The four civil cases decided by the Supreme Court on 15 December 2023 hang together by a focus on minimalism and, in three of them, dissenting opinions by Justice Earls. Based on the current composition of the Supreme Court, this minimalist approach, with a dissent, may be a harbinger of what to expect from the Supreme Court in the future.
D.V. Shah Corp., v. Vroombrands
In D.V. Shah Corp., v. Vroombrands, LLC, et. al., the Supreme Court reversed a grant of summary judgment by a trial court which refused to hear testimony prior to the summary judgment hearing because it did not believe it had the authority to do so. Reviewing the text of Rule 43(e) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, however, the Supreme Court noted that it explicitly granted the trial court discretion to hear summary judgment motions “wholly or partly on oral testimony or depositions.” Because of precedent holding that when a trial court has discretion but rules without exercising that discretion that “the offending party is entitled to have the proposition reconsidered and passed upon as a discretionary matter,” the Court reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded the case for further review. The cases the Supreme Court relied upon dated from 1960, 1971, 1983, and 1988—so it had been quite a while since it had restated this principle. The ruling should embolden parties against whom summary judgment is brought, especially those who appear without having previously submitted an opposing affidavit. There was no dissenting opinion in this case.
Morris v. Rodeberg
In Morris v. Rodeberg, et. al., the Supreme Court examined the interplay among various statutes of limitations, and their exceptions, in the case of a medical malpractice claim brought by a minor. The facts of the case are straightforward and unfortunate: a 13-year-old child sought treatment for appendicitis and the physician operated. When pain continued, a second surgery revealed that the first doctor had not removed all of the appendix and the remaining portion ruptured. Eventually, the child needed a third surgery to drain an abscess resulting, apparently, from the rupture and related infections. Five years later, just before the child turned 19, he filed suit for malpractice. The trial court denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss on statute of limitations grounds, and the Court of Appeals reversed.
The Supreme Court engaged in a detailed textual analysis of the interaction between General Statute 1-15, which establishes a generalized three-year statute of limitations, and General Statute 1-17, which provides certain exceptions to the three-year statute of limitations, including exceptions for medical malpractice claims by minors. The Supreme Court ultimately focused on the 2011 addition of subsection (c) to General Statute 1-17, which narrowed the time period for a minor to pursue a medical malpractice claim. Accordingly, the Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiff, because he was more than ten years old at the time the claim arose, was subject to the three-year statute of limitations and the suit was, therefore, out of time.
The Supreme Court declined to address a secondary, and related, issue addressed by the Court of Appeals—whether the different statutes of limitations in medical malpractice claims for minors who have not “attain[ed] the full age of 10 years” implicates the Equal Protection Clauses of either the United States or North Carolina Constitution. The Supreme Court declined to address that issue, explaining that it lacked jurisdiction because “the dissent [in the Court of Appeals] registers disagreement with the majority’s analysis of plaintiff’s constitutional challenge, but it offers no reasons for that disagreement.” Since “[a] Court of Appeals dissent must specifically set out the basis for the dissent—meaning the reasoning for the disagreement with the majority” in order for the Supreme Court to have jurisdiction, “[a] dissent that does not contain any reasoning on an issue cannot confer jurisdiction over that issue.”
Justice Earls concurred with the majority on its holding related to the statute of limitations, but dissented on its conclusion that the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to address the Equal Protection argument, explicitly calling the majority’s decision “wrong.” Since the plaintiff raised the issue before the Court of Appeals, the dissenting judge noted the issue as the basis for disagreeing with the majority, and the parties briefed the issue before the Supreme Court, Justice Earls wrote that the Supreme Court’s jurisdictional requirements were satisfied. Comparing this case to Cryan v. National Council of YMCA of the United States, 384 N.C. 569 (2023), Justice Earls noted that there the Supreme Court found a single sentence, which did not “expressly oppose” the majority ruling or “provide any explanation,” failed to confer jurisdiction on the Supreme Court —but that in this case the dissenting Court of Appeals judge raised the issue, explained his disagreement, clarified why the plaintiff raised a colorable argument, noted the constitutional issues, and specified the constitutional provision impacted by the decision of the Court of Appeals.
Urging the Supreme Court to limit the Cryan standard, Justice Earls wrote: “Justice does not require, nor does our precedent demand, that we split hairs about whether a dissent sufficiently parsed a constitutional issue that it plainly raised. The confusion that would follow from opening that door makes clear the problem: Is one paragraph enough? How much detail is required? Must the dissent cite other authorities, and if so how many?”
Justice Earls also questioned the Supreme Court’s adherence to upholding the constitutional rights of all its citizens, including minors, noting that duty is at its highest for parties who cannot vindicate rights on their own. Because she believed the jurisdictional requirement was satisfied, Justice Earls further wrote that the Supreme Court “owe[s] it to these parties to consider the constitutional issues” raised by the plaintiff. Only Justice Riggs joined Justice Earls’ dissenting opinion.
Wynn v. Frederick
In Wynn v. Frederick, et. al., the Supreme Court examined whether state magistrates, as opposed to county magistrates, are subject to suit under General Statute 58-76-5 for actions taken in their official capacity or whether sovereign immunity and/or judicial immunity bars the suit. The Supreme Court’s analysis relied on various canons of statutory interpretation. As such, it started its analysis with the text of the statute, expanded its analysis to the structure of the statute and then the broader statutory context, and finished with an examination of legislative intent. Based on these various examinations, the majority held that General Statute 58-76-5 did not waive sovereign immunity for state magistrates acting in their official capacity.
Engaging in her own textualist analysis, Justice Earls wrote a dissenting opinion stating that General Statute 58-76-5 “sweeps broadly” and allows “‘[e]very person injured’ to seek relief from an officer for ‘all acts’ done ‘by virtue or under color’ of his office.” The majority, she wrote, simply limited the application of the statute to exempt state officers. Justice Earls’ analysis boiled down to the same general proposition as in Morris v. Rodeberg: all citizens have a right to their day in court and the Supreme Court should not limit that right through narrow interpretations of broad statutory (or constitutional) provisions. Once again, only Justice Riggs joined Justice Earls’ dissenting opinion.
North Carolina Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company, Inc., v. Herring
Finally, in North Carolina Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., Inc. v. Herring, the Supreme Court reversed a grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, holding that a genuine issue of material fact existed on the question of whether an auto insurance claimant was a “resident” of the insured’s household. At issue was the definition of the term “resident” when the insurance policy in question did not define the term. The majority provided a lengthy and detailed recitation of the facts but focused on the legal implications of those facts, allowing it to engage in a de novo interpretation of the application of those facts to the insurance policy as part of a review of the grant of summary judgment. In so doing, the Supreme Court relied on a two-part test established in North Carolina Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co. v. Martin, 376 N.C. 280 (2020), for determining whether a party is a resident. Based on its review of the factual record, the Supreme Court majority determined a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding whether the insurance claimant was a resident of the insured’s household and therefore reversed the grant of summary judgment.
Justice Earls dissented. Once again, Justice Earls focused on the policy behind North Carolina’s statutes—such as the requirement of auto insurance and the goals of insurance policies. In her view, the evidence presented to the trial court (taken in the light most favorable to the insurance company) mandated the affirmance of summary judgment in favor of the auto insurance claimant. According to the dissenting opinion, the de novo review should focus on the ambiguity of the undefined term “resident” and read the ambiguity against the insurance company which drafted the policy. In so doing, the facts would fall in favor of treating the insurance claimant as a resident, and thus in favor of granting her summary judgment. Consistent with her other dissenting opinions, Justice Earls read the law broadly. And once again, only Justice Riggs joined her dissenting opinion.
The goal of this post is less to focus on a series of cases with fairly predictable outcomes and more to focus on the split in analytical frameworks that appear to exist on the Supreme Court. It remains to be seen if this split is temporary or permanent, and for how long Justice Earls and Justice Riggs continue to draft dissents.
 Given the recent elimination of the automatic appeal of decisions of the Court of Appeals where there is a dissent, see S.L. 2023-134, § 16.21(d), this issue is likely to lose relevance over time—but the implications of the opinions’ reasoning on the issue, and their narrow or broad interpretations of jurisdiction, will continue to impact the Supreme Court in cases going forward.