Cox v. Mitchell, February 6, 2008 (Tennille)(unpublished)

Paintiffs, who had suffered signficant losses on variable annuity policies sold to them by the defendant agents and insurance companies, asserted claims on multiple theories: breach of fiduciary duty, constructive fraud, unfair and deceptive practices, negligence, negligent misrepresentation, aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty, and unjust enrichment. 

The Court dismissed some claims and ordered the Plaintiffs to replead others with more particularity. 

It held that Plaintiffs could proceed on their claims against some of the agents for breach of fiduciary duty, given the Plaintiffs alleged lack of financial sophistication and their allegations of reliance upon the expertise of the agents.  There was no claim for such breach against the insurance companies, since they had not obtained any benefit from the sale of the policies other than the commissions received. 

The causes of action for breach of fiduciary duty arose when the Plaintiffs knew or should have known of the facts giving rise to their claims.  The Court found the facts insufficient to determine whether the statute of limitations had run, and ordered Plaintiffs to replead their claims with more particularity.  The Court made a similar order with respect to the constructive fraud claim, and ordered Plaintiffs to provide more detail in their pleading as to when they were charged the commissions and surrender charges that formed the basis of their claims.  Those charges would have put Plaintiffs on notice of their claims and begun the running of the statute of limitations. 

The Court also demanded more particularity on the negligent misrepresentation claim.  It disagreed with Plaintiffs contention that their only burden was to allege the misrepresentations made, and that they had been made negligently.  Instead, Plaintiffs had to alleged "(1) there was a duty owed by defendants to plaintiffs, (2) the defendants did not use reasonable care in supplying information leading to (3) misrepresentations made to the plaintiffs which (4) the plaintiffs justifiably relied on (5) and that reliance caused pecuniary injury to the plaintiffs."

The Court dismissed the unfair and deceptive practices claim.  It found that variable annuity policies are subject to pervasive and intricate regulation, and that such policies involve securities transactions not within the scope of the statute.  It made no difference that the Plaintiffs did not understand that they were investing in securities.

The punitive damages claims against the insurance companies were also dismissed, because there is no vicarious liability for punitive damages. 

The unjust enrichment claims were also dismissed because there was an express contract between the parties. 

Full Opinion

Connor v. Monarch Hosiery Mills, Inc., 2006 WL 4453451 (November 20, 2006)(Tennille)(unpublished)

This case involved a troubled company, whose board of directors had hired turnaround consultants to assist with management. When the composition of the board of directors changed, the new board sued the consultants, and others, for fraud and unjust enrichment, alleging that the consultants had withheld information from the board and that they had been unjustly enriched (i.e. overpaid). The Court denied a motion to dismiss on the fraud claim, although it said that plaintiffs' claim was tenuous.

The Court granted the motion to dismiss as to the unjust enrichment claim, finding that plaintiffs had failed to plead with specificity why the amounts paid were unjust. There were several other claims.

The Court expressed serious doubt as to the viability of a claim for aiding and abetting fiduciary duty under North Carolina law. It dismissed that claim on a different ground, however, finding that the consultant stood in a direct fiduciary relationship to the company, and that it would be redundant and confusing to allow both a direct claim for breach of fiduciary duty as well as an aiding and abetting claim.

The Court let stand a claim for punitive damages, after determining that there is no requirement that the party seeking damages specifically allege the circumstances underlying the aggravating factors required by N.C.G.S. §1D-15(a).

The Court refused to exclude an expert witness identified by the defendants, ruling based on North Carolina Supreme Court precedent that trial courts "should be hesitant when making outcome-determinative rulings on expert testimony" because so doing may "unnecessarily encroach upon the constitutionally-mandated function of the jury to decide issues of fact and to assess the weight of the evidence."

The Court then turned to issues of attorney-client privilege. A law firm for the corporation had retained another law firm to advise it with regard to an asset sale. The corporation's law firm then discussed the advice it had received with the corporation's board of directors and the turnaround consultant. The consultant sought to obtain these materials by subpoena, but the law firm had objected. The Court held that there was no privilege, because "a communication intended to be disclosed to a third party is not confidential," and it ordered production. The result was different with regard to the communications between corporate counsel and a third law firm, which had been retained to advise on other issues. These communications had not been transmitted to third parties, and the Court held there had been no waiver of the privilege.

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Perkins v. Healthmarkets, Inc., 2007 NCBC 25 (N.C. Super. Ct. July 30, 2007)(Diaz)

The Court held that plaintiff, an insurance agent who had given up two profitable territories based upon the representations of defendants that he would be given two new territories, stated a claim for fraud. The Court noted that allegations based upon information and belief do not satisfy Rule 9(b), but said there were sufficient facts pled without that qualification for plaintiff to survive the motion.

The Court was clearly troubled, however, by the quality of the facts specified in the complaint to support the allegation that the defendants never intended to fulfill their promise. It stated that "Plaintiffs' skeletal factual predicate as to the Defendants' fraudulent intent treads dangerously close to the outer limit of legal sufficiency." It held, however, the Rule 9(b) allows such an allegation "to be averred generally."

The allegations were also sufficient for plaintiff to state a claim against another defendant based on allegations of conspiracy.

Plaintiff also made a claim of unjust enrichment, since he had lost the valuable sales organization he had given up when he surrendered his existing territories. Defendants argued that there had not been a direct transfer of benefits to them, but the Court held that it was sufficient that the defendants had gotten some benefit from the transfer.

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Kornegay v. Aspen Asset Group, LLC, 2006 NCBC 12 (N.C. Super. Ct. Sept. 26, 2006)(Diaz)

Following a thorough discussion of the elements of a valid contract, the Court found a question of material fact whether the parties had agreed on all the material terms of the contract which plaintiff claimed entitled him to a significant bonus. Plaintiff was not required to show that the bonus had actually been paid in prior years in order to recover. The Court dismissed, however, plaintiff's claim for an additional bonus because it found that the parties had never agreed, during their negotiations over additional compensation, how it would be determined.

The Court further ruled that the individual defendants could be liable to plaintiff under his North Carolina Wage and Hour Act claim, and denied their motion for summary judgment based on the argument that plaintiff had been employed by the corporate defendant. It relied on cases interpreting the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which hold that individuals can be jointly and severally liable with a corporate employer for unpaid wages where they serve as part owners, officers, or directors of the corporation, or where they are involved in the management of the corporation.

The Court also held that plaintiff could proceed on his claims for unjust enrichment and fraud.

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Frazier v. Beard, 1996 NCBC 1 (N.C. Super. Ct. Oct. 24, 1996)(Tennille), aff'd, 130 N.C.App. 484, 506 S.E.2d 298 (1998)

Plaintiffs sold their stock in Citizens Savings Bank, and the stock increased in value significantly after Citizens merged with BB&T. Plaintiffs claimed that the various buyers of the stock had been unjustly enriched. The court granted summary judgment, because the buyer had no knowledge of the merger transaction and because Plaintiffs had already recovered a significant settlement from a bank officer who misled them as to the status of merger negotiations.

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