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Martin v. Martin

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

July 16, 2019

ERIN LYNN MARTIN, Plaintiff,
v.
SHAWN MICHAEL MARTIN, Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 31 October 2018.

          Appeal by defendant from orders entered 12 September 2017 by Judge Margaret P. Eagles in Wake County No. 17 CVD 600980 District Court. Petition for Rehearing allowed 8 February 2019. The following opinion supersedes and replaces the prior opinion filed 18 December 2018.

          Gailor Hunt Jenkins Davis Taylor & Gibbs, PLLC, by Jonathan S. Melton and Stephanie J. Gibbs, for plaintiff-appellee.

          Smith Debnam Narron Drake Saintsing & Myers, L.L.P., by Alicia J. Jurney and Kristin H. Ruth, for defendant-appellant.

          ZACHARY, JUDGE.

         Shawn Michael Martin ("Defendant-Husband") appeals from a Domestic Violence Order of Protection and an Amended Domestic Violence Order of Protection. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse the orders entered against Defendant-Husband.

         I. Background

         Erin Lynn Martin ("Plaintiff-Wife") and Defendant-Husband are the parents of two minor children. The family moved to North Carolina from the State of Washington on 29 May 2017.

         About a month later, on 3 July 2017, Plaintiff-Wife filed a Complaint and Motion for Domestic Violence Protective Order alleging that Defendant-Husband committed acts of domestic violence against Plaintiff-Wife and their children. That same day, the trial court entered an Ex Parte Domestic Violence Order of Protection. Defendant-Husband filed an answer on 23 August 2017 denying all allegations of domestic violence.

         Plaintiff-Wife's motion was heard on 12 September 2017 before the Honorable Margaret P. Eagles in Wake County District Court. Following the hearing, the trial court entered a Domestic Violence Order of Protection against Defendant-Husband. Shortly thereafter, the parties came to an agreement concerning custody of the children, and the trial court entered an Amended Domestic Violence Order of Protection. The trial court granted temporary legal and physical custody of the children to Plaintiff-Wife and visitation privileges to Defendant-Husband. Defendant-Husband timely appealed two days later, on 14 September 2017.

         At the time of the hearing, dual custody proceedings were pending in Washington and in North Carolina. The Washington custody proceeding was scheduled for 21 September 2017, nine days after the domestic violence protective orders were filed. On 17 April 2018, the trial court entered a consent order settling the record on appeal, but no information concerning subsequent custody proceedings in either state was included in the record.

         In his brief to this Court, Defendant-Husband asserted that we have "never addressed whether a plaintiff seeking a protective order may present evidence of specific acts not raised in any court filing prior to trial," allegations of which the defendant received no notice. Plaintiff-Wife did not dispute Defendant-Husband's assertion that this case presented an issue of first impression, but argued that Defendant-Husband's due process rights were not violated by any alleged lack of notice.

         This Court issued its opinion in this case on 18 December 2018, concluding that the trial court violated Defendant-Husband's due process rights "by allowing Plaintiff-Wife to present evidence of alleged acts of domestic violence not specifically pleaded in her Complaint." Martin v. Martin, __ N.C.App. __, __, 822 S.E.2d 756, 758 (2018) ("Martin I"). Accordingly, we reversed the domestic violence protective orders entered against Defendant-Husband and remanded this matter to the trial court for further proceedings. Id. at__, 822 S.E.2d at 762. After the mandate issued, but within the time allowed by N.C. R. App. P. 31, Plaintiff-Wife filed a petition for rehearing, requesting that the Court reconsider its ruling in light of Jarrett v. Jarrett, 249 N.C.App. 269, 790 S.E.2d 883, disc. review denied, 369 N.C. 194, 793 S.E.2d 259 (2016), in which this Court addressed the sufficiency of notice of domestic violence allegations.[1] We allowed Plaintiff-Wife's petition for rehearing on 8 February 2019. This opinion replaces and supersedes Martin I; therefore, we will reconsider the issues raised in the parties' briefs.

         II. Discussion

         Defendant-Husband argues that the trial court erred by: (1) allowing Plaintiff-Wife to present evidence of alleged incidents of domestic violence of which Defendant-Husband did not receive notice before trial, in violation of his due process rights; (2) "entering a domestic violence protective order against Defendant[-Husband] without concluding as a matter of law that an act of domestic violence had occurred"; and (3) entering a child custody order when the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to do so.

         A. Unpleaded Allegations of Domestic Violence

         Defendant-Husband first argues on appeal that the trial court erred by admitting testimony supporting allegations of domestic violence not pleaded in Plaintiff-Wife's complaint, and that the admission of that testimony violated his due process rights.

         "[A]ppellate courts must avoid constitutional questions, even if properly presented, where a case may be resolved on other grounds." James v. Bartlett, 359 N.C. 260, 266, 607 S.E.2d 638, 642 (quotation marks omitted), reconsideration denied, 359 N.C. 633, 613 S.E.2d 691 (2005). The question of whether a trial court can properly admit evidence in support of unpleaded allegations of domestic violence may be answered by reference to our Rules of Civil Procedure.

         North Carolina remains a notice-pleading state, which means that a pleading filed in this state must contain "[a] short and plain statement of the claim sufficiently particular to give the court and the parties notice of the transactions, occurrences, or series of transactions or occurrences, intended to be proved showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-1, Rule 8(a)(1) (2017). "A complaint is adequate, under notice pleading, if it gives a defendant sufficient notice of the nature and basis of the plaintiff's claim and allows the defendant to answer and prepare for trial." Burgess v. Busby, 142 N.C.App. 393, 399, 544 S.E.2d 4, 7, disc. review improvidently allowed, 354 N.C. 351, 553 S.E.2d 679 (2001). While Rule 8 "does not require detailed fact pleading, . . . it does require a certain degree of specificity . . . [, and] sufficient detail must be given so that the defendant and the Court can obtain a fair idea of what the plaintiff is complaining, and can see that there is some basis for [relief]." Manning v. Manning, 20 N.C.App. 149, 154, 201 S.E.2d 46, 50 (1973).

         This Court has previously recognized that the entry of a domestic violence protective order "involves both legal and non-legal collateral consequences." Mannise v. Harrell, 249 N.C.App. 322, 332, 791 S.E.2d 653, 660 (2016). For instance, "[a] domestic violence protective order may . . . place restrictions on where a defendant may or may not be located, or what personal property a defendant may possess or use." Id. Additionally, the existence of a prior domestic violence protective order may be "consider[ed] . . . by the trial court in any custody action involving [the] [d]efendant." Smith v. Smith, 145 N.C.App. 434, 436, 549 S.E.2d 912, 914 (2001).

         The defendant may also suffer "non-legal collateral consequences" as a result of "the stigma that is likely to attach to a person judicially determined to have committed domestic abuse." Id. at 437, 549 S.E.2d at 914 (brackets and quotation marks omitted). For example, this Court has recognized that "a person applying for a job, a professional license, a government position, admission to an academic institution, or the like, may be asked about whether he or she has been the subject of a domestic violence protective order." Id. (brackets omitted). Because of the potential significant and lasting adverse collateral consequences faced by those against whom a domestic violence protective order is entered, it is imperative that a defendant receive adequate notice of the allegations in the complaint.

         A trial court does not err by admitting evidence in support of unpleaded domestic violence allegations, so long as the allegations in the complaint provide sufficient notice of the nature and basis of any unpleaded allegations. See Jarrett, 249 N.C.App. at 276-77, 790 S.E.2d at 888. For instance, in Jarrett, the plaintiff filed a complaint on 20 July 2015 alleging domestic violence and claiming that in May 2015, the defendant "followed [the plaintiff] on the highway, cut her off, and slammed on his brakes." Id. at 276, 790 S.E.2d at 888. The defendant had also committed similar incidents of aggressive driving in March and June of 2015; however, the plaintiff's complaint only alleged the May 2015 incident. Id. The plaintiff did file an amended complaint on 24 July 2015 alleging the March and June incidents, but did not serve the defendant with the amended complaint until the day of the hearing. Id. at 277, 790 S.E.2d at 888. At the hearing, the plaintiff testified about all three incidents of aggressive driving. Id. at 276, 790 S.E.2d at 888. The defendant argued to this Court that the trial court should not have permitted the plaintiff to testify about alleged incidents of domestic violence not pleaded in her original complaint. Id. However, applying Rule 8, this Court concluded that the "plaintiff's 20 July 2015 complaint gave [the] defendant sufficient notice of the nature and basis of her claim." Id. at 277, 790 S.E.2d at 888. Indeed, the defendant did "not argue that he was unable to prepare a responsive pleading or that he was unable to prepare for the hearing." Id. Thus, the plaintiff's allegation of one incident of aggressive driving in July 2015 provided the defendant with sufficient notice of the plaintiff's unpleaded allegations arising from similar incidents in March and June 2015, as his aggressive driving was the nature and basis of the plaintiff's complaint.

         In this case, the trial court found, in both of its domestic violence protective orders, that Defendant-Husband placed Plaintiff-Wife in fear of imminent bodily injury and continued harassment that rose to such a level as to inflict substantial emotional distress. Specifically, the trial court found that

defendant was listening to plaintiff outside her bedroom door, then after plaintiff locked the door, defendant repeatedly pounded on the door and broke into plaintiff's bedroom, causing her fear of physical assault; on 6/30/2017, defendant threw keys at plaintiff and yelled profanity at her; defendant has a "flashpoint" temper (per testimony) and engages in excessively aggressive driving while plaintiff and children are in the car, causing plaintiff fear; plaintiff was afraid of defendant and what he might do; since the filing of DVPO, defendant has hacked into plaintiff's email account, which has caused her emotional distress[.]

         Based on our review of the record, the trial court heard testimony of a significant number of unpleaded allegations of domestic violence; however, the trial court only made findings about three of those unpleaded allegations in concluding that Defendant-Husband committed domestic violence. Those unpleaded allegations include: (1) "defendant . . . engages in excessively aggressive driving while plaintiff and children are in the car, causing plaintiff fear"; (2) "defendant was listening to plaintiff outside her bedroom door, then after plaintiff locked the door, defendant repeatedly pounded on the door and broke into plaintiff's bedroom, causing her fear of physical assault"; and (3) "defendant has hacked into plaintiff's email account, which has caused her emotional distress."

         It is well established that "[i]n order to preserve an issue for appellate review, a party must have presented to the trial court a timely request, objection, or motion, stating the specific grounds for the ruling the party desired the court to make if the specific grounds were not apparent from the context." N.C. R. App. P. 10(a)(1). Of the unpleaded allegations of domestic violence, Defendant-Husband only objected to the testimony concerning aggressive driving:

[Plaintiff's Counsel:] Now, [Defense Counsel] asked you about whether [Defendant-Husband] had physically harmed you. Did he ever put you and the children in harm's way?
[Plaintiff-Wife:] Yes.
Q. When?
A. [Defendant-Husband] had a lot of road rage, a lot of road rage, and we basically couldn't drive to the store without him racing ...

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