While the substantive issues in a case are often the most interesting and the most contested, the issue of jurisdiction underlies every facet of litigation. The North Carolina Court of Appeals released two opinions this week that provide helpful reminders on this issue.
In State v. Wilkerson, the defendant pleaded guilty to several offenses as a 16-year-old and later filed a motion for appropriate relief seeking to reduce his sentences. The trial court granted the motion, and the state petitioned for certiorari to review the decision. On appeal, the defendant argued that the Court of Appeals lacked jurisdiction to grant certiorari.
The defendant’s argument essentially pitted the Appellate Rules against a state statute. Appellate Rule 21 identifies “an order of the trial court denying a motion for appropriate relief” as being subject to review by certiorari. The defendant argued, by exclusio unius, that Rule 21 implies that an order granting a motion for appropriate relief is not subject to certiorari review. Appellate Rule 1(c), however, states that the Appellate Rules should not be construed to extend or limit appellate jurisdiction. Further, the North Carolina statutes specifically identify certiorari as the proper way of seeking review of a “court’s ruling on a motion for appropriate relief” if any direct appeal of the underlying conviction has already concluded. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1422(c)(3).
On the other hand, the defendant had good authority for his argument: a 2006 Court of Appeals case, State v. Starkey, directly on point. The Wilkerson panel, however, disagreed with the reasoning of Starkey. It is well-settled, of course, that one panel of the Court of Appeals cannot overrule a previous panel. Nonetheless, the Wilkerson panel was able to jettison the Starkey precedent by pointing to other cases decided by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of North Carolina that had allowed certiorari review of orders granting motions for appropriate relief. Thus, the Wilkerson court found the previous precedent “inconsistent with prior and subsequent decisions of the Supreme Court” and, therefore, not controlling. The court went on to analyze the trial court’s order and reversed on the merits.
The Wilkerson opinion offers a key lesson for the appellate practitioner: do not give up if you find a case directly on point against you from the Court of Appeals. You may have an argument that the bad precedent is “not controlling,” especially if you can find a Supreme Court of North Carolina case that seems to hold the opposite.
TRIAL COURT JURISDICTION
The court also released two opinions in the case of Blanchard v. Britthaven, Inc., a wrongful death action with underlying claims of nursing home negligence. In the first opinion, the court found that the plaintiff’s arguments were not preserved at trial and found no error in the jury’s verdict in favor of the defendants. Before the trial occurred, however, the plaintiff filed several motions to compel production of the defendants’ financial documents, which were granted by the trial court. Even though the defendants filed an interlocutory appeal, the plaintiff chose to proceed to trial without the discovery at issue. Before trial, the plaintiff also filed a motion for sanctions regarding this discovery dispute. The trial court took the issue under advisement and, after the trial, granted the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions.
This issue led to the second opinion from the Court of Appeals. The defendants argued that their previous notice of appeal (regarding the motions to compel) divested the trial court of jurisdiction over the motion for sanctions. Even though it was an appeal of an interlocutory order, the defendants argued that the appeal affected a substantial right and therefore the question remained as to which matters were embraced in that appeal.
The Court of Appeals found that the appeals were separate and distinct. While the first dealt with the confidential and privileged nature of the documents, the second dealt with representations made to the trial court. The court explained: “Under the specific facts of this case, the matters at issue in the sanctions motion were not embraced in the appeal, and, as a result, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-294 did not stay proceedings on the sanctions motion.” Similarly, the defendants’ previous notice of appeal from the sanctions order and the plaintiff’s notice of appeal regarding the jury verdict did not deprive the trial court of jurisdiction over the amount of sanctions.
The statute divesting the trial court of jurisdiction is broad, but there is an exception for “any other matter included in the action and not affected by the judgment appealed from.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-294. Whether the appellant or the appellee, practitioners should remember that a notice of appeal does not necessarily stop the trial court from proceeding with other matters. As Blanchard shows, a fact-intensive inquiry may be necessary to determine whether those other matters fit the exception in section 1-294.