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Lamb v. Styles

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

February 5, 2019


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 14 November 2018.

          Appeal by Plaintiffs from order entered 13 November 2017 by Judge R. Gregory Horne in Superior Court, Madison County, No. 17 CVS 191

          Sharpe & Bowman, PLLC, by Brian W. Sharpe, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

          Long, Parker, Warren, Anderson, Payne & McClellan, P.A., by Robert B. Long, Jr. and Ronald K. Payne, for Defendants-Appellees.


         John Henry Lamb, Jr., Alma Lamb Roberts, and Kay Lamb Lunsford ("Plaintiffs" or "the Lambs") filed a negligence action against Alan B. Styles Land Surveying, PLLC and its owner Alan B. Styles (together, "Defendants") on 12 June 2017. Defendants performed a survey of a tract of real property adjoining Plaintiffs' real property in 2007 that incorrectly identified the boundary line between the properties. As a result, Plaintiffs filed suit against their neighbors with claims for quiet title, declaratory judgment, and trespass. The trial court in that case entered an order declaring that the area of real property in dispute was owned by Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs now seek to recover the cost of the prior litigation from Defendants, claiming that Defendants' negligent performance of the survey necessitated the litigation. The trial court entered an order on 13 November 2017 dismissing Plaintiffs' action for failure to state a claim pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-1, Rule 12(b)(6).

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Plaintiffs were joint owners as tenants in common of 36.32 acres of real property located in Madison County ("Lamb property"). John Henry Lamb, Jr. received his interest in the Lamb property in 2011 from his mother, Kay Lamb Lunsford, who is the sister of Alma Lamb Roberts (collectively, "the Lamb sisters"). The Lamb sisters had received the Lamb property from their parents in a deed dated 9 May 1996 and recorded in Deed Book 228, Page 37 in the Madison County Registry.

         The Lamb sisters contracted with Dry Ridge Land Surveying ("Dry Ridge") in 2008 to survey and draft a plat of the Lamb property. During the course of the preparation of the plat, Dry Ridge discovered several other plats associated with adjoining property owners. Those plats were prepared by Defendants in 2007, at the request of William Holt and Harold Holt ("the Holts"). The plats Defendants had prepared for the Holts incorrectly depicted 17.632 acres of the Lamb property as being part of the Holts' property. The erroneous plats made by Defendants for the Holts were prepared based on statements made by the Holts to Defendants. Those plats noted that the line separating Plaintiffs' property from the Holts' property was drawn "per parol evidence from William and Harold Holt."

         The Lamb sisters filed an action on or around 28 October 2009 against the Holts for quiet title, declaratory judgment, and trespass. John Henry Lamb, Jr. was later added as a party to the action. During the course of that litigation, the trial court ordered a neutral surveyor to map the true boundary line between the properties. The neutral surveyor filed his survey with the trial court on 30 July 2013, matching the description set forth in Deed Book 228, Page 37, which was the deed that conveyed the property to the Lamb sisters by their parents. The trial court ordered the neutral surveyor to amend the filed survey. The amended map also showed that 17.15 acres of the disputed area was owned by the Lambs. The trial court entered an order granting partial summary judgment in favor of the Lambs, dismissing the Holts' claims to the disputed 17.15 acres, and declaring the 17.15 acres of property was owned by the Lambs.

         The Lambs faced financial difficulties as a result of the cost of litigation and filed a voluntary dismissal without prejudice of the remaining claims against the Holts in December 2013. The Holts voluntarily dismissed their counterclaims that had been asserted against the Lambs on 6 December 2013. The North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors ("the Board") issued a Notice of Contemplated Board Action on 13 August 2014 charging Defendant Alan B. Styles with "gross negligence, incompetence, and/or misconduct." The Board received no response from Defendant Alan B. Styles and entered a final decision and order on 16 September 2014, requiring Defendant Alan B. Styles to pay a penalty of $2, 000.00 and to earn a passing grade in a professional ethics course within three months. The Board based its action on evidence showing Defendant Alan B. Styles "performed inaccurate or substandard surveys . . . failed to make adequate investigation . . . failed to report results of surveys in a clear and factual manner . . . and failed to identify all reference sources."

         John Henry Lamb, Jr. also filed a new complaint against the Holts on 30 November 2015 asserting claims for quiet title and declaratory judgment. The trial court entered a memorandum of judgment and order on 27 June 2016 divesting the Holts of any right, title or ownership of the disputed property. The trial court further ordered that any purported interest arising from the disputed property be vested in fee simple in John Henry Lamb, Jr. and Alma Lamb Roberts, as tenants in common.

         Plaintiffs filed a complaint on 12 June 2017 asserting a claim of "Professional Negligence" against Defendants. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss on 16 August 2016 pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-1, Rule 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Defendants argued that a surveyor did not owe any duty of care to adjoining property owners who had not contracted with the surveyor or who did not rely on the survey in any way. The trial court heard Defendants' motion to dismiss on 9 October 2017 and entered an order on 13 November 2017 granting Defendants' motion to dismiss. Plaintiffs appeal.

         II. Analysis

         Plaintiffs argue that the trial court erred in granting Defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-1, Rule 12(b)(6). We disagree.

The motion to dismiss under [Rule] 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. In ruling on the motion, the allegations of the complaint must be viewed as admitted, and on that basis the court must determine as a matter of law whether the allegations state a claim for which relief may be granted.

Kohn v. Firsthealth Moore Reg'l Hosp., 229 N.C.App. 19, 21, 747 S.E2d 395, 397 (2013) (quoting Stanback v. Stanback, 297 N.C. 181, 185, 254 S.E.2d 611, 615 (1979)).

It is well-settled that a plaintiff's claim is properly dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) when one of the following three conditions is satisfied: (1) the complaint on its face reveals that no law supports the claim; (2) the complaint on its face reveals the absence of facts sufficient to make a valid claim; or (3) the complaint discloses some fact that necessarily defeats the claim.

Grich v. Mantelco, LLC, 228 N.C.App. 587, 589, 746 S.E.2d 316, 318 (2013) (citation omitted). This Court reviews a trial court's ruling on a motion for Rule 12(b)(6) de novo. Id.

"While the concept of notice pleading is liberal in nature, a complaint must nonetheless state enough to give the substantive elements of a legally recognized claim or it may be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6)." Raritan River Steel Co. v. Cherry, Bekaert & Holland, 322 N.C. 200, 205, 367 S.E.2d 609, 612 (1988). While Plaintiffs' complaint alleged a claim for "Professional Negligence," this Court must determine whether the complaint states the substantive elements of "some legal theory, whether properly labeled or not." Harris v. NCNB, 85 N.C.App. 669, 670, 355 S.E.2d 838, 840 (1987) (citing Stanback, 297 N.C. 181, 254 S.E.2d 611). A claim of professional negligence requires plaintiff establish: "(1) the nature of the defendant's profession; (2) the defendant's duty to conform to a certain standard of conduct; and (3) a breach of the duty proximately caused injury to the plaintiffs." Associated Indus. Contr'rs, Inc. v. Fleming Eng'g, Inc., 162 N.C.App. 405, 413, 590 S.E.2d 866, 872 (2004).

         A. Duty of Care

         "It is fundamental that actionable negligence is predicated on the existence of a legal duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff." Derwort v. Polk Cty., 129 N.C.App. 789, 791, 501 S.E.2d 379, 381 (1998). This Court has not yet addressed whether a surveyor owes a duty of care to adjoining landowners when performing a survey and recording plats. Plaintiffs argue several reasons why this Court should establish a rule that "holds licensed surveyors accountable for damages that foreseeably result from" their conduct: (1) N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-47(6) (2017) demonstrated that the General Assembly has sought to subject land surveyors to expanded civil liability, (2) N.C. Gen. Stat. § 89C-2 and 21 N.C. A.C. 56.0701 create specific standards of care by which a land surveyor's actions may be judged, and (3) general negligence principles. Plaintiffs ...

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