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Jackson v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Hosp. Auth.

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

December 31, 2014

GARY W. JACKSON, Plaintiff,
v.
THE CHARLOTTE MECKLENBURG HOSPITAL AUTHORITY, d/b/a CAROLINAS HEALTHCARE SYSTEM; and KEITH A. SMITH, as Senior Vice President and General Counsel of THE CHARLOTTE MECKLENBURG HOSPITAL AUTHORITY, d/b/a CAROLINAS HEALTHCARE SYSTEM, Defendants

Heard in the Court of Appeals April 9, 2014

The Jackson Law Group, PLLC, by Gary W. Jackson, for plaintiff-appellant.

Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, P.A., by Mark W. Merritt and Adam K. Doerr, for defendant-appellee.

GEER, Judge. Judges STEPHENS and ERVIN concur.

OPINION

Page 24

Appeal by plaintiff from order entered 22 July 2013 by Judge Robert T. Sumner in Mecklenburg County Superior Court, No. 12 CVS 21230.

GEER, Judge.

Plaintiff Gary W. Jackson appeals from an order granting defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim for relief under the North Carolina Public Records Act. Plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in interpreting N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.3 (2013) to exempt from disclosure settlement documents pertaining to litigation instituted by defendant Carolinas Healthcare System (" CHS" ) against a financial institution.

It is well established that the purpose of the Public Records Act is to grant liberal access to documents that meet the general definition of " public records" under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1 (2013). Our Supreme Court has held that only specific statutory exceptions exempt documents meeting that definition from disclosure. Because the Public Records Act does not contain a specific statutory exception for settlement documents arising out of litigation instituted by a State agency, we hold that the trial court erred, and we reverse.

Facts

The parties do not dispute that CHS is a local unit of government subject to the Public Records Act. In 2008, CHS filed a lawsuit against Wachovia Bank, allegedly in connection with financial losses suffered through its investment accounts maintained with Wachovia. On or about 5 June 2012, CHS entered into a confidential settlement agreement with Wachovia Bank (" the Wachovia settlement" ), and CHS dismissed its suit against Wachovia with prejudice.

On 24 September 2012, plaintiff sent a written request to defendant Keith A. Smith in his capacity as Senior Vice President and General Counsel of CHS seeking production of a copy of the Wachovia settlement. On behalf of CHS, Mr. Smith refused to provide a copy of the document. On 21 November 2012, plaintiff filed a complaint against CHS and Mr. Smith in Mecklenburg County Superior Court requesting relief under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-9(a) and seeking to obtain a copy of the Wachovia settlement. CHS and Mr. Smith moved to dismiss plaintiff's action under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Rules of Civil Procedure.

The trial court granted the motion to dismiss as to all parties in an order entered 22 July 2013, construing N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.3 as exempting the Wachovia Settlement from disclosure. Plaintiff timely appealed to this Court.[1]

Discussion

" Our standard of review on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is de novo review." S.N.R. Mgmt. Corp. v. Danube Partners 141, LLC, 189 N.C.App. 601, 606, 659 S.E.2d 442, 447 (2008). " Pursuant

Page 25

to the de novo standard of review, the court considers the matter anew and freely substitutes its own judgment for that of the [trial court]." Blow v. DSM Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 197 N.C.App. 586, 588, 678 S.E.2d 245, 248 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

The sole question presented by this appeal is whether settlement documents in actions brought by an entity covered by the Public Records Act constitute " public records" within the meaning of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1(a), which provides that " public record"

shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction ...

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