This hurricane — Florence — has proved so far to be underwhelming in Greensboro.

But North Carolina is nevertheless taking this hurricane very seriously.  It’s seen as so devastating that the Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court has issued blanket extensions of time in cases pending in 14 Counties, most on the coast or not far inland.  The Counties mentioned in his Order are Beaufort, Brunswick, Carteret, Craven, Currituck, Dare, Hyde, Jones, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, Pender, Sampson, and Tyrrell.

Here’s the deal: if you have a case pending in any of those Counties, and you had a filing due between last Thursday (the 13th) and today, you have a nearly two week extension of time within which to make your filing, by the close of business on September 28th.

How could Chief Justice Martin even do that?  Section 39 of Chapter 7A, which is partly captioned “emergency orders in catastrophic conditions” gives him the power to extend deadlines, including tolling the statute of limitations.  Given the mandatory evacuations ordered in the fourteen Counties listed above,  Chief Justice Martin had the catastrophic conditions and the power to grant the extension of time which he did.  Per the statute, the extension of time had to be for at least ten days.

Chief Justice Martin also had the power to extend the statute of limitations in those Counties.  The statute gives him the power to:

[e]xtend . . . the time or period of limitation within which pleadings, motions,notices, and other documents and papers may be timely filed and other acts may be timely done in civil actions.

N.C. Gen. Stat. sec. 7A-39(b)(1).  Did he exercise that power?  Maybe, but I would be leery of relying on the language in his Order to extend the statute of limitations.  It says that “all pleadings. motions, notices, and other documents that were due to be filed [in the fourteen Counties] between the dates of 13 September 2018 and 17 September 2018 in civil actions, criminal actions, estates, and special proceedings shall be deemed to be timely done if they are done before the close of business on 28 September 2018.

Does this affect cases in the NC Business Court?  Yes, more so than you might think.  I counted nearly 200 “active” cases in the Business Court filed in those Counties.  There were one hundred from New Hanover County alone.  And 42 from Brunswick County.

But given the electronic filing system in the Business Court, did lawyers really need the benefit of this extension?  Nobody has to slog through flooded streets to make a filing in the Business Court.  But, given that Business Court Rule 3.11 requires a paper filing to be made in the County where the case originated within five days of the date of the electronic filing, maybe yes.  I hate that Rule.  It seems totally unnecessary.

Having a client required to arbitrate a case — even though that client never signed off on an arbitration provision — is nothing new.  Judge Conrad dealt with that situation late last month in Charlotte Student Housing DST v. Choate Construction Co., 2018 NCBC 88, where he said:

Because arbitration is a matter of contract, the usual rule is that “a party cannot be required to submit to arbitration any dispute which he has not agreed so to submit.” United Steelworkers of Am. v. Warrior & Gulf Nav. Co., 363 U.S. 574, 582 (1960). In an appropriate case, though, “a nonsignatory can enforce, or be bound by, an arbitration provision within a contract executed by other parties.”  Int’l Paper Co. v. Schwabedissen Maschinen & Anlagen GmbH, 206 F.3d 411 , 415 (4th Cir. 2000).

Op. ¶14.

Plaintiffs, who had acquired a Charlotte apartment complex from its original owner, were suing the architect, general contractor and two subcontractors over design deficiencies in the construction.

Plaintiffs had not signed the Construction Contract containing the arbitration provision, but Judge Conrad ruled that they were required to arbitrate their claims.

He said that:

estoppel is dispositive here. In short, “[a] nonsignatory is estopped from refusing to comply with an arbitration clause when it receives a direct benefit from a contract containing an arbitration clause.” Int’l Paper, 206 F.3d at 418 (quotation marks omitted). It would be manifestly unfair to permit a party to take the benefit of the contract “despite [its] non-signatory status but then, during litigation, attempt to repudiate the arbitration clause in the contract.” Hellenic Inv. Fund, Inc. v. Det Norske Veritas, 464 F.3d 514, 517–18 (5th Cir. 2006); see also Int’l Paper, 206 F.3d at 418. That is what Plaintiffs seek to do here, and they are therefore estopped from refusing to arbitrate their claims against [the Defendants].

Op. Par. 23

Since the Plaintiffs were claiming that the Defendants had not performed their work in accord with the “Contract Documents,” they were bound by the terms of those documents, which contained the arbitration provision.

But what about that tricky question: who decides whether a matter should be arbitrated: Judge or Arbitrator?  Judge Conrad here seized the right to make that decision for the Business Court.  I’ve written about a Business Court decision on that point once before.  The short answer is that it has to be “clear and unmistakeable” that the parties intended for the arbitrator, not the Court, to decide the question of arbitrability.

It was certainly clear and unmistakeable that the parties signing the contract containing the arbitration provision had delegated authority to determine arbitrability to the arbitrator.  The arbitration clause invoked the AAA’s Construction Industry Rules, expressly delegate to the arbitrator “the power to rule on his or her own jurisdiction, including any objections with respect to the existence, scope, or validity of the arbitration agreement.”

But that wasn’t enough to bind the Plaintiffs, who were not signatories to the document referencing the Construction Industry Rules.

Those of you who aren’t at home hunkering down in fear of the impending hurricane are wondering why the Plaintiffs, who were found to beobligated to arbitrate, weren’t also obligated to have the arbitrator (as opposed to the Business Court Judge) decide whether they had to  arbitrate the case in the first place.

Well, even though bound by the arbitration provision, there was nothing to show that the Plaintiffs shared the intent of the signatories to have the arbitrator decide the issue of arbitrability.  As noted by Judge Conrad, “[c]ourts have generally found that agreements that do not mention or reference a particular non-signatory do not clearly or unmistakeably evidence an agreement by that non-signatory to have an arbitrator determine whether the agreement is arbitrable.” Op. ¶19 (quoting McKenna Long & Aldridge, LLP v. Ironshore Specialty Ins. Co., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3347 at *14-15 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 12, 2015).

It is one of the most frustrating things you can have happen after concluding a successful deposition.  The witness backtracks on all the substantive admissions she has made during her testimony.

Can she really do that?  Well, yes.  Rule 30(e) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure says that the deponent can review her testimony and:

If there are changes in form or substance, the deponent shall sign a statement reciting such changes and the reasons given by the deponent for making them.
But are there no limits on the changes which may be offered?  Apparently not, based on Judge Bledsoe’s Opinion this month in Window World of Baton Rouge, LLC v. Window World, Inc., 2018 NCBC 78.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers were attempting to prevent one of the Defendants (Tammy Whitworth) from making wholesale changes to her deposition testimony via the presentation of an errata sheet.  Those proposed changes included “thirty-eight substantive changes to her deposition testimony.”  Op. Par. 5.
The Opinion contains no detail on the nature of the changes offered by Defendant Whitworth, but it is safe to assume that they are in the nature of her saying “the light was green” at her deposition, and changing that testimony to “the light was red.”
Can a deponent make an absolute about face from her deposition testimony?  Yes, in North Carolina and in the majority of federal jurisdictions.  Although the Eastern District of North Carolina is in that minority. William L. Thorp Revocable Tr. v. Ameritas Inv. Corp., 57 F. Supp. 3d 508, 517 (E.D.N.C. 2014) (concluding that Federal Rule 30(e) “does not permit a party to make changes that substantively contradict or modify sworn deposition [testimony]”).
This Opinion did not leave the Plaintiffs with no value from the original deposition testimony.  Judge Bledsoe said that he would “impose[] two safeguards. . . in light of the extensive substantive changes Whitworth has made to her deposition transcript.”  Op. ¶16.
The first “safeguard”was that Whitworth’s original answers would remain in the record and could be used for impeachment purposes. “or for any other relevant or proper purpose.”  Op. ¶16.
The second protection granted by Judge Bledsoe was to allow Plaintiffs another deposition of Defendant Whitworth.  He limited that new deposition to one hour on the record, limiting questioning to “the reasons for those changes and to ask reasonable follow-up questions that flow from Whitworth’s answers to these permitted inquiries.”  Op. ¶17.  The new deposition will be at the Defendants’ expense.

This isn’t the first time that the Business Court has allowed a deposition errata sheet to be allowed over objections that the proposed changes were excessive.  Judge Diaz ruled on this issue in an unpublished Order in Bueche v. Noel, as did Judge Bledsoe in an unpublished Order in BB&T Boli Plan Tr. v. Mass Mutual Life Ins. Co.

.

North Carolina’s Unfair And Deceptive Trade Practices Act (G.S. sec. 75-1.1) carries with it the heady possibility of triple damages and attorneys fees.  So nearly every Plaintiff’s lawyer routinely includes a Chapter 75 claim in his or her Complaint.

But last week, in Brewster v. Powell Bail Bonding, Inc, 2018 NCBC 74, Judge Conrad cautioned against that practice,  calling it “a regrettable trend in North Carolina business litigation.”  Op. ¶36.

The practice of trying to turn “every shareholder dispute or disagreement between members of a limited liability company into a section 75-1.1 claim” (Op. ¶36) continues despite a plethora of Business Court Opinions (more than ten of which were cited by Judge Conrad in Op. ¶36) rejecting such claims.

The dangers of this knee jerk inclusion of unviable Chapter 75 claims are that it:

invites avoidable motions practice–driving up the cost of litigation, taxing the resources of the Court, and exposing the plaintiff to a potential award of attorneys fees under section 75-16.1.

Op. Par. 37.

If you haven’t caught this message by now you have been asleep with your Complaint drafting.  Take this to heart:”  Judge Conrad says “[b]y now, the message should be clear: section 75-1.1 plays no role in resolving these internal corporate disputes.”  Op. ¶37.

Although there were no sanctions imposed on this Plaintiff,  a minority shareholder in Defendant Powell Bail Bonding, Inc. who had included a Chapter 75 claim in his lawsuit seeking dissolution of the corporation, I think that we will see those in the next Business Court Opinion dismissing a Section 75 claim.  So don’t give me that to write about.

I have been complaining about  the fees approved by the NC Business Court for those lawyers obtaining disclosure only settlements since there was a Wachovia Bank.  Some of you may not be old enough to remember that venerable bank.

Now, at last, Judge Gale has found a disclosure only settlement to have yielded (almost) immaterial disclosures, and slashed the attorneys’ request for fees (by more than 50%) and expenses (to zero).  The Opinion, delivered last month, is In re Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc. Shareholders Litig., 2018 NCBC 58.

Fee Request Slashed: From $350,000 Requested To $150,000 Awarded

Plaintiffs’ lawyers requested a fee award of $350,000.  They said that thirty lawyers from twelve different law firms had spent more than 800 hours in connection with the lawsuit.  Op. ¶26.  The lawyers said that the time spent would have yielded a lodestar fee of $533,038 based on their “normal hourly rates.”  Id.

Judge Gale, who scrutinized the bills carefully, said that he concluded:

that the total reasonable time spent on the litigation is significantly less than the total time sought to be compensated in the Motion.
Op. ¶37.
Judge Gale pointed out a few time entries which he found excessive (in Op. ¶37), and remarked particularly on class counsel spending more than fifteen hours of
research on North Carolina’s basic, easily-identified pleading requirements for shareholder derivative actions.
Op. ¶37.
Did The Class Need To Be Represented By Out-of-State Lawyers?
Were the issues in the class actions challenging the Krispy Kreme merger so complicated that heavy artillery from big (and non-North Carolina) class action sophisticates were needed?
Judge Gale didn’t think so:
The nature of this litigation required skilled counsel experienced in shareholder class actions.  See N.C. Rev. R. Prof. Conduct 1.5(a)(1) and 1.5(a)(7).  While Plaintiffs’ Counsel are certainly well-regarded, highly experienced counsel who have been involved in class actions that have generated significant results for shareholders in other litigation, the Court concludes that the litigation could have been competently handled by North Carolina counsel whose billing rates are significantly below the rates that Plaintiffs’ Counsel contend prevail in their home jurisdictions.
Op. ¶41.
North Carolina Rates, And The Quality Of The Result Achieved, Dictated A Reduction In Fees
After finding the services of non-North Carolina lawyers to be unnecessary, Judge Gale declared that a “typical and customary hourly rate” in North Carolina for complex commercial litigation” ranged from $250 to $550 per hour.  Op. ¶41.

Then he evaluated the quality of the supplemental disclosures that the class lawyers pried out of Krispy Kreme.  Those disclosures “included:

(1) the unlevered cash flows used in the financial advisor’s discounted cash flow (“DCF”) analysis; (2) Krispy Kreme’s management’s considerations regarding their potential post-merger employment; (3) the financial advisor’s potential conflict of interest; and (4) metrics used to evaluate comparable companies.”
Op. ¶43.
Judge Gale, in previously approving this settlement (in 2018 NCBC 1), had not ruled that these supplemental disclosures were material.  I wrote about that ruling in January 2018.  In the current case, he specifically observed that he had not found “that the materiality of the supplemental disclosures was plain or obvious.”  Op. ¶44.
This time, assessing the value of the obtained disclosures against the attorneys’ fees sought, Judge Gale rejected Plaintiffs’ counsel’s “argument that the value of the disclosures was so obvious as to justify a fee award based on a premium rate.”  Op. ¶46.  In other words, the disclosures achieved were not worth much.
I think that this is the first time that the NC Business Court has evaluated the materiality of disclosures in connection with a fee request and found them to be less than “material.”
If you think that was a pretty bad result for the lawyers applying for fees, it got worse.  They had run up nearly $20,00 in expenses in their vigorous pursuit of Krispy Kreme, and Judge Gale refused to allow them to collect a penny of those expenses.
Why did Judge Gale refuse to award any expenses, even though the Defendants had agreed to pay them as part of the settlement?  Because of an ethical defect in the lawyers’ fee agreements with their clients.
Their agreements with their clients said that their clients were “not liable to pay any of the expenses of the lawsuit” and that the law firm would “pay all costs and expenses in the litigation.”  Op. ¶60.
Lawyers frequently advance expenses for their clients, so why was there a problem with this fee agreement language?  Historically, lawyers could advance expenses  for their clients “provided the client remain[ed] ultimately liable for such expenses.”  Op. ¶57 .  The lawyer then had the option to forego recovering expenses from their client.
Rule 1.8 of the North Carolina Revised Rules of Professional Conduct, via Comment 10, “make clear that'[c]osts advanced for a client are the client’s financial responsibility.'”  Op. ¶58.
Although lawyers are free to waive their right to recover expenses, the applicable ethical Rule:
does not contemplate that clients can be absolved from any and all financial responsibility at the inception of the litigation and without regard to the litigation’s outcome. To the contrary,
RPC 1.8(e) ‘enable[s] a client to share the risk of losing with a lawyer,” thereby supporting one of the main functions of contingent fee arrangements.   Restatement (Third) of Law Governing Lawyers §35, cmt.b (Am. L. Inst. 2000).
Op. ¶59.

So what is the punishment for a violation of RPC 1.8?  As seen by Judge Gale, it is forfeiture of the right to recover the advanced expenses.  That’s based on the Restatement (Third) of Law Governing Lawyers.  It says that: “[a] lawyer engaging in a clear and serious violation of a duty to a client may be required to forfeit some or all of the lawyer’s compensation for the matter.”  Id. at §37.

What kind of message does this decision send to out-of-state lawyers thinking of filing a merger class action in North Carolina, hoping to settle on the basis of supplemental disclosures, and thinking that they will collect a big fat fee?  Well, they should be warned that the Business Court will closely scrutinize their bills. will likely apply what those lawyers think are penurious North Carolina rates,  scrutinize the value of the disclosures obtained, and may refuse to award any expenses, depending on the language of their engagement letters.  They may decide to look for greener pastures.

The title of Judge Bledsoe’s Opinion in Carolina Home Solutions 1, Inc. v. Crystal Home Solutions, Inc., 2018 NCBC 57, is ominous in itself.  It is titled “Order and Opinion Denying Pro Hac Vice Admission and Referral to the Georgia and North Carolina State Bars.”

How hard is it to get a pro hac vice (PHV) admission in the Business Court?  Not very.  You just have to comply with N.C. Gen. Stat. §84-4.1.  Who even gets denied pro hac admission to the Business Court?  (It happens.  Judge McGuire once revoked the previously granted pro hac admission of a lawyer and barred him from practicing in North Carolina for two yearsJudge Jolly once refused to admit a lawyer for the University of Maryland on a pro hac basis because of a conflict of interest.)  And what does one have to do that is so bad that they are referred to two separate state bars?

The attorney in question, trying to represent the Plaintiff and its President, is admitted in Georgia, not North Carolina.  He was not permitted to appear in any Court in North Carolina without being admitted PHV.  He was aware of this, because Judge Bledsoe warned him on multiple occasions.

I don’t think that I have ever criticized any lawyer by name on my blog for violating the Business Court Rules or for doing something stupid, and I won’t start now.  If you want to know the name of the lawyer who is the subject of this Opinion, you’ll have to look at the Opinion.  I’ll just refer to him as “Mr. Georgia Lawyer.”

Judge Bledsoe said in a written Order in the case earlier this year:

(i) that “unless Plaintiff is represented by a duly admitted and licensed attorney-at-law at trial, Plaintiff will not be permitted to participate in the trial,” and (ii) that “[Mr. Georgia Lawyer] may not represent Plaintiff in this action unless Plaintiff and he promptly comply with the requirements of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 84-4.1, including, in particular, Plaintiff’s retention of counsel duly licensed in North Carolina with whom Mr. [Georgia Lawyer] will be personally appearing in this action.”
Op. ¶12.
Mr. Georgia Lawyer did not immediately comply with the Court’s direction.  Though he did represent to the Court, via email, that he would associate with NC counsel and would file a Motion for pro hac admission the next day.  But he didn’t.
Meanwhile, pretrial deadlines were approaching.  One of the parties that Mr. Georgia Lawyer was supposed to represent went ahead and filed its portion of the Pretrial Order, signed by its President, not a lawyer.  The President also signed off on a trial brief.
Both the Pretrial Order and the Trial Brief appeared to Judge Bledsoe to have been prepared by a lawyer.  I have looked at the Trial Brief.  It might have been prepared by a lawyer, but if it was, it’s not a very impressive piece of work.
What difference does it make who prepared it?  The answer is that if it was “ghostwritten” by Mr. Georgia Lawyer, that would be the unauthorized practice of law.
Ghostwriting
Ghostwriting is worth a few words.  First, an attorney licensed in North Carolina can draft documents on behalf of a pro se party without appearing in the case.  Op. ¶22.  But an out-of-state lawyer can’t do that unless she complies with pro hac admission procedures.  Id.
If Mr. Georgia Lawyer drafted documents for his client to sign off on, he was engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.  So?  Well that is a Class 1 misdemeanor in North Carolina.  Op. ¶24.  How serious is a Class 1 misdemeanor in North Carolina?  I wondered, and finding the answer took a took a little bit of searching.  North Carolina has four classes of misdemeanors: Class 1A, 1, 2, and 3.  N.C. Gen. Stat. §15A-1340.23.  If Mr. Georgia Lawyer has no prior misdemeanors on his record, he faces 45 days of community service plus a fine in an amount to be determined in the discretion of the Court.  That penalty, if it is ever imposed, will be handed out by a state District Court Judge, not a Business Court Judge.

The attorney for the Plaintiff in Preiss v. Wine and Design Franchise, LLC, 2018 NCBC 53, apparently didn’t bother to read the Business Court’s Rules on what must be done in order to file a document under seal.  That lawyer failed on three separate occasions to comply with the Court’s procedures for sealing a document.

So Judge McGuire took the Plaintiff’s lawyer to school, though pretty gently.  He said:

On the charitable assumption that Plaintiffs counsel’s continued failure to comply with the applicable BCR regarding filing under seal is a result of ignorance of the procedures, rather than a flagrant disregard for this Court’s authority, the Court will outline the applicable rules and procedures below.

Op. at 3.

Those procedures?  It’s best to read the Business Court Rules, mostly Rule 5.2, but if you want a document to stay under seal, you have to file it “provisionally” under seal along with a Motion for leave for it to be filed under seal.  BCR 5.2(b).  Your Motion has to be accompanied by a brief.  BCR 7.2.

The motion and brief must contain enough information to persuade the Court that sealing is warranted. The Rule lists seven categories of necessary information:

(1) a non-confidential description of the material sought to be sealed;

(2) the circumstances that warrant sealed filing;

(3) the reason(s) why no reasonable alternative to a sealed filing exists;

(4) if applicable, a statement that the party is filing the material under seal because another party (the “designating party”) has designated the material under the terms of a protective order in a manner that triggered an obligation to file the material under seal and that the filing party has unsuccessfully sought the consent of the designating party to file the materials without being sealed;

(5) if applicable, a statement that any designating party that is not a party to the action is being served with a copy of the motion for leave;

(6) a statement that specifies whether the party is requesting that the document be accessible only to counsel of record rather than to the parties; and

(7) a statement that specifies how long the party seeks to have the material maintained under seal and how the material is to be handled upon unsealing.

BCR 5.2(b).

Most of those items are pretty easy to assemble.  But it is clear that the most critical ingredient is 5.2(b)(2), “the circumstances that warrant the sealed filing.”  What is it that you are asking the Court to take out of the public eye?  I’m not aware of a published Business Court Opinion discussing what will justify a sealed filing, but Judge Bledsoe said this in a 2016 unpublished Order granting a Motion to Seal: “sealing documents from the public record may be appropriate where the documents contain business information, including pricing and cost information, that could harm a litigant’s competitive standing.”  Order at 2.

Remember that you start on a Motion to seal by running uphill. The Business Court will begin its consideration of a Motion to Seal:

with the ‘presumption that the civil court proceedings and records at issue.  .  . must be open to the public.’ The party seeking to have a filing sealed bears the burden of overcoming this presumption ‘by demonstrating that the public’s right to open proceedings [is] outweighed by a countervailing public interest.’

Op. at 6 (quoting France v. France, 209 N.C. App. 406, 414, 705 S.E.2d 405, 406 (2011).

So what could be such a “countervailing public interest”?  The Business Court Rules give no guidance, but Plaintiff didn’t have whatever it takes.  The document filed under seal (a brief) was immediately unsealed by the Court.

What do you have to do while your Motion to Seal is pending?  BCR 5.2(d) says that you must:

Within five business days of the filing or provisional filing file a public version of the document. The public version may bear redactions or omit material, but the redactions or  omissions should be as limited as practicable.

If you are attempting to file an entire document under seal (as this Plaintiff was):

the filing party must file a notice that the entire document has been filed under seal. The notice must contain a non-confidential description of the document that has been filed under seal.

BRC 5.2(d).

This Plaintiff”s counsel repeatedly ignored the Business Court Rules about sealing.  Judge McGuire lectured that “[t]hese rules and procedures for making sealed filings are not frivolous ‘make-work’ for attorneys, nor are they intended to be optional exercises”  Op. at 5 (emphasis added).

So did Judge McGuire sanction the Plaintiff?  Not now, but he reserved the right to do so.  He said:

because Plaintiffs have now failed for the third time to make efforts to comply with the applicable BCR or this Court’s past Orders, the Court takes under advisement such further relief as may be just and appropriate, including whether the complained-of conduct of Plaintiffs’ counsel merits imposition of sanctions under Rule 11 or other authority.

In Plaintiff’s counsel’s defense, he may have thought he was entitled to file documents under seal because the parties had agreed to a Consent Protective Order which said that “documents designated by any Party as Confidential ‘shall be filed under seal.'”

But the agreement of the parties had no bearing on whether the described documents could be filed under seal.  BCR 5.2(a) says explicitly that a Protective Order dealing with sealing of documents “should include procedures similar to those described in subsections (b) through (d) of this rule.”

Statements made in the course of settlement negotiations are inadmissible at trial, per Rule 408 of the NC Rules of Evidence.  But does that dead end to admissibility protect against the production of such items during discovery?

No, said Judge Bledsoe, in his Opinion late last month in Duke Energy Carolinas, LLC v. AG Insurance SA/NV, 2018 NCBC 38.  He could have rejected Defendant Duke’s claim that communications regarding settlement of ther cases weren’t subject to production on this principle:

Our courts have long recognized that ‘[t]he relevancy test for discovery is not the same as the relevancy test for admissibility into evidence.  To be relevant for purposes of discovery, the information [sought] need only be ‘reasonably calculated’ to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.’  Shellhorn v. Brad Ragan, Inc., 38 N.C. App. 310, 314, 248 S.E.2d 103, 106 (1978); see also N.C. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1); Lowd v. Reynolds, 205 N.C. App. 208, 214, 695 S.E.2d 479, 483 (2010).  If this test is met, a party may not object to a discovery request merely because ‘the information sought will be inadmissible at the trial.’  N.C. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1).

Op. ¶15.

But Defendant Duke argued for a "settlement privilege," which has been recognized by some courts.  Well, Duke didn’t push for a full-blown privilege but something short of that, urging the Court to "require that a “heightened standard of relevance” be met before documents prepared for and communications made during settlement negotiations can be discovered."  Op. ¶19.

The danger of not adopting its position, said Duke, was that "“[p]arties are unlikely to propose the types of compromises that most effectively lead to settlement unless they are confident that their proposed solutions” will not be used for some purpose in later litigation“ by some future third party.”  Op. ¶20.

Judge Bledsoe disagreed, and said that Duke’s argument that settlement negotiations should get special protection in discovery "has been widely criticized and rejected by the majority of federal courts that have considered the issue." Op. ¶22.

Although Judge Bledsoe refused to give accord a blanket privilege to the previous settlement negotiations, he did an in camera review of the documents which Duke sought to protect from discovery.  He denied Duke’s Motion for a Protective Order to the extent that the documents involved concerned "coal combustion residuals" (i.e. coal ash) or the power plants at issue in the case.  He granted the Motion as to documents he deemed "not reasonably calculated to the discovery of admissible evidence.  These documents concerned asbestos litigation or power plants not involved in the lawsuit before him.                

The Business Court has previously held that settlement agreements are discoverable.

I guess that every North Carolina lawyer doesn’t know that since October 2014, appeals of final decisions by the NC Business Court go directly to the NC Supreme Court instead of to the NC Court of Appeals.

You didn’t know that?  Well you are not alone.  The Notice of Appeal of Judge Gale’s Opinion in Zloop, Inc. v. Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, 2018 NCBC 16 dismissing all of Plaintiff’s claims was addressed to the COA, not the Supreme Court. Judge Gale dismissed the appeal yesterday, in Zloop, Inc. v. Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, 2018 NCBC 39.

In all other respects, the appeal was totally compliant with the Rules of Appellate Procedure.  It was timely, and the Notice of Appeal was properly filed in Mecklenburg County.

There are a bunch of minefields along the path of a Business Court appeal.  I’ve written about the ones that have exploded on an appealing party, like: not filing the Notice of Appeal in the county where the case originated, not including the Notice of Designation to the Business Court in the Record on Appeal, and like the Zloop Notice of Appeal, sending the Notice of Appeal to the wrong appellate Court.

The attorneys for the Defendant in the Zloop case, picking up immediately on the misdirection of the Notice of Appeal, moved to dismiss the appeal.

Plaintiff moved, in response, to be allowed to amend its Notice of Appeal to properly address it to the NC Supreme Court.  By then, the thirty day period to file a Notice of Appeal had run out.

Judge Gale’s ruling was that he did not have jurisdiction to allow the amended Notice of Appeal and he granted the Motion to Dismiss the appeal.

Why was the trial court judge ruling on matters concerning an appeal?  You might be thinking that the motion to amend the Notice of Appeal should have been decided by the appellate court.  Rule 25(a) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure seems to provide that.  But the Rules also provide that a case is not fully before an appellate court until the Record on Appeal is filed, and that the trial court has jurisdiction over the case until then.

Couldn’t Judge Gale have shown some mercy for this minor error? Maybe you think that Judge Gale is too cold-hearted and that he could have given the Plaintiff a pass on this mistaken Notice of Appeal.  Well, no, because as Judge Gale noted in his first decision on exactly the same issue (an unpublished decision, Christenbury Eye Center, P.A. v. Medflow, Inc., he had "no discretion to allow Plaintiff to amend [its] appeal."

Can the NC Supreme Court still accept the appeal?  Yes, as the NC Supreme Court has the power to allow a deviation from its own Rules.  Appellate Rule 2, captioned "Suspension of Rules" specifically allows that.  Maybe the High Court will show some empathy for this Plaintiff as the case involves issues of first impression: whether claims for professional malpractice can be barred by the doctrine of in pari delicto, and whether North Carolina recognizes a tort claim for aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty (the Business Court seems pretty sure that it doesn’t).

[Note: This is the first time in a long while that I have blogged about a case the day after the Opinion was handed down as opposed to a week later.  That doesn’t mean that I have recovered my zip.  It means that Judge Gale’s Zloop Opinion was only five pages long.  I encourage more short Opinions.  Those are easier for me to write about.]

It’s been a while since the Business Court devoted a full opinion to a shareholder’s rights to inspect corporate records.  But last week, Judge Bledsoe filled that gap with his Order and Final Judgment in Sharman v. Fortran Corp., 2018 NCBC 27

Fortran?  If you are thinking that Fortran Corp. must control the rights to the Fortran computer coding language, like I was, you are wrong. This Fortran Corporation is a "telecommunications system integrator dedicated to designing, sourcing, implementing and maintaining complex communications solutions."  That’s what its last Annual Report says.

The Sharman Opinion deals with the request of multiple Fortran shareholders to inspect a wide swath of Fortran’s corporate records.  I can’t think of another area of the law where you get a statutory right to discovery before filing a lawsuit (though it’s limited to what the statute says you can get).  And you are entitled to a response in five business days!  No thirty or sixty days waiting for a response.  Plus you might be entitled to recover your attorneys’ fees.  I wonder why every claim by a shareholder against a director or officer for, say, a breach of fiduciary duty, isn’t preceded by the use of this powerful tool.

There are two "separate and distinct categories" of inspection requests.  Op. 16 (quoting Russell M. Robinson, II, Robinson on North Carolina Corporation Law § 10.0 1(7th ed.2017)).  These are generally referred to as "absolute rights of inspection" (per. G.S.§55-16-02(a), and "qualified rights of inspection (per. G.S. §55-16-02(b)).

Absolute Right Of Inspection

Section 55-16-01(e) of the General Statutes lists certain records which a corporation is required to keep.  A shareholder is "entitled" to inspect these records:

(1)  Its articles or restated articles of incorporation and all amendments to them currently in effect;

(2) Its bylaws or restated bylaws and all amendments to them currently in effect;

(3) Resolutions adopted by its board of directors creating one or more classes or series of shares, and fixing their relative rights, preferences, and limitations, if shares issued pursuant to those resolutions are outstanding;

(4) The minutes of all shareholders’ meetings, and records of all action taken by shareholders without a meeting, for the past three years;

(5) All written communications to shareholders generally within the past three years and the financial statements required to be made available to the shareholders for the past three years under G.S. 55-16-20;

(6) A list of the names and business addresses of its current directors and officers; and

(7) Its most recent annual report delivered as required by G.S. 55-16-22.

"Absolute" Doesn’t Mean Automatic

Not every shareholder has these "absolute" inspection rights. Only "qualified shareholders" can exercise them.  Only those who have held their shares for more than six months before making their demand for inspection, or who hold at least five percent of any class of the corporation’s shares are "qualified."  N.C. Gen. Stat. §55-16-02(g). 

"Qualified" Rights Are Tougher To Obtain

Those shareholders trying to exercise the "qualified rights" of Section 55-16-02(b) have to satisfy a more difficult standard.  The requesting shareholder must show that his:

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