N.C. Business Court Opinions, March 15, 2023 – March 28, 2023
Relation Ins., Inc. v. Pilot Risk Mgmt. Consulting, LLC, 2023 NCBC 21 (N.C. Super. Ct. Mar. 16, 2023) (Davis, J.)
Key Terms: 30(b)(6) deposition; errata sheet; Rule 30(e)
After deposing Plaintiffs’ corporate representative, Jonathan Cooper, pursuant to Rule 30(b)(6), Defendants received an errata sheet for Cooper’s deposition transcript which contained seventy-six changes to Cooper’s testimony. Defendants moved to strike the changes in the errata sheet because they substantially contradicted or modified Cooper’s sworn deposition testimony.
The Court concluded that, under existing law, no basis existed to grant the motion to strike. While a few federal courts have refused to allow changes on an errata sheet that contradict the witness’s testimony, no North Carolina court has adopted this view. In fact, on at least two prior occasions, the Business Court has held that Rule 30(e) places no limits on a deponent’s ability to change his prior deposition testimony on an errata sheet. Nevertheless, the Court also determined that under the circumstances, certain safeguards were necessary, namely 1) Defendants were permitted to re-depose Cooper at Plaintiffs’ expense regarding the changes and the reasons for them; 2) Cooper’s original responses would remain part of the record and could be used for impeachment or other purposes; and 3) Defendants could challenge the substantive changes to the extent Plaintiffs sought to use them at summary judgment.
Cumberland Cnty. Hosp. Sys., Inc. v. Woodcock, 2023 NCBC 22 (N.C. Super. Ct. Mar. 21, 2023) (Davis, J.)
Key Terms: derivative standing; demand; Barger rule; special injury exception; fiduciary duty; majority member; constructive fraud
In this action, Plaintiff, the minority member of WCV, brought individual and derivative claims against WCV and its majority member and manager, Woodcock, arising out of Woodcock’s alleged failure to pay appropriate distributions and comply with WCV’s operating agreement. Defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).
Regarding Plaintiff’s standing to bring claims on behalf of WCV, the Court determined that Plaintiff had failed to comply with the demand requirements in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 57D-8-01(a)(2) for two reasons. First, Plaintiff did not wait ninety days after its demand to file suit. Although Plaintiff asserted the “irreparable injury” exception to this requirement, its complaint (and failure to seek a TRO or preliminary injunction) showed that any injurious conduct was not imminent. Plaintiff also argued that its failure to comply with the ninety-day requirement was moot since more than ninety days had now passed. The Court, however, rejected this argument since it would thwart the legislature’s intent and effectively render the ninety-day requirement meaningless in most cases. Second, the Court determined that the demand itself was insufficient because its focus was to protect Plaintiff’s interest, not the company’s. Moreover, while Plaintiff had attached a draft complaint to its demand, this was not a substitute for a demand that the company take appropriate and tangible action. Accordingly, the Court concluded that Plaintiff did not have standing to assert derivative claims and dismissed those claims without prejudice.
Plaintiff’s standing to assert individual claims fared better. Although under the Barger rule members cannot bring individual actions to recover their share of damages suffered by the company, the special injury exception to the rule was satisfied by Plaintiff’s allegations that Woodcock had 1) thwarted Plaintiff’s ability to receive distributions, and 2) refused to comply with provisions of the operating agreement to Plaintiff’s detriment. Thus, the Court denied the 12(b)(1) motion as to Plaintiff’s individual claims.
Regarding the individual breach of fiduciary claim, the Court assessed whether Woodcock owed Plaintiff fiduciary duties as either a manager or as the majority member of WCV. Since WCV’s operating agreement expressly provided that managers did not owe fiduciary duties to members, the Court dismissed the claim to the extent it was based on Woodcock’s actions as a manager. However, Plaintiff had sufficiently alleged that Woodcock used his position as majority member to assert absolute control over WCV such that he owed a fiduciary duty to Plaintiff as the minority member. Plaintiff also alleged that Woodcock breached this duty; therefore, the Court denied dismissal of the claim to the extent it was based on Woodcock’s actions as the controlling majority member.
Finally, the Court also denied dismissal of the constructive fraud claim since Defendants did not contend that Plaintiff had failed to adequately allege the claim, but only that such a claim was not viable where, as here, monetary damages were adequate compensation, which, the Court explained, was a misapprehension of the law and not a valid basis for dismissal.
Prometheus Grp. Enters., LLC v. Gibson, 2023 NCBC 23 (N.C. Super. Ct. Mar. 21, 2023) (Earp, J.)
Key Terms: breach of contract; non-compete; non-solicitation; non-disclosure; blue-pencil; tortious interference with contract; legal malice; misappropriation of trade secrets; UDTPA; aggravating circumstances; preliminary injunction
In this action, Plaintiff brought suit against its former employee, Gibson, and his new employer, Prospecta Software, alleging claims for breach of contract based on non-compete, non-solicitation, and non-disclosure provisions in Gibson’s employment agreement and for misappropriation of trade secrets and tortious interference with contract. Plaintiff also sought a preliminary injunction. Defendants moved to dismiss all claims.
Beginning with the breach of contract claim, the Court addressed each provision in turn. The non-compete provision was overbroad and unenforceable because it effectively prohibited Gibson from taking a wholly unrelated position with any business, or the affiliate of any business, located anywhere in the world, that provided asset management products. The Court declined to blue-pencil either the geographical restriction (because the list of locations was joined by the conjunctive “and”) or the word “indirectly” (because the provision’s structure did not clearly establish the drafter’s intention that the word be used alternatively). The non-solicitation provision was also unenforceable because it extended to customers and prospective customers with whom Gibson had no contact or even knowledge of. However, since non-disclosure provisions are not considered a restraint on trade and therefore not subject to the same level of scrutiny, the Court concluded that the allegations regarding Gibson’s breach thereof were sufficient, even though stated upon information and belief. Accordingly, the Court dismissed the breach of contract claim to the extent it was based on breach of the non-compete or non-solicitation provisions but denied dismissal to the extent the claim was based on breach of the non-disclosure provision.
As for the tortious interference with contract claim, the Court determined that, absent supporting facts, Plaintiff’s conclusory allegation that “Prospecta  knowingly induced Gibson to violate his [Employment] Agreement with [Plaintiff] without justification” was insufficient to satisfy the pleading requirements for intentional inducement and legal malice.
Regarding the misappropriation of trade secrets claim, the Court first determined that Plaintiff’s allegations of a compilation of confidential information housed in Salesforce was sufficient to plead the existence of a trade secret. However, the Court nonetheless dismissed the claim because Plaintiff’s allegations that Gibson had access to the trade secrets and was now working in a nearly identical role were insufficient to allege actual misappropriation.
The Court also dismissed the UDTPA claim since the misappropriation and tortious interference claims were dismissed and Plaintiff did not allege the aggravating circumstances necessary to elevate a breach of contract to an unfair or deceptive trade practice.
Finally, the Court denied the motion for a preliminary injunction, concluding that neither the bare-bones allegations of the Complaint nor the evidence presented satisfied Plaintiff’s burden to establish a likelihood of success on the merits of the sole remaining claim or that it was likely to sustain irreparable loss absent an injunction.
Baker v. Hobart Fin. Grp., Inc., 2023 NCBC 24 (N.C. Super. Ct. Mar. 22, 2023) (Robinson, J.)
Key Terms: Rule 12(e); motion for a more definite statement; and/or
Plaintiffs, ten individuals or couples, brought suit against seven defendants alleging seven causes of action. Their amended complaint contained seventy-seven pages of detailed factual allegations; however, the remaining seven pages setting forth their causes of action lacked clarity because, among other reasons, they did not specify which plaintiffs brought which claims against which defendants. Although Defendants moved to dismiss under Rules 12(b)(6) and 9(b), the Court treated the motion as a motion for a more definite statement under Rule 12(e) and ordered Plaintiffs to file a second amended complaint to clarify their claims. The Court specifically instructed Plaintiffs to avoid using “and/or” as it made the Court’s analysis of the fraud-based claims particularly difficult.
Reason v. Barfield, 2023 NCBC 25 (N.C. Super. Ct. Mar. 24, 2023) (Earp, J.)
Key Terms: judgment on the pleadings; joint venture; declaratory judgment; breach of contract; unjust enrichment
This suit arose from an alleged joint venture between the parties to purchase and sell certain properties. Plaintiffs brought claims for a declaratory judgment regarding the joint venture agreement, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment based on allegations that Defendant Barfield refused to abide by the terms of their agreement to divide profits from the venture. Defendants sought judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c).
Regarding the claim for a declaratory judgment, the Court rejected Defendants’ argument that Plaintiffs had failed to plead the existence of either a partnership or joint venture. Noting that partnerships and joint ventures are governed by substantially the same rules, the Court determined that the Plaintiffs had satisfied the pleading requirements, namely agreement to share the financial repercussions of the venture and shared ownership and control of the business. That Plaintiffs did not specifically allege that they agreed to share losses did not warrant dismissal at this stage of the case. Thus, the motion was denied as to the declaratory judgment claim.
The Court also denied the motion as to the breach of contract claim, concluding that Plaintiffs’ allegations that Barfield breached his promise to share the profits of the venture were sufficient.
Lastly, the Court denied the motion as to the unjust enrichment claim, noting that courts generally decline to address such claims at the Rule 12 stage if a viable breach of contract claim exists as it did here. Moreover, Plaintiffs had adequately alleged each element of the claim.
Loyd v. Griffin, 2023 NCBC 26 (N.C. Super. Ct. Mar. 27, 2023) (Robinson, J.)
Key Terms: summary judgment; UDTPA; in or affecting commerce; breach of contract; nominal damages; fraud; breach of fiduciary duty; business judgment rule; constructive fraud; conversion; unjust enrichment
This case arose out of Plaintiff’s and Defendant Griffin’s insurance agencies (LIA and GIA, respectively), the merger of the businesses, and various agreements relating to the business relationship. After GIA terminated Plaintiff for issuing false certificates of insurance (COIs), Plaintiff filed suit against Griffin and GIA, to which they responded with various counterclaims. The parties moved for summary judgment on all claims.
UDTPA. Defendant’s UDTPA claim was based on Plaintiff’s issuance of false COIs. Since this claim concerned Plaintiff’s conduct and its impact on GIA, it was an internal business dispute not in or affecting commerce. Accordingly, the Court dismissed the claim.
Breach of Contract – June 2018 Shareholders Agreement. Defendants sought specific performance of the June 2018 Shareholders Agreement requiring Plaintiff to sell his shares in GIA. However, a factual dispute existed as to whether, and to what extent, that agreement had been modified. Thus, the Court denied summary judgment.
Fraud. Defendants alleged that Plaintiff committed fraud in the Merger Agreement by representing that he and LIA were in compliance with applicable law despite Plaintiff wrongfully issuing false COIs. In response, Plaintiff argued that he could not be individually liable for false statements made by LIA. The Court rejected this argument; however, it nonetheless dismissed the claim because the evidence in the record showed that LIA did not issue any false COIs. Rather, all of the COIs in the record were issued by GIA and, therefore, Loyd’s representations were not false.
Breach of Contract – Merger Agreement. Defendants also alleged that Plaintiff’s false representations in the Merger Agreement constituted a breach contract. However, as with the fraud claim, Plaintiff’s representations were not false because the record evidence showed that LIA did not issue any false COIs. Thus, the Court dismissed this claim as well.
Breach of Contract – Associate Agent Agreement. Plaintiff argued that he was entitled to summary judgment on this claim because Defendants had not offered evidence of any damages. The Court denied summary judgment, though, because proof of damages is not an element of a claim for breach of contract. Even absent actual damages, Defendants could be entitled to nominal damages.
Fiduciary Claims against Defendant Griffin. Plaintiff brought breach of fiduciary duty and constructive fraud claims against Griffin based on fiduciary duties owed to Plaintiff as both a partner and a minority shareholder. The Court dismissed the claims to the extent they were based on a partnership relationship because there was insufficient evidence of such a relationship. The Court otherwise denied summary judgment because a factual dispute existed as to Griffin’s status as the majority shareholder.
Fiduciary Claims against Plaintiff. Defendants alleged a breach of fiduciary duty claim based on Plaintiff directing employees to issue false COIs in breach of his fiduciary duties as an officer of GIA. Plaintiff countered that his actions were done in good faith and in what he believed to be the best interests of GIA. Due to these disputed issues and a question of the weight of the related evidence, the Court denied summary judgment on this claim.
Conversion. Plaintiff’s conversion claim was based on allegations that Defendants took and transferred Loyd’s GIA shares without authorization. However, because there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether an agreement existed authorizing such a transfer, the Court denied summary judgment.
Unjust Enrichment. The Court denied summary judgment as to this claim because it rested on the same evidence as the conversion claim, which also survived summary judgment.
Blueprint 2020 Opportunity Zone Fund, LLLP v. 10 Acad. St. QOZB I, LLC, 2023 NCBC Order 17 (N.C. Super. Ct. Mar. 9, 2023) (Bledsoe, C.J.)
Key Terms: appointment of a receiver; Receivership Act; LLC Act; inherent authority; self-dealing; information requests
Plaintiffs are two of the three members of Defendant, which was formed in 2019 to develop certain property in South Carolina. In 2021, Plaintiffs were informed that Defendant had paid a $2 million deposit to an affiliate of Defendant’s manager for the proposed purchase of certain land, but that the deposit had been forfeited because Defendant had not completed the purchase by the deadline. Having had no prior knowledge of the transaction, Plaintiffs demanded the return of the deposit, an accounting of all agreements between Defendant and the manager’s affiliate, and various other information regarding Defendant’s business. These requests were largely refused resulting in Plaintiffs’ filing of the present lawsuit and motion for appointment of a receiver pursuant to the North Carolina Commercial Receivership Act, the dissolution procedures of the North Carolina Limited Liability Company Act, and the Court’s inherent authority and equitable powers. Based on the substantial evidence offered by Plaintiffs that 1) Defendant’s manager had engaged in improper self-dealing and breached the Operating Agreement; 2) Defendant’s cash assets had been dramatically reduced without satisfactory explanation; and 3) Plaintiff’s requests for information which they are entitled to under the Operating Agreement had been unfulfilled, the Court concluded that the appointment of a receiver was necessary to investigate and review the disputed matters, to account for and pursue recovery of the $2 million deposit and any other improperly used assets, and to produce the requested information to Plaintiffs. Accordingly, the Court appointed a receiver for Defendant and set forth the terms of the receivership.
Weddle v. WakeMed Health & Hospitals, 2023 NCBC Order 18 (N.C. Super. Ct. Mar. 22, 2023) (Bledsoe, C.J.)
Key Terms: prior pending action doctrine; abatement; stay; putative class members; judicial economy
Plaintiffs, two patients of Defendant, brought a putative class action based on the alleged unauthorized collection and improper use of their personal health information. Defendant moved to abate or, alternatively, stay the action under the prior pending action doctrine based on a previously filed putative class action pending in federal court.
Under the prior pending action doctrine, a second action should be abated if another, first-filed action is pending involving a substantial identity as to parties, subject matter, issues involved, and relief demanded. Here, the Court determined that the parties in the two actions were not substantially similar for two reasons. First, no class had been certified yet in either action; thus, only the named class representatives were plaintiffs and there was no overlap between the named plaintiffs in the two actions. Second, even if the putative class members in the two actions could be considered parties, there would potentially be a sub-class of individuals who would be class members in the present case but not the federal case. Accordingly, the Court could not determine as a matter of law that the two classes were substantially similar and, therefore, abatement would be improper. Nevertheless, the Court ordered that the case be stayed indefinitely because 1) the two cases were related; 2) there was a significant risk of conflicting rulings between the Court and the federal court; and 3) a stay would serve the interests of judicial economy. The Court further ordered that the parties file a joint status report every sixty days or in the event of any major development in the federal case.
To subscribe to RCD’s Business Court Blast, email Ashley Oldfield at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The information in this article is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.