M.E. v. T.J.

Decision Date11 March 2022
Docket Number18A21
Parties M.E. v. T.J.
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court

Scharff Law Firm, PLLC, by Amily McCool; ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, by Irena Como and Kristi L. Graunke ; and Patterson Harkavy LLP, by Christopher A. Brook, Wake County, for plaintiff-appellee.

Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, by Lorin J. Lapidus, Winston-Salem, D. Martin Warf, Raleigh, and G. Gray Wilson, Winston-Salem, for defendant-appellant.

Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Ryan Y. Park, Solicitor General, for State of North Carolina and Governor Roy Cooper, amici curiae.

Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey, & Leonard, LLP, by Sarah M. Saint, Greensboro, and Eric M. David, Raleigh; and Kathleen Lockwood and Nisha Williams, for North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, amicus curiae.

Poyner Spruill LLP, by Andrew H. Erteschik, John Michael Durnovich, N. Cosmo Zinkow, Raleigh; and Robinson, Bradshaw, & Hinton, P.A., by Stephen D. Feldman, Raleigh, Mark A. Hiller, Chapel Hill, and Garrett A. Steadman, Charlotte, for Legal Aid of North Carolina, The North Carolina Justice Center, and The Pauli Murry LGBTQ+ Bar Association, amici curiae.

Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP, by Kevin A. Hall, Samuel B. Hartzell, and Ripley Rand, Raleigh, for Former District Court Judges, amicus curiae.

HUDSON, Justice.

¶ 1 For well over a century, North Carolina courts have abided by the foundational principle that administering equity and justice prohibits the elevation of form over substance. See, e.g. , Currie v. Clark , 90 N.C. 355, 361 (1884) ("This would be to subordinate substance to form and subserve no useful purpose."); Moring v. Privott , 146 N.C. 558, 567, 60 S.E. 509 (1908) ("Equity disregards mere form and looks at the substance of things."); Fidelity & Casualty Co. v. Green , 200 N.C. 535, 538, 157 S.E. 797 (1931) ("To hold otherwise, we apprehend, would be to exalt the form over the substance."). In alignment with this principle, our Rules of Civil Procedure are intended to facilitate access to justice, not obstruct it. See Pyco Supply Co. v. American Centennial Ins. Co. , 321 N.C. 435, 443, 364 S.E.2d 380 (1988) (noting that "deny[ing] plaintiff its day in court simply for its imprecision with the pen ... would be contrary to the purpose and intent of ... the modern rules of civil procedure."). Indeed, "it is the essence of the Rules of Civil Procedure that decisions be had on the merits and not avoided on the basis of mere technicalities." Mangum v. Surles , 281 N.C. 91, 99, 187 S.E.2d 697 (1972).

¶ 2 This principle holds particular salience in the realm of Domestic Violence Protective Orders (DVPO). Survivors of domestic violence who turn to courts for protection typically do so shortly after enduring physical or psychological trauma, and without the assistance of legal counsel. Maria Amelia Calaf, Breaking the Cycle: Title VII, Domestic Violence, and Workplace Discrimination , 21 Law & Ineq. 167, 170 (2003) (noting that "the effects [of domestic violence] extend beyond the physical harms, causing substance abuse, severe psychological trauma, and stress-related illnesses."); Julia Kim & Leslie Starsoneck, North Carolina District Courts’ Response to Domestic Violence 57 (Dec. 2007), https://www.nccourts.gov/assets/inline-files/dv_studyreport.pdf [hereinafter Kim & Starsoneck] (noting that "generally most 50B plaintiffs and defendants appear pro se."). Accordingly, "[t]he procedures under N.C.[G.S.] § 50B-2 are intended to provide a method for trial court judges or magistrates to quickly provide protection from the risk of acts of domestic violence by means of a process which is readily accessible to pro se complainants." Hensey v. Hennessy , 201 N.C. App. 56, 63, 685 S.E.2d 541 (2009).

¶ 3 Today, we apply these longstanding principles here, where plaintiff struck through and wrote "I do not want to dismiss this action" on a Notice of Voluntary Dismissal form that she had filed thirty-nine minutes previously, after learning that she could, in fact, proceed with her original Chapter 50B DVPO complaint. Defendant contends, inter alia , that this handwritten amendment could not revive plaintiff's previously dismissed complaint, and therefore that the trial court erred in exercising jurisdiction over the subsequent hearing. Holding so, however, "would be to exalt the form over the substance." Fidelity & Casualty Co. , 200 N.C. at 538, 157 S.E. 797.

¶ 4 Accordingly, we hold that the district court did not err in determining that it had subject matter jurisdiction to allow plaintiff to proceed with her Chapter 50B DVPO action. Further, we hold that plaintiff's constitutional argument was properly preserved for appellate review, and that defendant's Rule 19(d) necessary joinder argument was not properly preserved for appellate review. Finally, we note that the merits of the Court of Appeals’ ruling that N.C.G.S. § 50-B(1)(b)(6)’s exclusion of complainants in same-sex dating relationships from DVPO protection is unconstitutional were not at issue before this Court, and therefore stand undisturbed and maintain normal precedential effect. We therefore modify and affirm the ruling of the Court of Appeals below reversing the trial court's denial of plaintiff's Chapter 50B complaint.

I. Factual and Procedural Background
A. Chapter 50B Filings and District Court Rulings

¶ 5 Plaintiff M.E. and defendant T.J., both women, were in a dating relationship that ended badly. After plaintiff ended the relationship on 29 May 2018, she alleged that defendant became verbally and physically threatening toward plaintiff, including attempting to force her way into plaintiff's house and needing to be removed by police. On the morning of 31 May 2018, plaintiff, accompanied by her mother, went to the Wake County Clerk of Superior Court office seeking the protections of a Domestic Violence Protective Order and an ex parte temporary DVPO pursuant to N.C.G.S. Chapter 50B. After plaintiff explained her situation to staff members at the clerk's office, they provided her with the appropriate forms to file a Chapter 50B "Complaint and Motion for Domestic Violence Protective Order" (AOC-CV-303), which include a section to request a temporary "Ex Parte Domestic Violence Order of Protection." See N.C.G.S. § 50B-2(d) (2021) (establishing that "[t]he clerk of superior court of each county shall provide pro se complainants all forms that are necessary or appropriate to enable them to proceed pro se pursuant to this section.").

¶ 6 Plaintiff then filled out the Chapter 50B forms she had been given. Plaintiff checked Box 4 of the form, which alleges that "[t]he defendant has attempted to cause or has intentionally caused me bodily injury; or has placed me or a member of my family or household in fear of imminent serious bodily injury or in fear of continued harassment that rises to such a level as to inflict sustained emotional distress ..." In the subsequent space for further details, plaintiff wrote:

May 29th 2016[.] Became aggressive after stating the relationship was over. Had to push her back twice and lock her out of my home then placed 911 call. Officer arrived and she appeared to have left. She was hiding in back yard. Attempted to force entry into the home. 911 was called again. Defendant has not stopped attempting to contact me.

Plaintiff also checked Box 6, indicating that "I believe there is danger of serious and imminent injury to me or my child(ren)." Finally, plaintiff checked Box 9, indicating that "[t]he defendant has firearms and ammunition as described below." Below, plaintiff wrote "access to father[’]s gun collection[.]"

¶ 7 Plaintiff requested "emergency relief" by way of "an Ex Parte Order before notice of a hearing is given to the defendant." Plaintiff further requested that the court order Defendant: "not to assault, threaten, abuse, follow, harass, or interfere with me[;]" "not to come on or about ... my residence [or] ... the place where I work[;]" "[to] have no contact with me[;]" "[not] possess[ ] or purchas[e] a firearm[;]" and take "anger management classes." After filing this paperwork, plaintiff was instructed by the staff members to return to court later that day for her hearing.

¶ 8 When plaintiff returned to court for her hearing, the trial court "informed [her] that because both she and [d]efendant were women, and only in a ‘dating’ ... relationship, N.C.G.S. § 50B-1(b)(6) did not allow the trial court to grant her an ex parte DVPO or any other protections afforded by Chapter 50B." M.E. , 275 N.C. App. at 533, 854 S.E.2d 74. Indeed, N.C.G.S. § 50B-1(a) limits DVPO protection to those who are in or have been in a "personal relationship," and N.C.G.S. § 50B-1(b) subsequently defines "personal relationship" as "a relationship wherein the parties involved:"

(1) Are current or former spouses;
(2) Are persons of opposite sex who live together or have lived together;
(3) Are related as parents and children ...;
(4) Have a child in common;
(5) Are current or former household members; [or]
(6) Are persons of the opposite sex who are in a dating relationship or have been in a dating relationship.

(emphasis added). As such, the statute excludes from DVPO eligibility any person, like plaintiff, who is or was in a same-sex dating relationship. Instead of seeking a DVPO under Chapter 50B, trial court informed plaintiff

that she could seek a civil ex parte temporary no-contact order and a permanent civil no-contact order, pursuant to Chapter 50C. See N.C.G.S. § 50C-2 (2017). Chapter 50C expressly states that its protections are for "persons against whom an act of unlawful conduct has been committed by another person not involved in a personal relationship with the person as defined in G.S. 50B-1(b). " N.C.G.S. § 50C-1(8) (2017) (emphasis added).

M.E. , 275 N.C. App. at 533, 854 S.E.2d 74. Notably, however, unlike DVPOs under Chapter 50B, no-contact orders under Chapter 50C do not allow the trial court to place any limits...

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