When the Court of Appeals determines that a trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over a case, what does that determination allow the trial court to do with the case after mandate? The answer, as we learned last week in In re Foreclosure of Cornblum (Cornblum II), is “pretty much nothing.”
Cornblum II involved the trial court’s denial of appellants’ motion for an order denying appellees’ motion to confirm an arbitration award. (If that sentence seemed confusing on first read, please be forewarned that it only gets more confusing from here). This was the second time this case had been before the Court of Appeals. In Cornblum I, after the trial court granted a motion to compel arbitration and a motion to confirm the arbitration award, the Court had determined that “submitting this case to arbitration and confirming the arbitration award fell outside of the superior court’s subject matter jurisdiction.” Cornblum I, 727 S.E.2d 338, 334 (2012).
After the mandate to the trial court, the Cornblum II appellants claimed that the appellees’ motion to confirm the arbitration award was still pending (since the Court of Appeals had reversed the trial court’s initial Order on that motion in Cornblum I) and they filed a motion for an order from the trial court officially denying the motion to confirm. The trial court denied this motion, and appellants appealed, arguing that the Court’s decision in Cornblum I (holding that the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the motion to confirm) required the trial court to enter a second order post-appeal denying the previously decided motion.
The Court disagreed. It explained that not only did the holding in Cornblum I not require the trial court to enter an order denying the motion to confirm the arbitration award, but the prior determination that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction actually prohibited the trial from even ruling on the appellants’ request for an order denying that motion. Thus, the Court vacated the trial court’s order denying the appellants’ motion for an order denying the appellees’ motion to confirm the arbitration award.
The Court’s holding in Cornblum II makes it clear that when a trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over a case, that means the trial court essentially is powerless to take any action on that matter. But this raises the procedural questions of what was the trial court supposed to do with the case after mandate and what should it have done with the appellants’ motion to deny the motion to confirm the arbitration award that appellants contended was still pending.
The trial court denied the appellants’ motion, which I would have thought would have been a sufficient course of action given that the trial court did not have jurisdiction to enter the order requested. However, I accessed the Order appealed from on the Court’s electronic filing site and the denial of the motion did not articulate any specific bases for the denial. Would the Order have been proper if it had been denied specifically on the grounds that the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the case? The Court’s holding in Cornblum II suggests that any order at all from the trial court would have been improper given the lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In light of that, after the determination in Cornblum I that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, should the trial court have sua sponte dismissed the matter after the mandate? (A brief reading of Cornblum I did not reveal any guidance from the Court on this issue). And what if there were portions of the case that the trial court did have subject matter jurisdiction over and therefore could not have dismissed the case in its entirety (as appears may have actually been the situation here)? What, then, should the trial court do upon receiving appellants’ motion that was the subject of Cornblum II? If you have thoughts, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below.
Special thanks to John Bowers, friend of the NCAPB, for pointing out this unpublished opinion to us.