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McLaughlin v. Bailey

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

February 5, 2019

DANIEL BAILEY, in his Official Capacity as Sheriff of Mecklenburg County, and OHIO CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 16 January 2019.

          Appeal by plaintiff Timothy Stanley from order entered 16 February 2018 by Judge Lisa C. Bell in Superior Court, Mecklenburg County. No. 12 CVS 1017

          Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy and Kennedy, LLP, by Harvey L. Kennedy and Harold L. Kennedy, III, for plaintiff-appellant.

          Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP, by Sean F. Perrin, for defendants-appellees.

          STROUD, JUDGE

         The background of this case can be found in this Court's prior opinion of McLaughlin v. Bailey, 240 N.C.App. 159, 771 S.E.2d 570 (2015), aff'd, 368 N.C. 618, 781 S.E.2d 23 (2016). The prior appeal was filed in this same case and addressed the same claims and issues. See id. In 2008, plaintiff was a deputy sheriff working in the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department. Id. at 160, 771 S.E.2d at 573. Defendant Daniel Bailey was elected as sheriff, and defendant then terminated plaintiff's employment. See id. at 160-61, 771 S.E.2d at 573. Plaintiff Timothy Stanley filed this lawsuit alleging he had been terminated for unlawful reasons. See id. at 161, 771 S.E.2d at 573. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, and the trial court granted summary judgment for defendants, dismissing plaintiff Stanley's claims. Id. at 161-62, 771 S.E.2d 573. Plaintiff Stanley appealed, and this Court affirmed the trial court's judgment. See id., 240 N.C.App. 159, 771 S.E.2d 570. Plaintiffs then petitioned the North Carolina Supreme Court for discretionary review, and the Supreme Court affirmed this Court's opinion in January of 2016. See McLaughlin v. Bailey, 368 N.C. 618, 781 S.E.2d 23.

         In November of 2017, plaintiff Stanley filed a motion with the trial court under Rule 60(b)(6) for relief from judgment, arguing he was entitled to resurrect his claim based upon the United State Supreme Court's opinion in Heffernan v. City of Patterson, N.J., 136 S.Ct. 1412, 194 L.Ed.2d 508 (2016), which was decided after the North Carolina Supreme Court had affirmed the dismissal of his claim. Plaintiff alleged the Heffernan case "is now controlling." On 16 February 2018, the trial court entered an order denying plaintiff's motion. Plaintiff appeals.

         Plaintiff Stanley contends that the summary judgment for defendants dismissing his claim should be overturned based on Heffernan. Defendants contend Heffernan is not applicable to plaintiff Stanley's claims and his motion was untimely filed. But we need not address the trial court's substantive rationale for denial of the Rule 60(b)(6) motion or the timing of the motion because the trial court did not have the discretion to allow the Rule 60(b)(6) motion. See generally D & W, Inc. v. Charlotte, 268 N.C. 720, 722-23, 152 S.E.2d 199, 202 (1966) ("In our judicial system the Superior Court is a court subordinate to the Supreme Court. Upon appeal our mandate is binding upon it and must be strictly followed without variation or departure. No judgment other than that directed or permitted by the appellate court may be entered.").

         This Court normally reviews a trial court's order denying a motion under Rule 60(b)(6) for abuse of discretion:

General Statute 1A-1, Rule 60(b)(6) is equitable in nature and authorizes the trial judge to exercise his discretion in granting or withholding the relief sought. Our Supreme Court has indicated that this Court cannot substitute what it considers to be its own better judgment for a discretionary ruling of a trial court, and that this Court should not disturb a discretionary ruling unless it probably amounted to a substantial miscarriage of justice. Further, a judge is subject to reversal for abuse of discretion only upon a showing by a litigant that the challenged actions are manifestly unsupported by reason.

Huggins v. Hallmark Enterprises, Inc., 84 N.C.App. 15, 25, 351 S.E.2d 779, 785 (1987) (citations, quotation marks, and brackets omitted).

         But in this instance, the trial court had no discretion to allow plaintiff's motion, see generally D & W, Inc., 268 N.C. at 722-23, 152 S.E.2d at 202, even if it had determined plaintiff's argument that Heffernan somehow changed the law in a way which would affect plaintiff's claim, though ultimately that is not what the trial court determined. The exact same legal issue, with no factual distinctions, argued by plaintiff in the Rule 60(b)(6) motion was argued in the first appeal and the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled on it; that ruling is the law of the case:

The questions raised in the present appeal must be viewed in the light of the rule that a decision of this Court on former appeal constitutes the law of the case in respect to questions therein presented and decided, both in subsequent proceedings in the trial court and on subsequent appeal when the same matters are involved.

Collins v. Simms, 257 N.C. 1, 3, 125 S.E.2d 298, 300 (1962). While plaintiff Stanley claims that the United States Supreme Court ruling in Heffernan changed the law applicable to his claim, that contention is misplaced ...

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