Court of Appeals Hands Down Multiple Decisions Affecting Public Entities

In the public records case of Cline v. Hoke, Plaintiff brought an action against Defendant, assistant director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, in his official and individual capacity, seeking to obtain certain emails pursuant to North Carolina’s public records law.  N.C.G.S. § 132-6(a) requires that a custodian of public records provide the public with reasonable inspection of said records.  The Court affirmed the Trial Court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s claim against Defendant in his individual capacity as any claim brought against a custodian of records must be brought against his official capacity.  Pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 132-2, the Court held that the person who is in charge of the office said to have the records at question is the designated custodian of the public records.  Here, Defendant was the assistant director of the AOC.  He was not the person in charge of the AOC.  As such, the Court affirmed the decision of the trial court dismissing Plaintiff’s claim against Defendant in his official capacity as he was not the legal custodian of the records in question.

In Debaun v. Kuszaj, the Court of appeals found that a claim against a law enforcement officer in his individual capacity was considered an adequate at law. Here, Plaintiff filed a claim alleging excessive force and violation of his rights under the North Carolina Constitution.  Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment was granted and the Court of Appeals affirmed, noting that a direct cause of action under the state constitution is only permissible when there is no other adequate remedy at law.  The affirmative defense of public official immunity does not render common law tort claims inadequate remedies as there is at least a possibility of relief.

In the First Amendment case of Frances L. Feltman v. City of Wilson, the Court of Appeals declined to adopt a heightened pleading requirement.  The Court of Appeals reversed the Trial Court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s claims which alleged that the City violated her right to freedom of speech and right to assemble under the North Carolina Constitution.  In essence, the trial court held that Plaintiff failed to affirmatively plead that her speaking out about her supervisor’s misconduct was the “but for” cause of her termination.  However, the Court of Appeals held that on Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the only question is whether the complaint states a claim for relief when the complaint is liberally construed and all allegations taken as true and that Rule 8 does not require the type of heightened pleadings that the City suggested.

In Gilbert v. Guilford County, Plaintiff filed claim alleging breach of his employment contract.  Plaintiff was employed by the County as its Director of Elections.  N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-55(c) requires the salary of a county director of elections to be commensurate with the salaries of other directors in similarly situated counties.  Plaintiff presented evidence showing that Guilford County was similar to that of Wake and Mecklenburg, yet he was compensated at a much lower rate.  Defendants elected not to present any evidence and argued that they were only required to pay Plaintiff the minimum $12.00 per hour as there was no other county similar enough for comparison.  The trial court awarded Plaintiff $38,503.00 plus interest and costs.  Defendants appealed. The Court of Appeals rejected Defendants’ argument that there was not a sufficiently similar county, as the requirement for a similar county did not mean identical.  This Court held that although the County had discretion when determining how much to pay its director of elections, it was still bound by § 163-55(c) requiring a county director of election’s salary to be commensurate with other directors’ salaries in similar counties.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s award.

In the public records case of Jackson v. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Hospital Authority, the Court of Appeals confirmed that settlements with public entities are generally subject to disclosure. Pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 132-9, Plaintiff sought an Order requiring Defendants to disclose documents pertaining to a confidential settlement Defendant reached with a financial institution in a prior lawsuit.  The Trial Court did not order that the settlement be provided to Plaintiff, and cited the public records act. However, the Court of Appeals noted that public records include all documents and papers made or received by any agency of N.C. government in the course of conducting its public proceedings and that only two exceptions apply to state agencies under N.C.G.S. § 132-1.3. The two primary exemptions include actions for medical malpractice against a hospital facility and settlement documents in certain actions against state agencies when sealed by a written court order containing specified findings of fact.  The Court held that neither exemption was applicable in this claim and reversed the decision of the trial court.

In another excessive force case, Ledbetter v. City of Durham, Plaintiff was tackled on a sidewalk and suffered numerous injuries.  At trial, Defendant testified that Plaintiff appeared to be resisting arrest during an open-air drug bust, which is why he was tackled. The Trial Court denied Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment,  and the Court of Appeals affirmed, noting that  State law provides law enforcement officers with immunity from personal liability when their actions occur within the scope of their discretionary duties without malice or corruption.  Law enforcement officers may also be entitled to qualified immunity as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights that a reasonable person would have known.  After viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court of Appeals held a triable issue of fact existed as to whether Defendant’s actions were objectively reasonable.

The motor vehicle negligence case of Pruett v. Bingham affirms, among other things, that outsourced fire and rescue services are governmental functions. Defendant filed a Third Party complaint against Mountain Home Fire and Rescue (“MHFR”), whose pickup truck was involved in the motor vehicle accident.  MHFR answered and averred that the truck was responding to an emergency at the time of the accident.  MHRF eventually filed a Motion to Dismiss based on the Third-Party Plaintiff’s failure to allege a waiver of immunity.  In support of this Motion, MHFR filed documents indicating that it was non-profit organization contracted by the County for rescue services.  The Court allowed MHFR’s Motion to Dismiss based on governmental and public officer immunity. The Court of Appeals affirmed, reasoning that MHFR was clearly in the performance of the governmental function of providing fire and rescue services at the time of the accident.

In the employment case of Sivaramalingam Manickavasagar v. N.C. Dep’t of Public Safety, Plaintiff filed a complaint against Defendants in their official and individual capacities alleging that he was terminated in retaliation for reporting racial discrimination and misappropriation of state resources. Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment as to all of Plaintiff’s claims which was granted by the trial court.  The Court of Appeals affirmed, noting that in order to succeed on a claim for retaliatory discrimination under the N.C. Whistleblower Act, the discharged employee must show: (1) that he engaged in a protected activity; (2) that the state took adverse action against the employee in his employment; and (3) that there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action.  Mere complaints regarding employee grievances are not protected under the Act.  Here, during the EEO’s investigation as well as the Plaintiff’s deposition, he never claimed he was being discriminated against for a protected reason. The Court also held that the state had legitimate reasons for terminating Plaintiff as he was confrontational and refused to follow protocol.

Recent Victories

Henry Gorham and Brian Love recently obtained summary judgment in a case alleging claims for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, negligent misrepresentation, and unfair trade practices against a real estate brokerage and agent. The brokerage and agent represented the plaintiffs in their purchase of a home. After the home flooded during a hurricane, the plaintiffs sued the brokerage and agent, based upon their alleged failure to disclose that the home had a propensity to flood.  Mr. Gorham and Mr. Love successfully argued that the plaintiffs lacked a factual basis on which to support any of their claims.

Jennifer Milak successfully argued that a man who fell 20 feet into a storm drain while walking his dog on commercial property after regular business hours was trespassing. Based on this argument, Jennifer successfully presented a Motion for Summary Judgment under North Carolina’s new Trespasser’s Responsibility Act.  Ms. Milak also obtained a dismissal in a motor vehicle case against a Deputy Sheriff on the bases of governmental immunity.