N.C. Business Court Opinions, January 18, 2023 – January 31, 2023
Futures Grp., Inc. v. Brosnan, 2023 NCBC 4 (N.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 19, 2023) (Earp, J.)
Key Terms: indemnification; advancement; partial summary judgment; choice of law; internal affairs doctrine; Delaware law; former director
Defendant, a former director of Plaintiff The Futures Group, Inc. (“Futures”), filed a motion for partial summary judgment on his counterclaim for advancement of litigation expenses. Because advancement is an internal governance matter and Futures is a Delaware corporation, the Court applied the substantive law of Delaware to the issue of advancement.
Despite Plaintiffs’ argument that pursuant to a Delaware statute, actions for advancement and indemnification can only be brought in the Delaware Chancery Court, the Court held that Plaintiffs misconstrued the statute in question and that the Court does have jurisdiction to hear and decide this action. The Court further held that 8 Delaware Code § 145(j) creates a default continuation rule, absent express language in a corporation’s bylaws to the contrary, that a director’s right to advancement continues after his or her status as a director ends. The Futures bylaws contain no such express provision and therefore the Court held Defendant’s right to advancement vested at the time of his actions as a director and did not end when he was removed as a director. The Court also held that Plaintiffs’ accusations of wrongdoings against Defendant did not alleviate it of its obligation to advance his expenses.
The Court granted Defendant’s motion for partial summary judgment and ordered Futures to advance Defendant’s expenses in accordance with its bylaws.
Innovare, Ltd. v. SciTeck Diagnostics, Inc., 2023 NCBC 5 (N.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 19, 2023) (Davis, J.)
Key Terms: motion to amend; motion to dismiss; breach of contract; breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing; conversion; unjust enrichment; unfair competition; fraud; Rule 9(b); Lanham Act; UDTPA; motion to strike
This case arose out of a distributorship agreement between Plaintiff Innovare and Defendant Sciteck, who manufactured COVID-19 test strips for which Defendant was seeking Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA. Both parties asserted various claims against each other, with Defendant’s counterclaims focusing on Plaintiff allegedly using the test strips outside the bounds of the EUA approval process. After Plaintiff moved to dismiss the counterclaims and strike Defendant’s affirmative defenses, Defendant moved to amend.
Regarding the motion to amend, the Court determined that it should not be denied on the basis of undue delay based on Defendant’s representation that certain new allegations which are relevant to the proposed amendments had only been discovered after the filing of the initial counterclaims. As to futility, the Court elected to consider both the original counterclaims and the proposed amended counterclaims under the motion to dismiss since the parties had fully briefed both.
Turning to the counterclaims, the Court first concluded that the breach of contract counterclaim survived in part and that, therefore, the counterclaim for breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing also survived. However, since the counterclaims plainly alleged the existence of a contract and did not allege damages beyond those recoverable under a breach of contract theory, the unjust enrichment counterclaim failed.
The Court also dismissed the conversion counterclaim because Defendant did not allege that Plaintiff acquired the test strips illegally or that a demand for their return was made; the common law unfair competition counterclaim because Defendant did not allege that the parties were business competitors; and the fraud counterclaim because the allegations were too general to meet Rule 9(b)’s heightened pleading standard.
As to the Lanham Act counterclaim, the Court concluded that Defendant’s allegations that Plaintiff had exceeded the scope of the distributorship agreement by allowing the test strips to be sold to third-parties despite the absence of FDA approval, and that such conduct caused damages—including reputational injury—to Defendant, were sufficient to state a claim. Since trademark infringement can constitute an unfair or deceptive trade practice, the UDTPA counterclaim also survived.
Turning to Plaintiff’s motion to strike Defendant’s 49 affirmative defenses, the Court agreed that the number of affirmative defenses was excessive, but only struck the three which Plaintiff had specifically identified were improper.
Carolina Med. Partners, PLLC v. Shah, 2023 NCBC 6 (N.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 24, 2023) (Conrad, J.)
Key Terms: unfair and deceptive trade practices; Rule 12(b)(6); choice of law; learned profession exemption
Plaintiffs Nimish Patel and Shephali Patel are practicing physicians who previously owned and operated more than half a dozen businesses with Defendant Amit Shah, including Palmetto Medical Group, LLC. After their professional relationship eroded, the parties participated in a mediation resulting in a Practice Separation Agreement, which provided a framework for the division of their business interests and included a North Carolina choice of law clause. After Shah allegedly breached the Agreement, the Patels filed suit for breaches of the Agreement, fraud, and unfair and deceptive trade practices, all largely based on Shah’s alleged actions to deceptively influence patients’ choice of provider. Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ unfair and deceptive trade practices claim.
Plaintiffs argued that both South Carolina and North Carolina law applied to the unfair and deceptive trade practices claim. However, the Court rejected the application of South Carolina law because the Agreement expressly provided that North Carolina law would govern the interpretation and implementation of the Agreement, and the complaint did not allege any extracontractual conduct.
Turning to North Carolina law, the Court determined that Defendants’ alleged conduct fell “comfortably” within the statute’s “learned profession” exemption, as Defendants were members of a learned profession, and the conduct was “directly related to providing patient care.” Thus, the Court dismissed Plaintiffs’ claim for unfair and deceptive trade practices.
Cutter v. Vojnovic, 2023 NCBC 7 (N.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 24, 2023) (Bledsoe, C.J.)
Key Terms: motion for judgment on the pleadings; Rule 12(c); standing; derivative claims; common law general partnership; constructive trust; misappropriation of business opportunity
In this action, Plaintiff Cutter alleged that he and Defendant Vojnovic were general partners in a common law partnership formed to purchase several hot dog businesses, but that Vojnovic thereafter created a separate entity (Defendant Holdings) and misappropriated this opportunity. Plaintiff brought suit, alleging a host of claims both directly and derivatively on behalf of the general partnership. Defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings.
Addressing first the derivative claims, the Court agreed with Defendants that, absent contract or consent, North Carolina law does not permit a general partner to bring a claim derivatively on behalf of the general partnership against another general partner. Therefore, the Court dismissed Cutter’s derivative claims against Vojnovic.
Turning to the direct claims, the Court dismissed the tortious interference with prospective economic advantage claim because Cutter failed to allege specific facts to support his claim. In particular, the Court found that Cutter failed to allege facts showing how Defendants diverted the opportunity or what they did to wrongfully interfere.
The Court also dismissed Cutter’s claim for misappropriation of business opportunity against Vojnovic finding that it was unnecessarily duplicative of Cutter’s breach of fiduciary duty claim because misappropriation of business opportunity is a subspecies of the fiduciary duty of loyalty.
Lastly, because a constructive trust is not a standalone claim, the Court dismissed this claim, but did so without prejudice to Cutter’s right to pursue a constructive trust as a remedy against both Defendants if justified.
rFactr, Inc. v. McDowell, 2023 NCBC 8 (N.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 27, 2023) (Bledsoe, C.J.)
Key Terms: motion to strike; summary judgment; tortious interference; causation; breach of fiduciary duty; UDTPA; in or affecting commerce; defamation per se
This case arose after Jackson National terminated contract negotiations with rFactr, after receiving a call from Caroline McDowell, the wife of rFactr director Chris McDowell, in which Caroline told Jackson National that rFactr was financially unstable (the Call). rFactr and two individual directors/owners filed suit against the McDowells based on the Call, and the McDowells counterclaimed. A number of the parties’ claims were previously disposed of on summary judgment motions and the case was set for trial, but after new information came to light, Defendants moved for summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ remaining claims.
The Court first addressed Defendants’ motion to strike the Gomez Declaration filed in opposition to summary judgment. Defendants argued that Gomez made unauthorized statements on behalf of Jackson National, that he lacked personal knowledge, and that his statements were inadmissible hearsay. The Court disagreed and denied the motion with the exception of Gomez’s statement that Jackson National and rFactr reached a “meeting of the minds” on the terms of a proposed contract. Such a statement was a legal conclusion to which a witness cannot testify.
Turning to the claims, the Court denied summary judgment as to the tortious interference claim against Caroline, concluding that the close proximity of the Call and Jackson National’s decision to discontinue contract negotiations was sufficient circumstantial evidence of causation. However, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of Chris because there was no evidence that Chris knew of or was involved in the Call, and evidence that Chris’s laxity permitted Caroline to gain the information that led to the Call was insufficient to show he acted in concert with her.
The Court also denied summary judgment on the breach of fiduciary duty claim against Chris as an rFactr director for not adequately protecting rFactr’s confidential information from Caroline because there was conflicting evidence on whether and to what extent he knew of her activities.
On the UDTPA claims, the Court denied summary judgment as to Caroline on the same grounds as the tortious interference claim, but granted it in favor of Chris because his actions took place solely within the company and thus were not in or affecting commerce.
Lastly, the Court addressed the individual plaintiffs’ slander per se claims against Caroline and Chris. The Court denied the motion regarding Caroline’s statement that the individuals were under investigation for arson because there was evidence that Caroline failed to exercise reasonable care to ascertain its truth, but otherwise granted summary judgment in Caroline’s favor because the remaining statements were either true or not defamatory on their face. The Court also granted summary judgment in favor of Chris since he was not involved in making the statements.
N.C. Dep’t of Revenue v. FSC II, LLC, 2023 NCBC 9 (N.C. Sup. Ct. Jan. 30, 2023) (Davis, J.)
Key Terms: sales and use tax; mill machinery exemption; Department of Revenue
This matter arises from a dispute between Petitioner, the North Carolina Department of Revenue and Respondent, FSC II, LLC, regarding FSC’s qualification for the Mill Machinery Exemption under the North Carolina Sales and Use Tax Act. FSC, who operated primarily as a contractor, regularly purchased raw materials to create hot mix asphalt (“HMA”) for its projects. Any HMA left over from FSC’s projects was regularly sold by FSC to third parties. Based on this, FSC argued that it qualified for the Mill Machinery Exemption and was entitled to a lower privilege tax on its raw materials rather than the higher sales or use tax. The Department of Revenue sought back-taxes from FSC for sales and use tax. The Office of Administrative Hearings granted summary judgment to FSC in an administrative proceeding, concluding that FSC’s use of the raw materials it purchased to produce HMA constituted “manufacturing” under the Act. The Department of Revenue appealed.
The Court upheld the OAH’s final decision, finding that FSC qualified as a manufacturer under the Mill Machinery Exemption. Using language from Supreme Court cases interpreting the definition of “manufacturing,” the Court determined that FSC’s production of HMA qualified as manufacturing as it involved “the producing of a new article or use or ornament by the application of skill and labor to the raw materials of which it is composed.”
Cent. Carolina Surgical Eye Assocs., P.A. v. Matthews, 2023 NCBC Order 2 (N.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 18, 2023) (Bledsoe, C.J.)
Key Terms: attorneys’ fees; unfair and deceptive trade practices; punitive damages; frivolous or malicious actions; N.C.G.S. § 75-16.1; N.C.G.S. § 1D-45; Rule 41; time-barred
Plaintiff first filed its complaint in 2015 but moved to dismiss the action in 2020 pursuant to Rule 41(a). Plaintiff refiled in 2021 alleging similar causes of action but adding several new claims as well. Upon Defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, the Court found that Plaintiff’s new claim for unfair and deceptive trade practices was barred by the statute of limitations and that the tolling provision of Rule 41 was not applicable thereto. The Court also dismissed Plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary duty claim to the extent it was based on allegations newly made in the 2021 Complaint, and Plaintiff’s “claim” for punitive damages to the extent that it was a standalone claim and based on the dismissed claims. Defendant Matthews then filed a motion for attorneys’ fees pursuant to N.C.G.S. §§ 75-16.1 and 1D-45.
Despite having dismissed the UDTPA and punitive damages claims, the Court held that neither claim was frivolous and/or malicious under Sections 75-16.1 and 1D-45. The Court relied on the extensive briefs and arguments presented by the parties in support of and opposition to the claims during the motion for judgment on the pleadings and found that even though the Court ruled against Plaintiff with respect to these claims, they had not been brought intentionally without just cause or excuse or as a result of ill will. Therefore, the Court denied Defendant’s motion for attorneys’ fees.
Curo Health Servs., LLC v. Havnaer, 2023 NCBC Order 3 (N.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 19, 2023) (Bledsoe, C.J.)
Key Terms: determination order, N.C.G.S. § 7A-45.4(a)(8); order on designation; trade secrets
Pursuant to a determination order from the Supreme Court, the Court addressed whether the action was properly designated as a mandatory complex business case pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-45.4(a)(8), which permits designation if the action involves a material issue related to disputes involving trade secrets. The Court determined that while the complaint alleged the misuse of plaintiff’s confidential information, it did not allege that such information constituted a trade secret or otherwise assert a claim for trade secret misappropriation. Accordingly, designation was improper.
Chi v. N. Riverfront Marina & Hotel, LLLP, 2023 NCBC ORDER 4 (N.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 20, 2023) (Earp, J.)
Key Terms: motion to seal; trade secret protection; waiver; redaction; confidentiality
Plaintiffs in this matter filed two motions seeking to file under seal in their entirety the verified complaint, first amended verified complaint, second amended verified complaint and supporting exhibits, despite the information having already been on the public record for over a year. Because Defendants were the designating party seeking confidentiality, the Court had previously directed them to provide information sufficient for the Court to determine if sealing was warranted.
In response, Defendants argued that Plaintiffs’ pleadings and certain exhibits should be sealed in their entirety because they contained proprietary trade secret information that could be of value to Defendant’s competitors. However, because Defendants did not seek to place their answer or counterclaims under seal, despite those pleadings containing the same information, the Court held that any trade secret protection over the information at issue had been lost and Defendants had waived the ability to assert confidentiality of those materials going forward. Thus, the Court denied the motions but ordered, sua sponte, that the unredacted exhibits containing personal information be sealed and that the parties promptly re-file them with proper redactions.
CitiSculpt Fund Servs., LLC v. Blueprint 2020 Opportunity Zone Fund, LLLP, 2023 NCBC Order 5 (N.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 24, 2023) (Bledsoe, C.J.)
Key Terms: sua sponte; redaction; motion to seal; gatekeeper; public interest; BCR 5
Defendant Blueprint filed a motion to dismiss and supporting affidavits. Without filing the documents provisionally under seal accompanied by a motion to seal as contemplated by Business Court Rule 5, Defendant unilaterally redacted portions of the affidavits it filed in an attempt to “avoid additional motions practice regarding sealing.”
The Court, sua sponte, held that this was procedurally improper and if allowed, would prevent the Court from performing its gatekeeper role of protecting the public interest by keeping court records open to inspection of the public. The determination of whether documents should be filed under seal is within the discretion of the trial court. Therefore, the Court order that Defendant file a motion to seal and file unredacted version of the documents provisionally under seal pending the Court’s ruling on Defendant’s motion to seal.
DS & T II, Inc. v. D & E Tax & Accounting, Inc., 2023 NCBC Order 6 (N.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 25, 2023) (Earp, J.)
Key Terms: attorneys’ fees; N.C.G.S. § 1D-45; punitive damages; frivolous; N.C.G.S. § 6-21.5; absence of a justiciable issue; Rule 11
This litigation involved the business relationship between two accountants, Mohamed Elbahrawi and the late Julio Dibbi. Plaintiffs consist of a corporation owned and operated by Dibbi during his lifetime and his executor, Somerville, who is also the trustee of his testamentary trust. Plaintiffs asserted nine causes of action based on Elbahrawi’s allegedly improper use of Dibbi’s client list and other business assets. Defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint in its entirety was previously granted and Defendants then moved for attorneys’ fees under various statutes.
The Court granted the motion for attorneys’ fees under N.C.G.S. § 6-21.5 based on Plaintiffs’ persistence in litigating their claims despite notice that the claims were untimely or otherwise unsupported by law.
The Court also granted the motion for attorneys’ fees under N.C.G.S. § 1D-45, concluding that Plaintiffs’ claim for punitive damages was frivolous.
Finally, the Court granted the Rule 11 motion to the extent it was based on the failure of Plaintiffs’ counsel to investigate the facts regarding Plaintiff Somerville’s standing as executor and trustee. However, the Court, in its discretion, otherwise denied the Rule 11 motion, concluding that Plaintiffs’ counsel genuinely believed that the pleadings were well-grounded in fact and law and that the fees awarded under § 6-21.5 and § 1D-45 were sufficient to remedy the harm done.
Accordingly, the Court ordered Plaintiffs’ counsel to pay the reasonable attorneys’ fees incurred by Defendants regarding the standing issue and ordered Plaintiffs to pay the remaining reasonable attorneys’ fees incurred regarding the claims asserted in the amended complaint.
Campbell Sales Grp., Inc. v. Niroflex by Jiufeng Furniture, LLC, 2023 NCBC ORDER 7 (N.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 23, 2023) (Davis, J.)
Key Terms: summary judgment; breach of contract; damages; pre-judgment interest
The Court had previously granted summary judgment in Defendants’ favor on Defendants’ counterclaims for breach of contract. Following the Court’s decision, the Court ordered the parties to submit supplemental briefs addressing damages. In their supplemental briefing, the parties’ only material dispute was concerning the applicable date of breach for the purpose of calculating pre-judgment interest.
Defendants argued that the applicable date of breach could be determined by the invoices submitted to the Court, which reflected the estimated date of shipment for unpaid products. Plaintiff argued that Defendants failed to satisfy its burden at the summary judgment stage, based on the fact that the evidence did not reflect that the products were actually shipped on the date of the invoice. Thus, Plaintiff requested that the Court exercise its discretion to use the filing date of Defendants’ counterclaims as the date upon which interest began to accrue.
The Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument, noting that Plaintiffs had not offered any evidence that would tend to show that the estimated shipping dates contained on Defendants’ invoices were inaccurate. Finding that Defendants had satisfied their burden of proof, the Court ordered that pre-judgment interest would be applied from the date of the estimated shipment contained in Defendants’ invoices.
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