Supreme Court - Digested Index

For the Year: 2023

Appeal and Error

Discretionary review improvidently allowed—no precedential value of lower appellate decision—The Supreme Court concluded that discretionary review had been improvidently allowed; therefore, the decision of the Court of Appeals was left undisturbed but without precedential value. Mole' v. City of Durham, No. 394PA21 (N.C. Apr. 6, 2023)

Attorney Fees

Complex business case—motion for fees as part of costs—section 6-21.5—nonjusticiable case—In a complex business case involving a limited partnership–in which several limited partners (plaintiffs) sued the general partner (an ambulatory surgery center) and its owner (together, defendants)–the trial court did not abuse its discretion either by granting defendants' motion for award of attorney fees as part of their costs under Civil Procedure Rule 41(d) pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 6-21.5 or by entering an order that required plaintiffs to pay $599,262.00 in attorney fees as costs. The court's unchallenged findings and conclusions established that defendants were the prevailing party pursuant to section 6-21.5 because plaintiffs lacked standing to bring their claims as direct, individual actions, and therefore had no justiciable case. Woodcock v. Cumberland Cnty. Hosp. Sys., Inc., No. 376A21 (N.C. Apr. 6, 2023)

Child Abuse, Dependency, and Neglect

Adjudication—abuse and neglect—grossly inappropriate discipline—parents unrepentant—The trial court did not err by adjudicating a nine-year-old child as abused under N.C.G.S. § 7B-101(1) where, according to the trial court's findings, which were supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence (in a large part from respondents' own admissions), respondents mother and stepfather used "cruel or grossly inappropriate procedures or cruel or grossly inappropriate devices to modify behavior" by whipping the child with a belt severely enough to inflict visible physical injuries, forcing her to stand in a corner for many hours at a time, and making her sleep on the floor without any covers–all for days at a time, possibly for as long as two months. The trial court also did not err by adjudicating the same child as neglected under N.C.G.S. § 7B-101(15) based on the home environment being "injurious to the juvenile's welfare" where respondents saw nothing wrong with their discipline of the child, even after months of working with social services. In re A.J.L.H., No. 35PA21 (N.C. Apr. 6, 2023)

Adjudication—hearsay analysis—remaining evidentiary findings—In its review of the trial court's adjudication and disposition order in a child abuse case, the Court of Appeals erred in holding that some of the trial court's findings relied on inadmissible hearsay statements from the abused child (which were almost entirely duplicative of other evidence) and that the order must be vacated and remanded because the abuse adjudication heavily relied upon the inadmissible hearsay statements. In the first place, the out-of-court statements at issue were admissible for the purpose of explaining why social services began to investigate respondent-parents (rather than for the truth of the matter asserted), and the Court of Appeals should have presumed the trial court's ruling on respondents' objection to be correct where the trial court did not expressly state the reason it was admitting the evidence. Second, when the Court of Appeals concluded that the statements were erroneously admitted, that court should have simply disregarded the statements and examined whether the remaining findings supported the trial court's determination. In re A.J.L.H., No. 35PA21 (N.C. Apr. 6, 2023)

Adjudication—neglect—siblings of abused child—parents' unwillingness to remedy the injurious environment—Where the trial court properly adjudicated respondents' nine-year-old daughter as abused and neglected based on respondents' cruel and grossly inappropriate discipline of her, the trial court did not err by also adjudicating respondents' two younger children (then three years old and six months old) as neglected based on respondents' refusal to acknowledge that the discipline of the nine-year-old was inappropriate and their inability to make a commitment that they would not repeat the discipline, creating a substantial risk that the two younger children would be harmed if they stayed in the home. In re A.J.L.H., No. 35PA21 (N.C. Apr. 6, 2023)

Appellate review—role of appellate court—various procedural postures—In a child abuse case, where the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded the adjudication order with respect to all children involved, that court should not have addressed the disposition phase, and its instruction that the trial court must "order generous and increasing visitation between Margaret and her mother" was improper. On remand from the Supreme Court's decision holding that the trial court's adjudications were not erroneous (reversing the Court of Appeals' decision), the Court of Appeals was reminded to apply the abuse of discretion standard to the disposition order. If the trial court's order meets the high bar for abuse of discretion, the remedy is to vacate the disposition order and remand–without expressing an opinion as to the ultimate result of the best interests determination on remand, which is a decision that belongs to the trial court. In re A.J.L.H., No. 35PA21 (N.C. Apr. 6, 2023)

Neglect—injurious environment—death of sibling from suspected neglect—other siblings in DSS custody—ultimate findings—The trial court properly adjudicated a minor child as neglected based on its ultimate findings that the minor child lived in an environment injurious to her welfare and did not receive proper care or supervision pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7B-101(15), including that the minor child lived with her mother, who had previously been convicted of misdemeanor child abuse; the minor child's older siblings had previously been adjudicated abused, neglected, and dependent; and the minor child's younger sibling had died from asphyxiation after the mother left him alone for three hours in his crib with blankets, even though the parents had previously been instructed on proper sleeping arrangements for infants. Therefore, the Court of Appeals erred by reversing the trial court's order for failure to make a specific written finding of a substantial risk of impairment. Further, the Supreme Court clarified that the term "ultimate fact" means "a finding supported by other evidentiary facts reached by natural reasoning," and overturned prior caselaw that did not adhere to this definition. In re G.C., No. 241A22 (N.C. Apr. 6, 2023)


Second-degree murder—malice—jury verdict—sentencing—In defendant's trial for second-degree murder, where the jury indicated on the verdict sheet its finding that all three forms of malice supported defendant's conviction–actual malice (a B1 felony), "condition of mind" malice (a B1 felony), and "depraved-heart" malice (a B2 felony)–the trial court properly imposed a B1 felony sentence (which is more severe than a B2 felony sentence). There was no ambiguity in the jury's verdict, which the trial court reviewed and confirmed with the jury, and the relevant statute, N.C.G.S. § 14-17(b), was unambiguous that a Class B2 sentence is required only when a second-degree murder conviction hinges on a finding of depraved-heart malice. State v. Borum, No. 505PA20 (N.C. Apr. 6, 2023)


Personal—specific—nonresident corporate officers—resident employee terminated—insufficient contacts—In a suit brought by a former employee after he was terminated, in which he sued both his corporate employer and two individual defendants who worked for the corporation (neither of whom lived in North Carolina), plaintiff did not establish sufficient minimum contacts between the individual defendants and the state of North Carolina to subject them to personal jurisdiction in this state, and his complaint lacked specific allegations that the individual defendants were the primary participants in the alleged wrongdoing that gave rise to the suit. Schaeffer v. SingleCare Holdings, LLC, No. 321PA21 (N.C. Apr. 6, 2023)

Personal—specific—nonresident corporation—resident employee terminated—entire relationship considered—In a suit brought by a former employee after he was terminated, nonresident corporate defendants were subject to personal jurisdiction in North Carolina because they purposefully availed themselves of the privileges of conducting business-related activities in this state and those activities arose from or were related to plaintiff's claims. Although defendants initiated the employment relationship with plaintiff in California where plaintiff was then living, defendants established minimum contacts with North Carolina to survive constitutional analysis through multiple voluntary and intentional acts, including subsequently approving of and assisting in plaintiff's move to North Carolina, communicating with and supporting plaintiff as he expanded defendants' business in North Carolina, employing at least three other individuals in this state, serving North Carolina consumers by offering discounts for pharmacy benefits at retail locations throughout the state and, ultimately, terminating plaintiff's employment when he was a North Carolina resident. Schaeffer v. SingleCare Holdings, LLC, No. 321PA21 (N.C. Apr. 6, 2023)


Selection—Batson challenge—prima facie case—limited record—ratio of excused jurors—In defendant's prosecution for first-degree murder, the trial court did not err by determining that defendant had failed to establish a prima facie case of racial discrimination during jury selection pursuant to Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), where the State used three out of four peremptory strikes to excuse black potential jurors and defendant was unable on appeal to produce any additional facts or circumstances for consideration–due largely to defendant's specific request at trial that jury selection not be recorded. The single mathematical ratio, standing alone, was insufficient to show clear error in the trial court's determination. Finally, the Supreme Court did not consider the State's race-neutral explanation for its peremptory strikes–which the trial court had ordered the State to provide–because the trial court's Batson inquiry should have concluded with the court's determination that defendant had failed to make a prima facie showing and should not have moved to the second step. State v. Campbell, No. 97A20-2 (N.C. Apr. 6, 2023)

Selection—Batson challenge—third step of inquiry—juror comparison—The trial court did not clearly err in determining that defendant failed to prove, pursuant to the third step of the analysis set forth in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), that the State engaged in purposeful discrimination in peremptorily striking three black prospective jurors in defendant's trial for first-degree murder. The trial court properly considered numerous factors and its findings were supported by the evidence, including, among other things, that the case was not susceptible to racial discrimination; that a study relied upon by defendant regarding the history of prosecutors’ use of peremptory strikes in the jurisdiction was misleading and potentially flawed; that a side-by-side comparison of the three excused black prospective jurors–whom the State had explained were excused based on their reservations about the death penalty, connections with mental health issues, connections with substance abuse issues, or criminal record–with similarly situated non-excused white jurors did not support a finding of purposeful discrimination; and that even if the juror comparisons supported a finding of discrimination, the totality of the remaining circumstances outweighed the probative value of the comparisons. State v. Hobbs, No. 263PA18-2 (N.C. Apr. 6, 2023)

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