in the Court of Appeals 7 March 2017.
by Juvenile-Appellant from orders entered 26 May 2016 by
Judge Les Turner in Wayne County District Court Wayne County,
No. 13 JB 96.
Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney
General Gerald K. Robbins, for the State.
Appellate Defendant Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate
Defender Aaron Thomas Johnson, for Juvenile-Appellant.
omissions of a signature by a juvenile court counselor, or
other appropriate representative of the State, and the words
"Approved for Filing" in a petition in a juvenile
delinquency case amount to a jurisdictional error that
precludes the district court's authority to consider the
matter contained within the petition.
(Thomas),  Juvenile-Appellant, appeals from orders
adjudicating him delinquent and imposing a level 2
disposition placing him on twelve months of probation and
requiring him to perform 30 hours of community service.
Thomas argues that because the petition lacked the requisite
signature and "Approved for Filing" language from
the juvenile court counselor, the district court lacked
jurisdiction to hear the matter. After careful consideration,
we agree and vacate the trial court's orders and dismiss
and Procedural Background
beginning of the school day on Saint Patrick's Day 2016,
before the start of first period, a behavioral specialist at
Goldsboro High School, Tamoris Wooten, stood watch in the
hallway as the students headed to class. Thomas, walking away
from a "ruckus" down the hall, approached Wooten,
told him, "I'm going to stand right here, " and
stated "Sir, I'm not trying to get in trouble this
morning." Before Wooten could ask Thomas any questions
about what he meant, a second student, Brad, walked up to
Thomas, said a few words, and punched Thomas in the face.
Thomas dropped to the floor.
tried unsuccessfully to climb to his feet while Brad
continued punching him. A crowd of around 25 to 30 students
gathered around them. Wooten called for staff assistance.
Thomas "put his arm up to get [Brad] off of him, "
and threw one or two punches. Another male staff member
helped Wooten separate the boys and Wooten walked with Thomas
away from the fight.
Wooten led Thomas away down the hall to his office, Thomas
uttered what was later described as "profanity."
Wooten instructed Thomas to stop cursing and to calm down.
Thomas stopped cursing by the time they reached Wooten's
office and Wooten left him in his office to calm down.
April 2016, Officer Nicki Artis of the Goldsboro Police
Department submitted a complaint with the Clerk of Wayne
County Superior Court alleging that Thomas was delinquent
because he committed a simply affray, a Class 2 misdemeanor,
in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-33(a) at his school
on 17 March 2016. On 5 May 2016, a juvenile court counselor
signed the complaint and marked it "Approved for
Filing" as a petition. The petition was then filed with
the Wayne County District Court and the matter was scheduled
for hearing on 26 May 2016.
day of the hearing, Officer Artis signed a second petition
related to the same incident, alleging that Thomas was
delinquent because he committed disorderly conduct at school.
This second petition alleged that Thomas had disturbed the
discipline at Goldsboro High School by "arguing loudly
in a Goldsboro High School hallway with another student,
[Brad], which ultimately led to a physical altercation . . .
." This second petition was not signed by a court
counselor, nor was it marked as "Approved for Filing,
" but it was nevertheless filed with the district court.
the hearing, the State dismissed the simply affray charge and
proceeded only on the disorderly conduct petition. The trial
court adjudicated Thomas delinquent for disorderly conduct,
imposed a Level 2 disposition, ordered Thomas to be placed on
a 12 month probation, and ordered him to perform 30 hours of
a court can address any matter on the merits, it must have
jurisdiction. Thomas asserts that the trial court lacked
subject matter jurisdiction to consider the second petition
filed against him because the juvenile court counselor failed
to sign the petition and mark whether the petition was
"Approved for Filing" as required by N.C. Gen.
Stat. § 7B-1703. We agree.
universal principle as old as the law is that the proceedings
of a court without jurisdiction of the subject matter are a
nullity." Burgess v. Gibbs, 262 N.C. 462, 465,
137 S.E.2d 806, 808 (1964) (citation omitted). "Subject
matter jurisdiction is the indispensable foundation upon
which valid judicial decisions rest, and in its absence a
court has no power to act[.]" In re T.R.P., 360
N.C. 588, 590, 636 S.E.2d 787, 790 (2006) (citations
General Assembly 'within constitutional limitations, can
fix and circumscribe the jurisdiction of the courts of this
State.' " Id. (quoting Bullington v.
Angel, 220 N.C. 18, 20, 16 S.E.2d 411, 412 (1941)).
"Where jurisdiction is statutory and the Legislature
requires the Court to exercise its jurisdiction in a certain
manner, to follow a certain procedure, or otherwise subjects
the Court to certain limitations, an act of the Court beyond
these limits is in excess of its jurisdiction." Eudy
v. Eudy, 288 N.C. 71, 75, 215 S.E.2d 782, 785 (1975),
overruled on other grounds by Quick v.
Quick, 305 N.C. 446, 290 S.E.2d 653 (1982).
"[W]here it is required by statute that [a] petition be
signed and verified, these essential requisites must be
complied with before the petition can be used for legal
purposes." In re Green, 67 N.C.App. 501, 503,
313 S.E.2d 193, 194-95 (1984) (citation omitted).
General Assembly, by enacting the Juvenile Code, imposed
specific requirements that must be satisfied before a
district court obtains jurisdiction in juvenile cases. For a
petition alleging a juvenile delinquent, the Juvenile Code
[e]xcept as provided in [ N.C. Gen. Stat. §] 7B-1706, if
the juvenile court counselor determines that a complaint
should be filed as a petition, the counselor shall file the
petition as soon as practicable, but in any event within 15
days after the complaint is received, with an extension for a
maximum of 15 additional days at the discretion of the chief
court counselor. The juvenile court counselor shall assist
the complainant when necessary with the preparation and
filing of the petition, shall include on it the date and
the words "Approved for Filing", shall sign
it, and shall transmit it to the clerk of superior
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1703 (2015) (emphasis added). This
Court has stated that "[w]e cannot overemphasize the
importance of the intake counselor's evaluation in cases
involving juveniles alleged to be delinquent or
undisciplined." In re Register, 84 N.C.App.
336, 346, 352 S.E.2d 889, 894-95 (1987). The role of the
counselor is "to ensure that the needs and limitations
of the juveniles and the concern for the protection of public
safety have been objectively balanced before a juvenile
petition is filed initiating court action." Id.
at 346, 352 S.E.2d at 895. Our courts have not previously
addressed whether the signature and the "Approved for
Filing" designation on a juvenile petition are
prerequisites to the district court's jurisdiction.
In re D.S., 364 N.C. 184, 194, 694 S.E.2d 758, 764
(2010), the North Carolina Supreme Court held that the
Legislature did not intend the time deadlines imposed by N.C.
Gen. Stat. § 7B-1703 to "function as [a]
prerequisite for district court jurisdiction over allegedly
delinquent juveniles." The Court looked to the
Legislature's intent in imposing the deadline at issue in
that case. Id. at 192, 694 S.E.2d at 763. The Court
further noted that its decision was "consistent with the
conclusions reached in prior North Carolina appellate
decisions that have addressed Chapter 7B timeline
requirements and jurisdiction, particularly in the context of
abuse, neglect, and dependency and termination of parental
rights." Id. at 194, 694 S.E.2d at 764
(citations omitted). In re D.S. does not address
whether the statute's requirements for signature and
approval for filing by a juvenile court counselor or other
appropriate representative of the State are prerequisites to
district court jurisdiction.
absence of precedent on the precise issue before us, we turn
to analogous case authority for guidance. In a case involving
a petition to adjudicate a juvenile as abused or neglected,
this Court held that "the failure of the petitioner to
sign and verify the petition before an official authorized to
administer oaths rendered the petition fatally deficient and
inoperative to invoke the jurisdiction of the court over the
subject matter." In re Green, 67 N.C.App. 504,
313 S.E.2d at 195 (vacating the trial court's denial of a
motion to dismiss because "the trial court lacked
jurisdiction over the subject matter"). In In re
Green, the Juvenile Code required the petition alleging
abuse and neglect to be signed and verified pursuant to N.C.
Gen. Stat. § 7A-544 and N.C. Gen. Stat. §
7A-561(b). Id. Because the petition lacked
the necessary signatures and verification, our Court
concluded that the trial court necessarily lacked
jurisdiction over the matter. Id.
State urges us to extend the holding in In re D.S.
to recognize failures to comply with the signature and
"Approved for Filing" requirements for a petition
alleging delinquency as non-jurisdictional errors. Such an
extension would conflict with the purpose of the Juvenile
Code. Section 7B-1500 articulates the following ...