintiff."

The Order doesn't address why this wasn't an end run around the principle that one Superior Court Judge can't overrule another. The Bostic Defendants addressed this in their opening Brief.  Their position was:

Under North Carolina law, a court can assess Rule 11 sanctions against a plaintiff and the plaintiff’s counsel regardless of whether a court previously denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss pursuant to Rules 12(b)(6) and/or 9(b). See Perkins v. Healthmarkets, Inc., 2007 WL 2570242, *6 (N.C. Super. 2007)(“That the Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint meets the requirements of Rule 9(b), however, does not mean that it satisfies Plaintiff’s pleading obligations under Rule 11 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure.”); see also Hill v. Hill, 173 N.C. App. 309, 320, 622 S.E.2d 503, 511 (2005)(“. . . expenses incurred during the motion to dismiss, whether granted or denied, are reasonable expenses incurred due to plaintiff’s signing and filing the frivolous complaint.”). As the Court of Appeals noted, “whether the document complies with . . . the Rule is determined as of the time it is signed.” Id. Here, the allegations in the Amended Complaint, while considered to be true in considering a 12(b)(6) motion, are not well grounded in fact or law and the Bostics are entitled to dismissal of the claims and sanctions against Plaintiff and its counsel under Rule 11.

Brief in Support of Motion for Sanctions

Brief in Opposition to Motion for Sanctions

Reply Brief in Support of Motion for Sanctions

 

 

Phillips and Jordan, Inc. v. Bostic, February 8, 2010 (Diaz)(unpublished)

The Court had warned Plaintiff and his counsel in an Order granting a Motion to Dismiss to "consider carefully their obligations under Rule 11 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure before continuing to pursue a common law fraud claim" against the "Bostic Defendants".

The Court's Order had dismissed the fraud claim against one Defendant, but it didn't dismiss the claim against the Bostic Defendants because those defendants had already made a Motion to Dismiss and had it denied before the case was transferred to Business Court.

After that, the Bostic Defendants filed a Motion for Rule 11 Sanctions. The Court then in an in chambers conference "suggested to Plaintiff's counsel that they consider the merits of the claim alleging fraud." Shortly after that, the Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed its fraud claim.

The Court nevertheless granted the Motion for Sanctions. It held that "a legal position violates Rule 11 if it 'has absolutely no chance of success under the existing precedent.'"  It found that to be the case because the fraud claim was founded on the theory that the Defendants had misrepresented the true owner of property in order to deprive the Plaintiff of its Chapter 44A lien rights. But Plaintiff had determined the true owner of the property and had in fact filed a claim of lien, and it had not therefore been deceived.

The Court held "in other words, Plaintiff either knew or should have known that its claim alleging common law fraud had absolutely no chance of success because Plaintiff was not deceived by this particular misrepresentation."

Full Opinion

Brief in Support of Motion for Sanctions

Brief in Opposition to Motion for Sanctions

Reply Brief in Support of Motion for Sanctions

 

 

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Allen v. Land Resource Group of North Carolina, LLC, December 21, 2009 (Tennille)(unpublished)

The Court denied a motion for sanctions because of the moving party's failure to comply with the meet and confer requirements of Business Court Rule 18.6(a).  The Court held that "[t]his reason alone is sufficient for the Court to deny the Motion."

Full Opinion

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Azalea Garden Board & Care, Inc. v. Vanhoy, 2009 NCBC 9 (N.C. Super. Ct. March 26, 2009)(Tennille)

This case involves sanctions under Rule 26(g) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that an attorney's signature on a discovery response is a certification that it is "consistent with the rules," and "not interposed for any improper purpose," and "not unreasonable or unduly burdensome or expensive."

The Court determined that sanctions under Rule 26(g) are mandatory in the event of a violation, and that Rule 11 cases don't have much relevance in a Rule 26(g) sanctions motion.

Plaintiff was sanctioned because its counsel had (1) designated one person (Wagner) as an expert "without an intention of having  Wagner prepare any expert report containing his opinions and the basis therefore, (2) failing to make inquiry into Wagner’s qualifications to give any expert opinions, and (3) designating [another witness, Tarr] as an expert without even having communicated with Tarr." Op. ¶28.

Lawyers have a duty to cooperate in discovery in complex cases. Forthright discovery is particularly important, said Judge Tennille, when expert discovery is involved.  He held that "[o]ur rules are designed to flush out what opinions are going to be expressed at trial so that challenges to those opinions can be heard pretrial without wasting the jurors’ time. Responses to discovery that comply with the rules save the parties and the courts substantial time and money." Op. ¶13.

Another factor leading to sanctions was Plaintiff's counsel refusal to discuss matters with Defendant's counsel.  Judge Tennille said that ""[l]awyers have a responsibility and a duty to their clients, the Court, and opposing counsel to communicate openly and civilly with each other. A failure to do so is a breach of their professional duties and results in unnecessary delay and expense to the parties and the Court." Op. ¶32.

Full Opinion

Brief in Support of Motion for Sanctions

Brief in Opposition to Motion for Sanctions

Rule 11 Sanctions Not Justified Based On Oral Statements, Rules Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals

The Fourth Circuit today, in the case of In re Bees, reversed the trial court's imposition of sanctions based on an attorney's oral statements during a motion hearing.  The Court held that Rule 11 does not extend to oral statements except in very limited circumstances.

The court said:

"Rule 11 . . . severely limits a court's ability to sanction counsel for oral statements.  It permits a court to impose sanctions only on the basis of a false, misleading, or otherwise improper 'pleading, written motion, or other paper.'  Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b).  Thus, as the Advisory Committee has explained, Rule 11 'applies only to assertions contained in papers filed with or submitted to the court.'  Fed. R. Civ. P. 11 advisory committee's note (1993 Amendments, Subdivisions (b) and (c)).  The rule 'does not cover matters arising for the first time during oral presentations to the court, when counsel may make statements that would not have been made if there had been more time for study and reflection.'  Id.  In sum, an oral statement may form a basis for Rule 11 sanctions only if it advocates a contention previously contained within a written submission."

The Court also reversed an entry of sanctions based on statements in briefs submitted by the government, finding that the admitted errors "were an inadvertent mistake, not a deliberate attempt to mislead or a failure to conduct a reasonable inquiry."  The Court held that "an isolated, inadvertent error does not justify Rule 11 sanctions."

NC Business Court Issues Significant Discovery Sanctions Opinion

The North Carolina Business Court delivered a significant opinion on discovery sanctions today in Azalea Garden Board & Care, Inc. v. Vanhoy, 2009 NCBC 9 (N.C. Super. Ct. March 26, 2009). If you are litigating in the Business Court, you'd better read this one, which emphasizes the duty of lawyers to cooperate with one another in discovery.

The Defendant's Motion for Sanctions concerned an interrogatory response by Plaintiff identifying two attorneys as potential expert witnesses, its subsequent refusal based on attorney-client privilege to supply information that it had provided to the experts, and its withdrawal of those persons as experts after the Court granted a Motion to Compel.

That earlier ruling on the Motion to Compel was very short, and wasn't published, but if you were reading this blog you would have seen it in this May 2008 post.

The Defendant, having prevailed on the Motion to Compel, sought sanctions. The basis for the Sanctions was Rule 26(g) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that an attorney's signature on a discovery response is a certification that it is "consistent with the rules," and "not interposed for any improper purpose," and "not unreasonable or unduly burdensome or expensive."

In a first impression aspect of his ruling, Judge Tennille said that sanctions under Rule 26(g) are mandatory in the event of a violation.  He also said that Rule 11 cases don't have much relevance in a Rule 26(g) sanctions motion.

Judge Tennille emphasized the duty of attorneys to cooperate in discovery in complex cases, quoting extensively from Mancia v. Mayflower Textile Serv. Co., 253 F.R.D. 354 (D.Md. 2008), an opinion by Magistrate Judge Paul Grimm.  Judge Tennille described Judge Grimm as "one of the leading commentators on discovery issues in the federal court,"  and said that "his entire opinion should be read by all trial lawyers."  Op. ¶18. (The link is in the case name).

Forthright discovery is particularly important, said Judge Tennille, when expert discovery is involved.  He held that "[o]ur rules are designed to flush out what opinions are going to be expressed at trial so that challenges to those opinions can be heard pretrial without wasting the jurors’ time. Responses to discovery that comply with the rules save the parties and the courts substantial time and money." Op. ¶13.

Here's how Judge Tennille summed it up:

Judges and lawyers should resurrect the original intention of the discovery rules, which was to make discovery a more cooperative and less adversarial system designed to reduce, not increase, the cost of litigation. North Carolina’s Rule 26(g) was designed to do that and mandates sanctions when violations of the rule occur. Our system of civil justice cannot function effectively and economically unless lawyers and judges return to the original intention of the discovery rules and make cooperation, communication, and transparency the cornerstones of the discovery process.

Op. ¶19.

On the facts before him, Judge Tennille entered sanctions.  He determined that Rule 26(g) had been violated because Plaintiff's counsel had (1) designated one person (Wagner) as an expert "without an intention of having  Wagner prepare any expert report containing his opinions and the basis therefore, (2) failing to make inquiry into Wagner’s qualifications to give any expert opinions, and (3) designating [another witness, Tarr] as an expert without even having communicated with Tarr." Op. ¶28.

The Court found that these actions had caused delay and undue expense for Defendant and his counsel, necessitating a Motion to Compel, and furthermore that "[t]he conduct was unreasonable under the circumstances. It was more than mere negligence."  Op. ¶28.  The Court also said that the refusal to provide information based on attorney client privilege was "totally unfounded in the law." Op. ¶29.

Another factor leading to sanctions was Plaintiff's counsel refusal to discuss matters with Defendant's counsel.  Judge Tennille said that "[l]awyers have a responsibility and a duty to their clients, the Court, and opposing counsel to communicate openly and civilly with each other. A failure to do so is a breach of their professional duties and results in unnecessary delay and expense to the parties and the Court." Op. ¶32.

Brief in Support of Motion for Sanctions

Brief in Opposition to Motion for Sanctions

Kohler Co. v. McIvor, October 13, 2004 (Diaz)(unpublished)

This is an opinion from Judge Diaz before he joined the Business Court, in which he denied a Motion for Sanctions.

The basis for the Motion was that Plaintiff should not have taken the position that North Carolina law applied to the covenant not to compete at issue.  The Defendant worked for Plaintiff in North Carolina and the agreement gave a North Carolina address for the Defendant, but it had been signed by the Defendant in Virginia and by the Plaintiff in Wisconsin. 

The case, which was affirmed by the North Carolina Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion, contains a good discussion of the relevant Rule 11 inquiries.  The Court found the facts of the case to be "muddled," and that they "would test the most seasoned of choice of law practitioners."  The Court found that the Plaintiff's lawyers had made the requisite "reasonable inquiry" before deciding that North Caroiina law applied, and accordingly denied the Motion for Rule 11 Sanctions.

Full Opinion

 

 

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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.

Burgess v. American Express Company, Inc., 2007 NCBC 22 (N.C. Super. Ct. June 29, 2007)(Diaz)

Plaintiff, who was pro se, moved for Rule 11 sanctions based on defendant's Rule 68 Offer of Judgment of a single dollar. After noting that the purpose of Rule 68 is to "encourage settlements and avoid protracted litigation," the Court found that the $1.00 offer provided little chance of seriously opening negotiations or settling a case. It found, instead, that the minimal offer "was not intended to promote a settlement but instead it was a tactical maneuver intended to trigger the cost-shifting mandate of Rule 68 in the event of a defense verdict."

The Court held, however, that this tactic did not warrant sanctions. The offer satisfied the literal requirement of Rule 68, and a defendant is not required to offer a substantial sum to obtain the benefit of the statute if it is convinced that the case lacks merit. The Court denied the motion for sanctions, although it expressed doubt as to whether the $1.00 offer would entitle the defendant to recover its costs if it was successful.

The plaintiff had also moved for sanctions against the defendant for removing the case to the Business Court. The defendant cross-moved for sanctions, and the Court granted this motion. It held that even though the plaintiff was pro se, he could have readily determined from the Court's own information that the removal was proper. It found that the purpose of the motion was to harass the defendant, to unnecessarily delay the proceedings, and to needlessly increase the cost of litigation. Plaintiff, as a pro se litigant, was not exempt from the operation of Rule 11.

Full Opinion

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