Saturday, March 08, 2008, 8:44 PM

NC Supreme Court Clarifies Standard For Dismissing Appeals

Yesterday, in Dogwood Dev. & Mgt. Co. v. White Oak Transport Co., the NC Supreme Court took a major step to sort out the confusion caused by a number of Court of Appeals (COA) decisions in recent years that dismissed appeals for non-jurisdictional appellate rule violations. In Dogwood the COA dismissed the appeal on the basis of various rule violations. Judge Hunter dissented. In a decision by Justice Martin, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the COA's dismissal order and set a standard which should result in fewer dismissals. The seminal portion of Justice Martin's excellent opinion is reproduced below (with a number of citations omitted):

Th[e] comprehensive set of nonjurisdictional requirements is designed primarily to keep the appellate process "flowing in an orderly manner." Two examples of such rules are those at issue in the present case: Rule 10(c)(1), which directs the form of assignments of error, and Rule 28(b), which governs the content of the appellant's brief. Noncompliance with rules of this nature, while perhaps indicative of inartful appellate advocacy, does not ordinarily give rise to the harms associated with review of unpreserved issues or lack of jurisdiction. And, notably, the appellate court faced with a default of this nature possesses discretion in fashioning a remedy to encourage better compliance with the rules.

We stress that a party's failure to comply with nonjurisdictional rule requirements normally should not lead to dismissal of the appeal. See, e.g., Hicks v. Kenan, 139 N.C. 337, 338, 51 S.E. 941, 941 (1905) (per curiam) (observing this Court's preference to hear merits of the appeal rather than dismiss for noncompliance with the rules); 5 Am. Jur. 2d Appellate Review ยง 804, at 540 (2007) ("[I]t is preferred that an appellate court address the merits of an appeal whenever possible . . . . [A]n appellate court has a strong preference for deciding cases on their merits; and it is the task of an appellate court to resolve appeals on the merits if at all possible." (footnotes omitted)); Paul D. Carrington, Daniel J. Meador & Maurice Rosenberg, Justice on Appeal 2 (1976) ("[A]ppellate courts serve as the instrument of accountability for those who make the basic decisions in trial courts and administrative agencies.").

Rules 25 and 34, when viewed together, provide a framework for addressing violations of the nonjurisdictional requirements of the rules. Rule 25(b) states that "the appellate [court] may . . . impose a sanction . . . when the court determines that [a] party or attorney or both substantially failed to comply with these appellate rules. The court mayimpose sanctions of the type and in the manner prescribed by Rule 34 . . . ." N.C. R. App. P. 25(b) (emphasis added). Rule 34(a)(3) provides, among other things, that "the appellate [court] may . . . impose a sanction . . . when the court determines that . . . a petition, motion, brief, record, or other paper filed in the appeal . . . grossly violated appellate court rules." N.C. R. App. P. 34(a)(3) (emphasis added). Rule 34(b) enumerates as possible sanctions various types of monetary damages, dismissal, and "any other sanction deemed just and proper." N.C. R. App. P. 34(b).

Based on the language of Rules 25 and 34, the appellate court may not consider sanctions of any sort when a party's noncompliance with nonjurisdictional requirements of the rules does not rise to the level of a "substantial failure" or "gross violation." In such instances, the appellate court should simply perform its core function of reviewing the merits of the appeal to the extent possible.

In the event of substantial or gross violations of the nonjurisdictional provisions of the appellate rules, however, the party or lawyer responsible for such representational deficiencies opens the door to the appellate court's need to consider appropriate remedial measures. Rules 25 and 34 vest the appellate court with the authority to promote compliance with the appellate rules through the imposition of one or more enumerated sanctions. The court's exercise of remedial discretion under Rules 25 and 34 entails a fact-specific inquiry into the particularcircumstances of each case, mindful of the principle that the appellate rules should be enforced as uniformly as possible. Noncompliance with the rules falls along a continuum, and the sanction imposed should reflect the gravity of the violation. We clarify, however, that only in the most egregious instances of nonjurisdictional default will dismissal of the appeal be appropriate. In most situations when a party substantially or grossly violates nonjurisdictional requirements of the rules, the appellate court should impose a sanction other than dismissal and review the merits of the appeal. This systemic preference not only accords fundamental fairness to litigants but also serves to promote public confidence in the administration of justice in our appellate courts.

In determining whether a party's noncompliance with the appellate rules rises to the level of a substantial failure or gross violation, the court may consider, among other factors, whether and to what extent the noncompliance impairs the court's task of review and whether and to what extent review on the merits would frustrate the adversarial process. See Hart, 361 N.C. at 312, 644 S.E.2d at 203 (noting that dismissal may not be appropriate when a party's noncompliance does not "'impede comprehension of the issues on appeal or frustrate the appellate process'" (citation omitted)); Viar, 359 N.C. at 402, 610 S.E.2d at 361 (discouraging the appellate courts from reviewing the merits of an appeal when doing so would leave the appellee "without notice of the basis upon which [the] appellate court might rule" (citation omitted)). The court may also consider the number of rules violated, although in certain instances noncompliance with a discrete requirement of the rules may constitute a default precluding substantive review. See, e.g., N.C. R. App. P. 28(b)(6) ("Assignments of error not set out in the appellant's brief, or in support of which no reason or argument is stated or authority cited, will be taken as abandoned.").

If the court determines that the degree of a party's noncompliance with nonjurisdictional requirements warrants dismissal of the appeal under Rule 34(b), it may consider invoking Rule 2. In this situation, the appellate court may only review the merits on "rare occasions" and under "exceptional circumstances," Hart, 361 N.C. at 316, 644 S.E.2d at 205 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted), "[t]o prevent manifest injustice to a party, or to expedite decision in thepublic interest," N.C. R. App. P. 2.

To summarize, when a party fails to comply with one or more nonjurisdictional appellate rules, the court should first determine whether the noncompliance is substantial or gross under Rules 25 and 34. If it so concludes, it should then determine which, if any, sanction under Rule 34(b) should be imposed. Finally, if the court concludes that dismissal is the appropriate sanction, it may then consider whether the circumstances of the case justify invoking Rule 2 to reach the merits of the appeal.

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