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Stokes v. Crumpton

Supreme Court of North Carolina

June 9, 2017

THOMAS A. STOKES, III
v.
CATHERINE C. CRUMPTON (formerly Stokes)

          Heard in the Supreme Court on 20 March 2017.

         Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 784 S.E.2d 537 (2016), dismissing an appeal from an order entered on 7 August 2014 by Judge Anna E. Worley in District Court, Wake County. On 22 September 2016, the Supreme Court allowed plaintiff's petition for discretionary review of additional issues.

          Shanahan Law Group, PLLC, by Kieran J. Shanahan, Christopher S. Battles, and John E. Branch, III, for plaintiff-appellant.

          Wyrick Robbins Yates & Ponton LLP, by Tobias S. Hampson, K. Edward Greene, and Robert A. Ponton, Jr., for defendant-appellee.

          BEASLEY, Justice.

         This case is about whether a trial court has discretion to order post-confirmation discovery in an action under the Family Law Arbitration Act and a party's right to an interlocutory appeal of the trial court's denial of such a motion. We hold that plaintiff had a right to appeal the trial court's denial of his motion to engage in discovery and that the trial court has discretion to order post-confirmation discovery in this case. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and remand this case with instructions for the Court of Appeals to vacate the trial court's order and remand the matter for reconsideration of plaintiff's motion consistent with this opinion.

         In April 2011, Thomas A. Stokes, III (plaintiff) and Catherine C. Stokes (now Crumpton) (defendant) separated. Plaintiff filed an action in July 2011 seeking equitable distribution of the parties' marital assets and child support. Shortly thereafter, the parties agreed to arbitrate the action under North Carolina's Family Law Arbitration Act (FLAA), N.C. G.S. §§ 50-41 to 50-62. On 13 August 2011, the trial court entered a Consent Order to Arbitrate Equitable Distribution and Child Support. One of the main issues to be settled during arbitration was the value of defendant's stake in Drug Safety Alliance, Inc. (DSA), [1] a company in which defendant was the President, CEO, and majority shareholder.

         As part of the agreed-upon pre-arbitration discovery, plaintiff's counsel deposed defendant, seeking information, inter alia, on the value of DSA. During the deposition, defendant testified that she had "no intention of selling" DSA at that time, although she had been contacted by parties interested in purchasing the company. In response to questions regarding the possible sale, merger, or acquisition relating to DSA, defendant, for the most part, responded that she did not know or could not answer the question. During discovery, plaintiff's valuation expert also interviewed defendant and specifically inquired about "any written or oral offers to purchase DSA"; defendant said there were none. Plaintiff's expert also requested production of documents from DSA, including buy-sell agreements, written offers to purchase stock, and any major sale or purchase contracts. No such documents were ever produced.

         On 18 May 2012, plaintiff and defendant entered into an Equitable Distribution Arbitration Award by Consent (the Award). That same day, the trial court entered an order and judgment in District Court, Wake County, confirming the award. The Award, inter alia, distributed to defendant all stock held by her in DSA and any other interest claimed by either party in the company. In return, defendant would pay plaintiff a lump sum of $1, 000, 000.00, plus an additional $650, 000.00 over a six year period. The entire balance would become immediately due and payable, however, if defendant sold her ownership interest in DSA.

         Less than two months later, on 5 July 2012, defendant signed a Letter of Intent to sell DSA to another company, United Drug, PLLC. In August 2012, United Drug purchased DSA for $28, 000, 000.00, of which defendant received approximately $14, 000, 000.00 for her shares. Plaintiff claims to have learned about the sale through the media, without any prior knowledge of it during arbitration.

         On 26 November 2012, plaintiff filed a Motion to Vacate Arbitration Award and Set Aside Order and Motion to Engage in Discovery.[2] Plaintiff's motion was predicated on an allegation of fraud, that defendant "intentionally induced [p]laintiff to settle through misrepresentation and/or concealment of material facts related to the sale, possible sale, discussions, negotiations and existence of documents related to the possible sale of DSA to a third party." Specifically, plaintiff alleged that defendant intended to sell DSA while arbitration was under way and that she fraudulently induced plaintiff to accept a distribution of only $1, 650, 000.00 for DSA based on her representations about the company during arbitration. According to plaintiff, during arbitration "the parties were arguing over a valuation of the marital interest in DSA as being between approximately two and five million dollars" and eventually stipulated to a value of $3, 485, 000.00 for DSA.[3] Plaintiff contends that he never would have agreed to DSA's value had defendant disclosed the sale opportunity.

         As part of these motions, plaintiff requested leave "to conduct discovery regarding discussions, negotiations and activity by and involving [d]efendant and her company DSA, its agents and United Drug and its agents that led to the July 5, 2012 Letter of Intent and subsequent sale of DSA to United Drug." On 7 August 2014, the trial court entered an order denying plaintiff's motion for leave to engage in discovery. The trial court concluded:

1. There is no pending action between Plaintiff and Defendant in which discovery may be propounded.
2. Plaintiff's Verified Motion to Vacate Arbitration Award is not a claim within which discovery may be conducted. Plaintiff's [request for] written ...

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