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Geoghagan v. Geoghagan

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

July 5, 2017

BLAKE J. GEOGHAGAN, Plaintiff,
v.
BERNADETTE M. GEOGHAGAN, Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 9 February 2017.

         Appeal by Plaintiff from judgment and order entered 12 December 2012 by Judge Christy T. Mann, and from order entered 12 February 2016 by Judge Alicia D. Brooks in District Court, Mecklenburg County. No. 09 CVD 26047

          Marshall & Taylor, PLLC, by Travis R. Taylor, for Plaintiff.

          No brief for Defendant.

          McGEE, Chief Judge.

         Blake J. Geoghagan ("Plaintiff") appeals from an equitable distribution judgment and order ("equitable distribution order") that, inter alia, limited the distributions and amount of compensation he could receive from Blake Bern Partners, Inc. ("BBPI"), a closely-held corporation he jointly owned with his then-wife, Bernadette M. Geoghagan ("Defendant"). Plaintiff also appeals from an order denying his motion for relief from the equitable distribution order, pursuant to the grounds for relief set out in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-1, Rule 60 ("Rule 60 order"). We vacate both orders and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff and Defendant were married on 5 April 1997. During their marriage, Plaintiff and Defendant each acquired fifty percent of the outstanding stock in BBPI, a Florida corporation "formed for the principal purpose of developing, opening and operating a series of franchised restaurants known as Five Guys Burgers and Fries" ("Five Guys") in Florida's panhandle region. BBPI was incorporated in 2006, and the corporation was the sole member of four limited liability companies (the "subsidiary LLCs"). Plaintiff acted as the manager of each of the subsidiary LLCs of which BBPI was a member.

         Plaintiff filed a complaint against Defendant on 15 October 2009 in Mecklenburg County District Court seeking, inter alia, custody of their four children, child support, and equitable distribution of the marital estate and other divisible property and debt. Defendant filed an answer on 11 January 2010, along with counterclaims for child custody, child support, post-separation support, alimony, equitable distribution of marital and divisible property and debts, and attorney's fees. A trial was conducted on Plaintiff's and Defendant's claims for equitable distribution in June and July of 2012, and the trial court entered the equitable distribution order on 12 December 2012. The equitable distribution order contains exhaustive findings of fact, conclusions of law, and orders on the debts and assets owned by Plaintiff and Defendant; we discuss only those relevant to the resolution of this appeal. The equitable distribution order contains numerous findings of fact regarding BBPI, including, inter alia, findings regarding the ownership of BBPI by Plaintiff and Defendant, the franchise and development agreement between Five Guys and BBPI, current operations of BBPI, and a valuation of BBPI.

         Due to Plaintiff's "hands on" operation of BBPI and his experience in the restaurant industry, the trial court distributed all of the shares of BBPI to Plaintiff. The trial court found as fact that an unequal distribution of marital and divisible property was equitable, and it was necessary for Plaintiff to pay a distributive award to Defendant in the amount of $997, 494.46 primarily because "the [fair market value] of BBPI, " which was distributed to Plaintiff, "[was] greater than the [fair market value] of all other items of property combined, and because BBPI is a closely-held business entity" that Plaintiff and Defendant could not "jointly own and operate . . . in a cooperative manner." As the court had distributed BBPI to Plaintiff, it ordered Plaintiff to make "good faith efforts to substitute himself for [Defendant] as guarantor of all debts and obligations of BBPI, " and further ordered Plaintiff to "indemnify [Defendant], and hold her harmless, from all liability relating to" a bank loan made to BBPI, all BBPI leases, all agreements between BBPI and its various vendors, and all other debts and liabilities of BBPI.

         If Plaintiff was unable to pay the $997, 494.46 distributive award to Defendant by 15 April 2013, the trial court ordered that Plaintiff sell his ownership interests in BBPI to satisfy the award. The trial court further ordered that, "[u]ntil the distributive award is paid in full, [Plaintiff] shall not receive salary, bonuses, or other compensation from BBPI or [the subsidiary LLCs] in excess of $170, 000.00 per year[, ]" and that "[u]ntil the distributive award is paid in full, [Plaintiff] shall not receive any distributions from BBPI, except for reimbursement of expenses he incurs on behalf of BBPI, and except for repayment of loans from shareholder."

         Proceedings on Plaintiff's and Defendant's remaining claims continued in the ensuing years. On 9 June 2015, Plaintiff filed a motion for relief from the equitable distribution order pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 1A-1, Rule 60 ("Rule 60 motion"). In Plaintiff's Rule 60 motion, he contended, inter alia, that, although BBPI was never made a party to the proceedings, "the [trial court] exerted significant control over [BBPI's] assets and operations[, ]" and he asked the trial court to vacate the equitable distribution order. The trial court entered an order denying Plaintiff's Rule 60 motion on 12 February 2016, finding that, although BBPI was never made a party to the proceedings, "the failure to join BBPI in the trial is an issue of law that should be properly addressed on appeal." Plaintiff appeals.

         II. Analysis: BBPI and the Subsidiary LLCs as Necessary Parties

         Plaintiff argues the equitable distribution order must be vacated because it commands BBPI and the subsidiary LLCs to refrain from taking certain actions without joining them as necessary parties to the proceedings. We agree. A "necessary party" is a party that "is so vitally interested in the controversy involved in the action that a valid judgment cannot be rendered in the action completely and finally determining the controversy without [its] presence as a party." Booker v. Everhart, 294 N.C. 146, 156, 240 S.E.2d 360, 365-66 (1978) (citations omitted). This Court has also described a necessary party as "one whose interest will be directly affected by the outcome of the litigation." Begley v. Employment Security Comm., 50 N.C.App. 432, 438, 274 S.E.2d 370, 375 (1981) (citations and quotation marks omitted). "When a ...


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