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WHAT JUST HAPPENED? A Guide To Dispositions In North Carolina Appellate Opinions

Three judge bench

Most lawyers, upon learning that a case on appeal has been decided, immediately flip (or scroll) to the last page of the opinion to see the result. Reading the analysis can wait.  The disposition determines whether you are going to enjoy calling your client with the news.

But other than telling you that you won or lost on appeal, what do the different disposition statements mean?  Case dispositions can be surprisingly nuanced and the precise language of a disposition may be the subject of substantive discussion among members of the court before the opinion is released.

As a starting point, be mindful that the DISPOSITION IN CAPITAL LETTERS at the end of the opinion often does not tell the whole story.  The resolution of an appeal may well involve further proceedings.  If so, the concluding paragraph of the opinion frequently will spell out any necessary additional steps.  A reviewing court does not want a lower court wondering what it is supposed to do next.

A quick survey of cases reveals that dispositions are highly case-specific and that the reviewing courts have not always been consistent in their usage.  For instance, assuming the conviction in a criminal case survives the appellate process, the Court of Appeals will usually find “No Error,” while the Supreme Court reviewing that same criminal conviction on further appeal will usually “Affirm” the Court of Appeals’ opinion.  However, in State v. Lucas, 353 N.C. 568, 548 S.E.2d 712 (2001), your humble scribe wrote an opinion for the Supreme Court reversing the Court of Appeals in part and finding “No Error” in part.  Oops.  To add insult to injury, Lucas was later overruled by the Supreme Court of North Carolina in light of the holding of the U. S. Supreme Court in Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 124 S. Ct. 531, 159 L. Ed. 2d 403 (2004). See State v. Allen, 359 N.C. 425, 438, 615 S.E.2d 256, 265 (2005).

With the above disclaimers in mind, what follows is a general guide (rather than holy writ) to the various dispositions ordinarily used by North Carolina appellate courts.  Many, maybe most, of the same disposition terms appear in the opinions of both reviewing courts.  Where there are differences, I have tried to sort them out without being too repetitive.

Dispositions of Cases Appealed Directly from the Trial Division to the North Carolina Court of Appeals or to the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

AFFIRMED:  In a civil case, the appellate court determines that the trial court reached the correct result.

AFFIRMED AND REMANDED:  The trial court reached the correct result in a civil case but the matter has to go back to the trial court for additional proceedings or for any other reason set out in the opinion.

REVERSED:  The appellate court determines that the trial court committed reversible error.  The disposition may be REVERSED AND REMANDED if the case is to be retried, or it may be REVERSED AND DISMISSED if the error was of the sort that precludes a retrial.

NO ERROR or NO PREJUDICIAL ERROR:  In a criminal case, the appellate court determines that the trial court reached the correct result or made no consequential mistakes.

VACATED:  The order or judgment before the appellate court is rendered void.  A matter can be VACATED AND REMANDED when other matters or issues remain alive to come back before the trial court.

DISMISSED:  The reviewing court determines that the appeal will not be considered on the merits.  This disposition is most common when the case has become moot, the parties have settled, the Rules of Appellate Procedure have been fatally violated, or the appeal is interlocutory and does not meet the requirements for immediate appellate review.

NEW TRIAL:  The trial court made prejudicial errors requiring another trial.

Dispositions in the Supreme Court of North Carolina of Cases First Considered by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

AFFIRMED:  The Court of Appeals opinion is correct.

AFFIRMED IN PART; REVERSED IN PART:  The Supreme Court determines that the Court of Appeals decided some issues correctly but not others.  The effect of the partial reversal is that a portion of the trial court’s order or judgment is reinstated.  A remand may not be necessary but, if a remand is required, the Supreme Court will usually state whether the reversed portion of the case is remanded for further action to the Court of Appeals or to the trial court.

AFFIRMED AND REMANDED:  Affirms the Court of Appeals’ decision and, consistent with that opinion, remands to the appropriate court for necessary further action.  For instance, if the Court of Appeals ordered a new trial and the Supreme Court affirms, the case is remanded to the trial division for the ordered action.  The opinion may remand the case back to the Court of Appeals with instructions for further remand to the trial court or agency for additional actions or with more specific instructions.  If issues remain before the Court of Appeals, the opinion may remand the case to the Court of Appeals for consideration of those issues with a disposition of AFFIRMED IN PART; REMANDED FOR CONSIDERATION OF REMAINING ISSUES.

MODIFIED AND AFFIRMED:  Affirms the Court of Appeals result but for a different reason.  The concluding paragraph will usually summarize how the Court of Appeals’ opinion has been modified.

REVERSED:  If the Court of Appeals has reversed the trial court, this Supreme Court disposition reverses only the Court of Appeals’ decision and reinstates the order or judgment of the trial court.  This disposition may include instructions to the Court of Appeals but often does not include a remand to that court.

REVERSED AND REMANDED:  This disposition reverses the Court of Appeals’ opinion and may also reverse the trial court’s order or judgment.  The concluding paragraph of the opinion should detail any necessary further action.  As with AFFIRMED AND REMANDED, the opinion may remand to the Court of Appeals with instructions for further remand to the trial court or agency for additional actions or with more specific instructions.  Or, if issues remain before the Court of Appeals, the opinion may remand the case to that court for consideration of those issues.  If not all the issues that were before the Court of Appeals were brought to the Supreme Court, the disposition may be as above or may be stated as REVERSED IN PART AND REMANDED.

VACATED:  This disposition renders a particular order or judgment void but may leave intact some of the proceedings below.  For instance, if the U. S. Supreme Court vacates a judgment of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, the matter returns to the Supreme Court of North Carolina for reconsideration in light of the holding of the U. S. Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court of North Carolina may also vacate one of its own former holdings/opinions.  Consider the saga of State v. Lucas, discussed above, to see how it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

Or consider Brown v. Meter, 199 N.C. App. 50, 681 S.E.2d 1382 (2008). Brown involved a bus accident in France in which citizens of North Carolina were killed.  The North Carolina Superior Court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss and the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed.  The Supreme Court of North Carolina dismissed the appeal and denied discretionary review. Brown v. Meter, 364 N.C 128, 695 S.E.2d 756 (2010).  The U. S. Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari and reversed the Court of Appeals without giving additional instructions. Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915, 131 S. Ct. 2846, 180 L. Ed. 2d 2796 (2011).  On remand, the North Carolina Court of Appeals entered a “Certification of Judgment,” stating that its earlier opinion was “vacated and the matter is remanded to the trial tribunal, in accordance with the attached opinion of the Supreme Court.”  I assume that the trial court then allowed the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

VACATED AND DISMISSED AS MOOT:  The Supreme Court ends either the appeal or the whole case (depending on the context) by vacating the Court of Appeals’ opinion and dismissing the appeal pending before the Supreme Court.

DISCRETIONARY REVIEW IMPROVIDENTLY ALLOWED and CERTIORARI IMPROVIDENTLY ALLOWED:  After considering the briefs and hearing argument, the Supreme Court declines to address an issue or a case that is not before it as a matter of right.

By this point, chances are that you are thinking of a case or two that had a disposition different from any of those listed above.  We’ve all seen cases that had such unusual procedural twists that the appellate court had to work out a customized disposition.  I’ll close by repeating that this is a nuanced topic and emphasizing that I have not attempted to mention every variation used by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

Questions, comments, and thoughts are welcomed. Also, please let me know if you would be interested in additional related blog posts

–Bob Edmunds

P.S. A tip of the hat to Allegra Collins for suggesting this topic.

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