Wednesday, December 17, 2008, 8:57 PM

COA Issues Important Decision On Assignments Of Error

Yesterday in Jones v. Harrelson & Smith Contractors the Court of Appeals (COA) issued a decision that could be important in the debate on assignments of error. It liberalizes Appellate Rule 10(c)(1)'s requirement that assignments must state the "legal basis upon which error is assigned." Judge Geer wrote the majority opinion.

First some background. The NC Supreme Court has held that on appeal of summary judgment, the appellant isn't required to make assignments of error. Why? Review of summary judgment "is necessarily limited to whether the trial court's conclusions as to whether there is a genuine issue of material fact and whether the moving party is entitled to judgment, both questions of law, were correct." Schenkel & Shultz, Inc. v. Hermon F. Fox & Assocs., 658 S.E.2d 918 (N.C. 2008) (citing Ellis v. Williams, 355 S.E.2d 479 (N.C. 1987) (reversing COA's dismissal of appeal, where COA dismissed because appellant had failed to include any assignments of error to summary judgment order)). In other words, because summary judgment is always based on two questions of law--whether there's a genuine issue of material fact and whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law--the notice of appeal itself adequately advises the appellate court of the issues to be reviewed, and "assignments of error add nothing." Ellis, 355 S.E.2d at 481.

This raises the question: if assignments of error aren't required on review of summary judgment, why would they be required on review of other types of orders where review is necessarily limited to formulaic questions of law? For example, review of any Rule 12(b)(6) order is limited to whether the complaint's well-pleaded allegations, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, state a claim on which relief may be granted. So why doesn't the notice of appeal adequately apprise the appellate court and the appellee of the basis for the appeal? Why would assignments of error be necessary?

Yesterday the COA took a step in this direction in connection with orders granting directed verdicts and JNOV, analogizing them to summary judgment orders.

In yesterday's appeal, the assignments of error didn't contain legal bases on which error was assigned. For example, one said the trial court erred by "granting defendant's Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict as to the fraud claim and award of compensatory damages." The COA held that the failure to provide legal bases on which error was assigned wasn't a problem. With respect to a directed verdict or JNOV, the COA observed, appellate review would be limited to whether sufficient evidence existed for the claims to go to the jury. Consequently, requiring the appellant to state in an assignment of error the legal basis upon which error is assigned would require a "superfluous formality."

The COA should extend this holding to Rule 12(b)(6) orders. It makes no sense to require rigid compliance with Appellate Rule 10(c)(1) for review of Rule 12(b)(6) orders but not for review of summary judgment, directed verdict, or JNOV orders.

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