On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s dismissal of a plaintiff’s complaint seeking entry of a domestic violence protective order against her husband.  In Quackenbush v. Groat, the trial court dismissed the complaint despite twelve pages of attachments detailing alleged verbal abuse and sexual abuse of their minor child.  The reason appears to have been that the attachments submitted with the form were not specifically mentioned in the form.  The Court rejected that conclusion and held that the information in the complaint and the attached documents was sufficient to put the defendant husband on notice of the allegations.

The plaintiff filed her complaint using Form AOC-CV-303.  The form allows a plaintiff to check boxes next to numbered allegations as they apply to his or her situation and gives limited space to provide details.  Notably, the form specifically instructs:  “Check only boxes that apply and fill in blanks.  Additional sheets may be attached.” (emphasis added).  In completing her complaint, the plaintiff checked the appropriate boxes and wrote some allegations in the accompanying blanks.  She then attached pages that included handwritten numbers corresponding to the numbered allegations.  She also swore and subscribed her complaint before an Assistant Clerk of Superior Court.

What she did not do was reference the attachments on the form itself.  It was this failure that defendant claimed was fatal to her complaint.  In making an oral motion to dismiss, the defendant argued:

It has to be in the body of the Complaint . . . . Paragraph 4 doesn’t say “see additional” – like I understand you run out of room.  But it doesn’t say that.  So these aren’t necessarily verified Pleadings within that.  These are just email attachments or documents that have been stapled to the back of the page . . . . Paragraph 4 which lists out what happened, it has a period, not ‘see Attachment 1, 2, 3 and 4.’  The same with No. 5.  The problem with those is that I don’t even know what these attachments are.  Are they sworn to?  Are they verified?  I have no idea.

The trial court seemed to agree that it could not consider the attachments based on a recent opinion from the Court of Appeals in Martin v. Martin that had determined that the trial court had erred by allowing a plaintiff to present evidence of alleged domestic violence incidents which were not included in the complaint.

The Court of Appeals disagreed.  First, the Court held that the attachments were to be considered part of the plaintiff’s allegations for purposes of evaluating a motion to dismiss.  Although it noted that the better practice would be to make note of the attachments on the form itself, the complaint as filed included the attachments and made clear their purpose.  There was no question that the defendant received the attachments and understood what they meant.

Second, the Court held that the complaint as a whole, attachments included, contained specific facts that put the defendant on notice of the allegations against him.  It differentiated Martin because that case was not resolved on a motion to dismiss but rather concerned evidentiary rulings at trial.  The question in Quackenbush, on the other hand, was whether plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to state a claim for relief.  The Court determined she had and reversed the dismissal.

It’s hard to say how far the Court’s willingness to put substance over form will extend.  Domestic violence protective orders are frequently completed by pro se parties.  Will the Court be as understanding when legal counsel has prepared a complaint in a sophisticated commercial dispute, for example?  Only time will tell, but the opinion does give a practitioner another tool to prevent bad outcomes resulting from the elevation of form over substance.

–Liz Hedrick