Blue v. Bhiro, 2022-NCSC-45 (2022)
In North Carolina, our Rules of Civil Procedure govern many aspects of civil trials. This includes the vast majority of the actions you will see incident to divorce and separation, such as child custody, child support, alimony, and equitable distribution. Under these rules, there are a few preliminary hurdles a complaint may cross before a trial court will hear the matter. Two such hurdles are a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted (colloquially called a 12(b)(6) motion), and a motion for summary judgment. Both will dispose of the complaint, albeit for different reasons. Interestingly, because of the effect, sometimes a 12(b)(6) motion can be converted into a motion for summary judgment. Below is a case about one such conversion, or lack of conversion.
- Facts: Plaintiff was treated by Defendants as his primary care physicians. They performed routine physicals and found in 2012 that Plaintiff had an elevated blood antigen that indicated that Plaintiff may have had prostate cancer. Thought Defendants were the primary care physicians at this time, they never provided any follow-up care or referrals related to the elevated prostate antigen. Plaintiff was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2018 and thus brought suit against Defendants for negligence. Defendants filed motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) and claimed that the statute of limitations had passed on the claim for negligence. At the hearing on this motion to dismiss, both parties submitted memoranda of law, and the trial court dismissed the claim over a motion for leave to amend and found that Plaintiff failed to state a claim. The trial court relied upon the memoranda of law for their ruling. The Court of Appeals reversed and held that the trial court converted the 12(b)(6) motion into a motion for summary judgment, and thus erred when it did not grant additional time for discovery and presentation of evidence. This was because the trial court relied upon the memoranda, which included facts not in the complaint.
- Issue: Was the consideration and reliance on memoranda of law submitted by counsel enough to convert a 12(b)(6) into a motion for summary judgment?
- Rationale: The Supreme Court overruled the Court of Appeals and held that those memoranda of law were merely the arguments of counsel and did not convert the Rule 12 motion into a motion for summary judgment. This was despite the fact that the memoranda included facts not in the complaint. This is because generally, memoranda of law are simply the arguments of counsel, and those arguments are not evidence. In this case, no exhibits or other evidentiary documents were included in the memoranda. This was key. Because there were no other evidentiary materials, the memoranda and the allegations in the complaint were all that the trial court used to make its findings. The existence of facts in the memoranda and made by counsel were not evidence, and thus were not matters outside of the pleadings. Because the trial court did not rely on evidence, it did not err in granting dismissal on the Rule 12 motion; it did not convert the Rule 12 to a summary judgment.
- Lessons and Observations:
- This case very likely hinged on what were in the contents of those memoranda. If they were the plain assertions of fact, then it seems that they were no different than facts made in a pleading. However, if they had additional facts with a documentary basis, then perhaps this case would have come out in the reverse.