666 S.E.2d 107 (N.C. 2008), 408A07, State ex rel. Cooper v. Ridgeway Brands Mfg., LLC

Docket Nº:408A07.
Citation:666 S.E.2d 107, 362 N.C. 431
Opinion Judge:TIMMONS-GOODSON, Justice.
Party Name:STATE of North Carolina ex rel. Roy COOPER, Attorney General of North Carolina v. RIDGEWAY BRANDS MANUFACTURING, LLC, a North Carolina corporation; Ridgeway Brands, Inc.; James C. Heflin; Fred A. Edwards; and Carl B. White.
Attorney:Roy Cooper, Attorney General, by Christopher G. Browning, Jr., Solicitor General, and Richard L. Harrison and Melissa L. Trippe, Special Deputy Attorneys General, for plaintiff-appellee/appellant., Poyner & Spruill LLP, by J. Nicholas Ellis, Rocky Mount, for defendant-appellant/appellee Ridgeway ...
Case Date:August 27, 2008
Court:Supreme Court of North Carolina
 
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Page 107

666 S.E.2d 107 (N.C. 2008)

362 N.C. 431

STATE of North Carolina ex rel. Roy COOPER, Attorney General of North Carolina

v.

RIDGEWAY BRANDS MANUFACTURING, LLC, a North Carolina corporation; Ridgeway Brands, Inc.; James C. Heflin; Fred A. Edwards; and Carl B. White.

No. 408A07.

Supreme Court of North Carolina.

August 27, 2008

Page 108

Appeal pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, 184 N.C.App. 613, 646 S.E.2d 790 (2007), affirming in part and reversing in part an order entered 9 December 2005 by Judge Donald L. Smith in Superior Court, Wake County, and remanding for further proceedings. Heard in the Supreme Court 18 March 2008.

Page 109

Roy Cooper, Attorney General, by Christopher G. Browning, Jr., Solicitor General, and Richard L. Harrison and Melissa L. Trippe, Special Deputy Attorneys General, for plaintiff-appellee/appellant.

Poyner & Spruill LLP, by J. Nicholas Ellis, Rocky Mount, for defendant-appellant/appellee Ridgeway Brands Manufacturing, LLC and James C. Heflin.

TIMMONS-GOODSON, Justice.

[362 N.C. 432] In this opinion, we address two issues. First, in a claim by the State seeking to pierce the corporate veil of a corporate defendant, is defendant's purported alter ego considered a new party? We hold that when the corporate defendant is the mere instrumentality, or alter ego, of the individual defendant, the individual is not considered a new party. Second, in this case did the State's complaint allege sufficient facts to support a cause of action for civil conspiracy? Since the complaint contended that plaintiff had been injured by a wrongful act committed as part of an agreement between two or more persons pursuant to a common scheme, we hold that the complaint properly asserted a cause of action for conspiracy.

[362 N.C. 433] Background

The State of North Carolina (“ plaintiff" ) entered into a Master Settlement Agreement (“ MSA" ) with major domestic cigarette manufacturers in November 1998. Cigarette manufacturers doing business in the state were subject to N.C.G.S. § 66-291, which required them to choose between one of two options: (1) participation in the MSA; or (2) payment into a state escrow fund of specified sums, computed on the basis of the quantities of cigarettes sold by April 15 of each year.

Defendant James C. Heflin (“ Heflin" ) formed the corporation that subsequently became Ridgeway Brands Manufacturing, LLC (“ Ridgeway" ) in early 2001. Heflin was an owner and member-manager of Ridgeway, which was located in Stantonsburg, North Carolina, and sold tobacco products largely to a Kentucky corporation, Ridgeway Brands, Inc. (“ Brands" ). Brands handled products subject to the MSA for sale in North Carolina and other states. Since Ridgeway had opted not to sign the MSA, it was obligated to maintain a “ qualified escrow account."

Fred A. Edwards (“ Edwards" ) and Carl B. White (“ White" ) were owners and active managers of Brands. Defendants Heflin, White, and Edwards allegedly agreed to underprice the cigarettes that Ridgeway sold exclusively to Brands. The underpriced cigarettes would allow Brands to increase its revenue and expand its market share at the expense of its competitors. However, these underpriced cigarettes would not generate sufficient revenue to enable Ridgeway to make the mandated escrow payments.

In late 2002 Heflin, Edwards, and White hired Lee Welchons (“ Welchons" ) as the general manager of Ridgeway. Welchons had considerable experience in the tobacco industry. As a result, he was familiar with Ridgeway's obligations under N.C.G.S. § 66-291. Shortly after his arrival, Welchons discovered that Ridgeway's pricing structure did not enable it to meet those obligations. Defendants Heflin, Edwards and White failed to address Welchons' concerns and continued to market their products in a way that ensured that Ridgeway would incur huge escrow obligations. As their obligations mounted elsewhere, defendants diverted funds from Ridgeway to entities within the state of Kentucky, where they resided. At some point, some four million dollars wired by a customer to Ridgeway were moved to unknown accounts.

In early 2003 Heflin, Edwards, and White announced the merger of Ridgeway and Brands. Although the formalities were never concluded [362 N.C. 434] , the merger became a de facto reality. In early 2003, Brands became the sole purchaser of cigarettes manufactured by Ridgeway. Ridgeway allegedly became “ a corporation without a separate mind, will or existence of its own[,] ... operated as a mere shell to perform for the benefit of ... [Brands], Edwards, White and Heflin."

Plaintiff's interest in the matter stemmed from Ridgeway's obligations under N.C.G.S. § 66-291. Ridgeway was in compliance with its escrow obligations through 2002. However, problems began in 2003. Excise tax records indicated that Ridgeway sold approximately

Page 110

70,691,920 cigarettes in the state that year. Under the applicable formula therefore, it was required to deposit $ 1,378,160.18 into its escrow account. It failed to do so. On 20 February 2004, plaintiff sent its first demand letter reminding Ridgeway of its statutory obligations and seeking payments.

Although Ridgeway did not pay the funds sought by plaintiff, it continued to sell cigarettes in North Carolina. Indeed, it sold at least seventeen million cigarettes between 1 January and 31 May 2004. In fall 2004, Ridgeway stopped manufacturing cigarettes. Plaintiff repeatedly sent letters to Ridgeway reminding the corporation of its statutory obligations after it missed its first payment. Nevertheless, Ridgeway failed to make the required deposit for a second year by the statutory deadline of 15 April 2005. It never paid its escrow fund obligations for cigarettes sold during 2003 or 2004.

On 4 May 2004, plaintiff instituted this action seeking to recover from Ridgeway the escrow deposit due in 2004 plus civil penalties. Plaintiff also sought an injunction prohibiting Ridgeway from selling tobacco products in North Carolina for two years. On 19 October 2005, plaintiff filed an amended complaint. This amended complaint added claims for the escrow deposit due in 2005, together with civil penalties arising from the failure to make the deposits. In addition to claims for civil conspiracy and separate claims under the North Carolina Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, plaintiff sought to impose liability upon defendants Brands, Edwards, White, and Heflin under a “ piercing the corporate veil" theory. Plaintiff alleged that Heflin, Edwards, and White “ overwhelmingly dominated and controlled [Ridgeway] to further [their] own objectives and those of [Brands]." Plaintiff contended, inter alia, that defendants Heflin, White, and Edwards agreed to underprice the cigarettes that Ridgeway sold exclusively to Brands knowing that the process would not enable Ridgeway to meet its obligations under N.C.G.S. § 66-291.

[362 N.C. 435] To support its effort to pierce the corporate veil, plaintiff alleged in the amended complaint that Heflin, Edwards, and White exhibited control over Ridgeway in the following ways: (1) establishing the pricing structure of cigarettes that Ridgeway sold to Brands; (2) ignoring Welchons' advice that the pricing structure was “ grossly inadequate" to satisfy North Carolina's escrow statute requirements; (3) on one occasion, forbidding Welchons to shut down a cigarette line for repairs; (4) determining in which states cigarettes manufactured by Ridgeway would be sold; (5) making hiring decisions for Ridgeway; (6) directing monies intended for Ridgeway to Heflin, White, Edwards, or Brands; (7) excessively fragmenting Ridgeway; (8) directing the movement of funds to prevent the payment of statutory escrow obligations; (9) disposing of almost all assets of Ridgeway; (10) directing Welchons to send information regarding the value of the equipment, spare parts, and inventory owned by Ridgeway to an employee of Swift Transportation; (11) hiring attorneys Michelle Turpin and Victor Schwartz in 2004 to assist Ridgeway with its finances; (12) making payments to these attorneys in excess of one million dollars “ [without] financial records of how that money was spent" ; (13) directing, with Schwartz's aid, the destruction of Ridgeway's paper records, computer hard drives, and tape back-ups; (14) keeping “ no corporate financial records or grossly inadequate corporate records" ; and (15) informing Welchons that Ridgeway would not file bankruptcy because Heflin and others “ did not want anybody looking back to see what was going on and track the money back to where it came from."

On 25 October 2005, Ridgeway and Heflin moved to dismiss plaintiff's amended complaint. In an order entered 9 December 2005, the trial court granted the motion in part...

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