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Harris & Hilton P.A. v. Rassette

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

March 21, 2017

HARRIS & HILTON, P.A., Plaintiff,
v.
JAMES C. RASSETTE, a/k/a CHAD RASSETTE, Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 31 January 2017

         Appeal by plaintiff from order entered 20 June 2016 by Judge Debra S. Sasser in Wake County No. 15-CVD-9308 District Court.

          Harris & Hilton, P.A., by Nelson G. Harris, for plaintiff-appellant.

          Williams Mullen, by Kelly Colquette Hanley, for defendant-appellee.

          DAVIS, Judge.

         This case presents the question of whether a categorical exception to the applicability of Rule 3.7 of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct exists in fee collection cases. Harris & Hilton, P.A. ("Harris & Hilton") appeals from the trial court's order disqualifying Nelson G. Harris ("Mr. Harris") and David N. Hilton ("Mr. Hilton") from appearing as trial counsel in this action based on their status as necessary witnesses. Because this Court lacks the authority to create a new exception to Rule 3.7, we affirm the trial court's order.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On 10 June 2015, Harris & Hilton filed the present action in Wake County District Court against James C. Rassette ("Defendant") to recover attorneys' fees for legal services the firm had allegedly provided to Defendant prior to that date. The complaint asserted that Harris & Hilton was entitled to recover $16, 935.69 in unpaid legal fees. On 13 November 2015, Defendant filed an answer in which he asserted various defenses, including an assertion that no contract had ever existed between the parties.

         On 10 June 2016, a pre-trial conference was held before the Honorable Debra S. Sasser. During the conference, Judge Sasser expressed a concern about the fact that Harris & Hilton's trial attorneys - Mr. Harris and Mr. Hilton - were also listed as witnesses who would testify at trial on behalf of Harris & Hilton. After determining that Mr. Harris and Mr. Hilton were, in fact, necessary witnesses who would be testifying regarding disputed issues such as whether a contract had actually been formed, Judge Sasser entered an order on 20 June 2016 disqualifying the two attorneys from representing Harris & Hilton at trial pursuant to Rule 3.7. On 27 June 2016, Harris & Hilton filed a notice of appeal to this Court.

         Analysis

         I. Appellate Jurisdiction

         As an initial matter, we must determine whether we possess jurisdiction over this appeal. "[W]hether an appeal is interlocutory presents a jurisdictional issue, and this Court has an obligation to address the issue sua sponte." Duval v. OM Hospitality, LLC, 186 N.C.App. 390, 392, 651 S.E.2d 261, 263 (2007) (citation, quotation marks, and brackets omitted). "A final judgment is one which disposes of the cause as to all the parties, leaving nothing to be judicially determined between them in the trial court." Id. (citation omitted). Conversely, an order or judgment is interlocutory if it does not settle all of the issues in the case but rather "directs some further proceeding preliminary to the final decree." Heavner v. Heavner, 73 N.C.App. 331, 332, 326 S.E.2d 78, 80, disc. review denied, 313 N.C. 601, 330 S.E.2d 610 (1985).

         "Generally, there is no right of immediate appeal from interlocutory orders . . . ." Paradigm Consultants, Ltd. v. Builders Mut. Ins. Co., 228 N.C.App. 314, 317, 745 S.E.2d 69, 72 (2013) (citation and quotation marks omitted). The prohibition against interlocutory appeals "prevents fragmentary, premature and unnecessary appeals by permitting the trial court to bring the case to final judgment before it is presented to the appellate courts." Russell v. State Farm Ins. Co., 136 N.C.App. 798, 800, 526 S.E.2d 494, 496 (2000) (citation and brackets omitted).

However, there are two avenues by which a party may immediately appeal an interlocutory order or judgment. First, if the order or judgment is final as to some but not all of the claims or parties, and the trial court certifies the case for appeal pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-1, Rule 54(b), an immediate appeal will li e. Second, an appeal is permitted under N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 1-277(a) and 7A-27(d)(1) if the trial ...

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