Due-Process, Constitutional Rights and Your Court Case
Recently, the North Carolina Court of Appeals overturned the $2 million adultery verdict in an Alienation of Affections/Criminal Conversation lawsuit, citing a violation of due process rights. The Sprinkle vs Johnson case is an important reminder that even in family law, there are basic requirements that must be met to protect an individual’s constitutional rights. What is at the crux of this verdict? Notice.
What is Notice?
With its foundation rooted in the United States Constitution, which requires a person to have notice before their property, rights or life can be taken, the concept of Notice is intertwined in just about every type of law you can imagine. Notice requires all parties in a lawsuit to be notified of any court proceeding so they have the opportunity to “appear, defend, or otherwise fail to act in their own interest as they deem appropriate.” While Notice requirements can vary depending on the type of law, local rules, and federal rules, most legal proceedings outline basic requirements that must be met to ensure all parties are aware of the claims filed against them and of any upcoming proceedings in front of the court.
While due process is commonly discussed when it comes to criminal cases, the NC Court of Appeals sent a staunch reminder to family court attorneys about the importance of making sure notice is properly documented and given with the Sprinkle vs Johnson ruling.
Why Does it Matter?
In Sprinkle vs Johnson, the Court of Appeals’ ruling is centered around the Due Process rights of the Defendant (Johnson) and his lack of awareness (Notice) that a trial was being held against him. In the opinion handed down from the Court of Appeals on August 3, 2021, after careful review of the timeline of events Judges agreed that Johnson’s due-process rights were violated because he did not receive proper notice of the trial.
What went wrong? Here’s a timeline of the important dates and mailings:
March 2018—Plaintiff (Sprinkle) filed the lawsuit against Johnson and Johnson was served (properly) at his business address;
May 2018—Johnson hires an attorney, filed responsive pleadings (attorney is now the one that gets served with documents);
January 2019—Parties attended mediation and court file reflected they reached an agreement; although there are no further documents of compliance or what the terms of the agreement actually were;
March 2019—Johnson’s attorney files motion to withdraw;
April 15, 2019—Order allowing Johnson’s attorney to withdraw is entered but the certificate of mailing attached lists an address for Johnson in Mooresville (but not the business address);
June 2019—Pre-trial order is entered by the Court containing only the Plaintiff’s attorney’s signature and no signature from Johnson or an attorney on Johnson’s behalf;
June 24-25, 2019—Jury trial is held in Rowan County and jury returns verdict of $2,294,000.00 against Johnson. Verdict is docketed on July 1, 2019.
July 2019—Johnson is contacted by a reporter about the verdict against him. Johnson learns of the verdict and trial after searching the court file and hiring a new attorney, because Johnson was not aware that his first attorney had withdrawn or requested to withdraw. At that juncture, the following happened:
- New attorney files documents indicating that the address on Order to Withdraw was an address where Johnson had not lived since November 2018, and that Johnson had notified his attorney no later than January 2019 that he no longer lived at that address; Johnson’s documents indicated that he had never received mail at that home address and that his first attorney had communicated with him by phone or text and he had never received notice of withdrawal, the pre-trial order or the trial through those means either.
- At the conclusions of those motions, Johnson’s second attorney withdraws.
- Johnson hires an appellate attorney to pursue the appeal, which eventually led to the original verdict being overturned by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Now that we better understand the timeline, let’s look closer and breakdown where the lack of notice occurred:
– Court documents reflect that service of initial pleadings were proper; it appears that through the time that Johnson’s first attorney filed the Motion to Withdraw there were no procedural defects with notice. The certificate of mail on the Order allowing the attorney to withdraw could be considered the first breakdown—there had never been any indication in the court file (or even in other public records) that Johnson received mail at the address the attorney listed on the certificate.
– Secondly, the court opinion does not reflect that Johnson was ever given notice of the pre-trial order or the trial before the jury, or that any attempt was actually made to send Johnson notice of these events (even to the wrong address).
Due Process Rights do not just stop with the constitution, they are embedded in the legal process and clearly set out in the North Carolina Constitution and North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure for cases such as Sprinkle vs Johnson.
What happens next?
It is possible that Sprinkle could pursue the case against Johnson on remand to the trial court and get a second first-dance. This time around Johnson would need to be served with proper notice of the trial date and pre-trial hearings so that, should the case end up back in front of another jury, Johnson has the chance to defend the claims and allegations made against him and present his own evidence and witnesses to the jury. This would be considered a brand-new trial. Should they choose to pursue a new trial, it is important to remember that while the jury could render a verdict better than the first, the jury could also render a verdict worse than the first as well.