Sprinke v. Johnson, COA20-32

Docket NºNo. COA20-32
Citation278 N.C.App. 684, 863 S.E.2d 627
Case DateAugust 03, 2021
CourtCourt of Appeal of North Carolina (US)

278 N.C.App. 684
863 S.E.2d 627

Gerald Steven SPRINKE, Jr., Plaintiff,
v.
Matthew JOHNSON, Defendant.

No. COA20-32

Court of Appeals of North Carolina.

Filed August 3, 2021


Lisa Costner, Winston Salem, for plaintiff-appellee.

Collins Family Law Group, Monroe, by Rebecca K. Watts, for defendant-appellant.

GORE, Judge.

¶ 1 Gerald Steven Sprinkle, Jr., ("plaintiff") filed suit against Dr. Matthew Johnson ("defendant") for alienation of affection and criminal conversation, alleging that defendant engaged in a romantic relationship and sexual acts with his wife Jana Sprinkle ("Mrs. Sprinkle"). Following a jury trial, at which defendant was neither present nor represented by counsel, judgment was entered awarding plaintiff a total of $2,294,000.00 in compensatory and punitive damages from defendant. Upon review, we conclude that defendant did not have notice of trial and vacate and remand the judgment against him.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

¶ 2 Mrs. Sprinkle worked at defendant's oral surgery practice in Mooresville, North Carolina, for seventeen years as a surgical assistant. Over a period of four years during her employment, defendant and Mrs. Sprinkle engaged in a romantic and sexual relationship.

¶ 3 In 2014, defendant initiated sexually explicit conversation with Mrs. Sprinkle and touched her bottom at work. As the affair progressed, defendant provided Mrs. Sprinkle with Adderall, a cell phone for communicating with him, and the two met at hotel rooms and his house on Lake Norman to have sexual intercourse. The affair came to a halt when another employee discovered a photograph on defendant's phone of Mrs. Sprinkle participating in a sexual act with him. That photograph was eventually seen by Mrs. Sprinkle's cousin. Mrs. Sprinkle then told her husband, plaintiff, about the affair. While plaintiff and Mrs. Sprinkle decided to reconcile, the affair resulted in Mrs. Sprinkle's

863 S.E.2d 629

loss of employment, and plaintiff sought mental health treatment and incurred related expenses.

¶ 4 On 23 March 2018, plaintiff filed suit against defendant for alienation of affection and criminal conversation. Plaintiff properly served defendant with the complaint at his business address on Medical Park Road in Mooresville. Plaintiff alleged that defendant and Mrs. Sprinkle engaged in sexual intercourse on multiple occasions in North Carolina during the marriage, and defendant's actions interfered with a genuine love and affection that existed in the marital relationship between them.

¶ 5 Upon receiving service of the complaint on 3 May 2018, defendant hired an attorney and was granted a thirty-day extension to file an answer. Defendant filed an answer on 5 July 2018 and also filed motions to dismiss and bifurcate. Those filings were later amended and refiled on 24 July 2018.

¶ 6 The parties and their respective counsel participated in court-ordered mediation on 11 January 2019. The filed Report of Mediator in Superior Court Civil Action represented that the parties settled the dispute and arrived to an "agreement on all issues." The report stipulated that plaintiff's attorney would file a notice of dismissal no later than 30 June 2019. The mediator notified the trial court that the matter had been settled in mediation, but it could not be dismissed before the end of June as to allow defendant requisite time to pay the agreed upon amount. The mediator's report did not specify the agreement's substantive terms. The only indication of the agreement reached in mediation is evidenced in a nearly illegible handwritten note authored by plaintiff's attorney. The note's only decipherable writing is its apparent title of "Agreement 1/11/19." There is no further indication as to what the parties agreed to, nor the extent to which those terms were mutually abided by.

¶ 7 Defendant's counsel moved to withdraw from representation in the matter on 22 March 2019, citing defendant's lack of communication, contempt towards his legal advice, and failure to procure payment for legal fees. The motion to withdraw as counsel was granted by a court order on 15 April 2019. In a certificate of service attached to that motion, counsel certified that he had served defendant with both the motion and the notice of hearing regarding the same by mail sent to an address on Beaten Path Road in Mooresville. Defendant's attorney believed this to be the correct mailing address.

¶ 8 On 17 June 2019, the trial court entered a Pre-Trial Order without holding a pre-trial conference. The Pre-Trial Order contained stipulations and agreements but was not signed by defendant or an attorney representing him. The Order was signed by only plaintiff's attorney and the trial court. The Order states that plaintiff's attorney, after due diligence, was unable to arrange a time with defendant for a pre-trial conference.

¶ 9 The trial was conducted from 24 June to 25 June 2019 before a jury in Rowan County Superior Court. Defendant was neither present at trial nor represented by counsel. On 25 June 2019, the jury rendered a verdict for plaintiff in the amount of $794,000.00 in compensatory damages and $1,500,000.00 in punitive damages, for a total award of $2,294,000.00. The trial court entered judgment reflecting the jury verdict on 1 July 2019.

¶ 10 Later, defendant was contacted by a reporter who inquired about the verdict against him. Defendant claims that, until that moment, he was unaware the trial had been held or that a judgment had been entered. He then hired new counsel who obtained the court file, where he first learned that his previous attorney had withdrawn. Defendant claims he also learned of the Pre-Trial Order, the trial date, and the $2,294,000.00 judgment from the court file.

¶ 11 On 11 July 2019, Defendant's attorney filed a motion pursuant to Rules 59 and 60 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure (hereinafter, "Rule 59/60 motion"), requesting a new trial. In the alternative, Defendant requested relief from the Pre-Trial Order, the judgment entered, or a new pre-trial conference. Plaintiff filed a response to that motion, and a motion for sanctions pursuant to Rule 11 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure.

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