You are all familiar with the old adage that "one Superior Court Judge cannot overrule another Superior Court Judge." But apparently there is at least a little bend in that rule, as illustrated by Judge Bledsoe’s opinion this past Thursday, in Taidoc Technology Corp. v. OK Biotech Co., 2014 NCBC 48.
The Taidoc case is one that Judge Bledsoe inherited after Judge Murphy’s retirement.
Judge Murphy had entered a discovery order in June 2014 granting in part Taidoc’s Motion to Compel. The Order allowed Taidoc to take the depositions of certain non-parties, but imposed restrictions which Taidoc did not appreciate.
The proposed deponents had been involved in a related case in which Taidoc had been the Defendant, and they also had been deposed in that case and had testified at trial. Judge Murphy’s Order allowing the depositions limited the proposed deposition testimony to "matters not addressed by prior depositions of those witnesses." The Order also provided that Taidoc would bear the fees and costs associated with any of the depositions, including the attorneys’ fees of the deponents.
Taidoc said that Judge Murphy’s restrictions should be overruled and stricken, or at least clarified. Taidoc suggested in its Motion regarding the Order that counsel for the witnesses was taking the position that the Order cut off Taidoc’s right to ask about any events occurring after a certain date.
Criteria For Overruling Another Judge’s Decision
Judge Bledsoe stated the limited conditions under which he could change Judge Murphy’s Order. He said that:
our appellate courts have held that “[o]ne superior court judge may only modify, overrule, or change the order of another superior court judge where the original order was (1) interlocutory, (2) discretionary, and (3) there has been a substantial change of circumstances since the entry of the prior order.”
Op. ¶11 (quoting Crook v. KRC Mgmt. Corp., 206 N.C. App. 179, 189, 697 S.E.2d 449, 456 (2010).
Although the Order met the first two requirements for being modified — being interlocutory and discretionary — Judge Bledsoe found that there was no basis to find that there had been a "substantial change of circumstances" in the four months since Judge Murphy had entered his Order.
But the lack of changed circumstances didn’t stop Judge Bledsoe from interpreting the Order, which he found to be somewhat ambiguous and capable of different interpretations. He said that the words used by Judge Murphy in his Order — that the depositions be limited to "matters not addressed by prior depositions of the same witnesses" — were meant to avoid "unnecessarily duplicative examinations" of those witnesses and to prevent Taidoc from posing the same questions in the hope of obtaining different answers. Op. ¶16.
He said that Taidoc could:
ask any questions and engage in any specific line of inquiry that was not pursued by Plaintiff in the prior depositions of the Non-Parties concerning any document, thing, person, event or fact, provided such inquiry is consistent with the requirements of Rule 26 and any other applicable rules of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure.
Judge Bledsoe also weighed in on the obligation that the Order had placed on Taidoc to pay the fees and costs associated with the depositions of the previously deposed witnesses, including the attorneys’ fees of the deponents. He ruled that any fees and costs presented for payment had to be "reasonable under the circumstances" and that Taidoc should be allowed to contest the reasonableness of the fees and costs before having to pay them." Op. ¶17.
Surely that’s what Judge Murphy intended in the first instance.
Judge Bledsoe Was Unwilling To Award Attorneys’ Fees Which Judge Murphy Possibly Should Have Awarded
Judge Bledsoe refused to alter Judge Murphy’s refusal to award attorneys’ fees to Taidoc’s lawyers with regard to the Motion that resulted in the Order at issue. Although the Plaintiff had prevailed on the Motion to Compel leading to Judge Murphy’s Order, and Rule 37(a)(4) says that fees shall be awarded to the prevailing party on a Motion to Compel, Judge Murphy had never made findings that the Defendant’s opposition was "substantially justified" or that a fee award would be "unjust under the circumstances," which would have excused an award of fees,
Even if Judge Murphy not awarding fees was mistaken, which Judge Bledsoe did not suggest, he said that "one Superior Court Judge may not correct another’s errors of law." Op. ¶26 (quoting Calloway v. Ford Motor Co., 281 N.C. 496, 501, 189 S.E.2d 484, 488 (1972)).
So if you are a lawyer handling a case before Judge Bledsoe in which Judge Murphy previously entered an Order, your chances of getting a previous ruling overruled are pretty slim. But getting an interpretation of an earlier ruling more favorable to your client seems possible.
There’s more interesting stuff in Judge Bledsoe’s ruling, especially on when a party can withdraw its responses to Requests for Admission. Or more precisely, when can a party withdraw admissions made as a result of its failure to respond timely to the Requests. That’s in Paragraphs 29 through 35 of the Opinion.