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Coppley v. Coppley

March 03, 1998


Appeal by defendant from orders entered 26 January and 7 June 1996 by Judge James M. Honeycutt in Davidson County District Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 9 September 1997.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Timmons-goodson, Judge.

Plaintiff Larry D. Coppley and defendant Mona Brock Coppley were married on 19 November 1978. They are the parents of two minor children, Nicholas and Adam. Plaintiff filed a complaint on 26 April 1995 seeking sole custody of the minor children, child support, sequestration of the marital residence, and equitable distribution. On 3 May 1995, Judge James M. Honeycutt entered a consent order in Davidson County District Court, which purported to resolve all claims of the parties. These proceedings were not recorded.

After being denied visitation or contact with her children subsequent to the entry of the consent order, defendant filed a motion to set aside the 3 May 1995 consent order. Defendant alleged that plaintiff had engaged in fraud, misrepresentation and misconduct to induce her to enter into the consent order. This motion came on for hearing before Judge Honeycutt during the 13 September 1995 civil session of Davidson County District Court. Although defendant requested that the hearing be recorded on the court's recording equipment, no recording of the proceeding has ever been located, nor has any evidence been presented indicating that the proceedings were recorded.

The testimony of defendant and her two witnesses tended to show the following. On 22 April 1995, after plaintiff discovered defendant's marital infidelity, plaintiff insisted and defendant agreed to an immediate separation. Plaintiff also insisted that the two minor children remain with him. Defendant would be given visitation provided that she complied with plaintiff's demands and did not seek custody of the children. At plaintiff's insistence, on that same evening, defendant prepared a handwritten list of items that she wanted from the marital home. On a separate sheet of paper, plaintiff wrote down some provisions for their separation.

Both parties signed the papers and had them notarized. After having the documents notarized, defendant gave them to plaintiff, who refused to give her a copy. Although the list prepared by defendant did not contain some of the items that defendant wanted, she felt bound by it. Plaintiff told defendant that if she contacted an attorney, he would drag her and the minor children "through the mud."

After defendant left the marital residence, plaintiff immediately changed the locks and security codes at the residence. Plaintiff also closed all of the couple's joint savings and checking accounts. On 24 April 1995, plaintiff telephoned defendant at work and requested that she prepare a list of the couple's monthly bills, as she had handled such matters in the past. Defendant prepared the list of bills and took it by the marital residence on 25 April 1995. When defendant attempted to stay, plaintiff refused to let her do so. In fact, all of defendant's attempts to return to the marital home or see the minor children were foiled by plaintiff.

The parties and some relatives met at a church on 27 April 1995 to discuss the previous days' events and the possibility of reconciliation. Plaintiff was not responsive to any suggestion of reconciliation. Defendant's mother recommended that defendant get an attorney, but she did not do so. The parties and some of their relatives met a second time on 2 May 1995 to discuss child custody, visitation and support. Plaintiff remained adamant that he retain custody of the children, but agreed to allow defendant visitation at his discretion. Defendant does not recall signing any papers at this meeting. During this meeting, defendant agreed to pay $300.00 per month for support of the minor children. Although plaintiff had already instituted this action, he did not tell defendant. Instead, he told her that, on the following day, they needed to meet to sign some papers.

On 3 May 1995, the parties met at Wachovia Bank in Lexington, North Carolina. Defendant was alone, because she thought that she was going to a magistrate's office to sign some papers. Instead, the parties met at the bank and walked to an office building next to it, which was, in fact, the office of plaintiff's attorney. When defendant found out that plaintiff had an attorney and had filed a lawsuit, she asked plaintiff if she needed to call her father. Plaintiff told her that she did not need to do so. Plaintiff's attorney told defendant to sign the papers, so that the sheriff would not have to formally serve them on her. Defendant signed all of the papers given to her by the attorney, in spite of some changes in the terms agreed upon during the couple's previous Discussions. Defendant was taking prescription medicine at this time.

The parties then went before Judge Honeycutt for entry of a consent order. Upon being asked if she understood the order and if she had any questions about it, defendant answered "yes." Thereafter, Judge Honeycutt signed the order and directed that it be filed.

The testimonies of defendant's two witnesses--her mother, Carolyn Brock, and her supervisor at work, Nikki Key--both indicated that defendant was very upset and crying uncontrollably from 22 April to 3 May 1995. Carolyn Brock indicated that defendant had been placed on prescription medicine in an effort to improve her mental state. Both witnesses attested to plaintiff's attempt to foil any contact between defendant and her children. Further, they stated that defendant thought that she would be seeing a magistrate, and not a Judge, on 3 May 1995.

After the presentation of defendant's evidence, plaintiff made a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 41(b) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure. The trial court, after hearing the arguments of both parties, entered an order on 26 January 1996 granting plaintiff's motion and dismissing defendant's motion to have the 3 May 1995 consent order set aside.

Thereafter, plaintiff filed a motion for attorneys fees, supported by the affidavit of his attorney. This motion was heard by Judge Honeycutt at a special session of Davidson County District Court on 22 February 1996. By corrected order entered 7 June 1996, Judge Honeycutt allowed this motion. Defendant appeals.

Defendant presents some seven arguments on appeal, in which defendant argues for reversal of the trial court's order granting plaintiff's Rule 41(b) dismissal of her Rule 60(b) motion to set aside the 3 May 1995 consent order. After a thorough review of these arguments, we conclude that the trial court committed reversible error in denying defendant's Rule 60(b) motion to set aside the 3 May 1995 consent order and granting plaintiff's Rule 41(b) dismissal of defendant's motion, as there was sufficient evidence that the 3 May 1995 consent order was the result of plaintiff's use of duress and/or undue influence in negotiation of said order.

Defendant first argues that the trial court erred in failing to preserve a transcript of the 3 May and 13 September 1995 court proceedings. North Carolina General Statutes section 7A-198(a) provides: Court-reporting personnel shall be utilized, if available, for the reporting of civil trials in the district court. If court reporters are not available in any county, electronic or other mechanical devices shall be provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts upon request of the chief district Judge. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-198(a)(Cum. Supp. 1997). In Miller v. Miller, 92 N.C. App. 351, 374 S.E.2d 467 (1988), this Court addressed the issue of whether a hearing conducted on a motion in the cause requesting a modification of a child custody order is a "trial" within the meaning of General Statutes section 7A-198(a). We answered in the affirmative, stating, "We strongly disapprove of the failure to comply with the mandate of G.S. 7A-198." Id. at 354, 374 S.E.2d at 469. The mere violation of the statute, however, was not enough to afford the defendant relief, as she failed to show prejudicial error. Id. See In re Nolen, 117 N.C. App. 693, 453 S.E.2d 220 (1995); McAlister v. McAlister, 14 N.C. App. 159, 187 S.E.2d 449, cert. denied, 281 N.C. 315, 188 S.E.2d 898 (1972). The Court then dismissed the appeal for failure to include any recitation of the evidence presented at trial. In doing so, the Court note that means were available for defendant to compile a narration of the evidence, i.e., reconstructing the testimony with the assistance of those persons present at the hearing. If appellee was then to contend the record on appeal was inaccurate in any respect, the matter could be resolved by the trial Judge in settling the record on appeal. Miller, 92 N.C. App. at 354, 374 S.E.2d at 469 (citation omitted).In the instant ...

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