Maddukuri v. Chintanippu, 2022-NCCOA-128 (1 March 2022)
Stipulations are often used to expedite portions of a case/trial so that there is no time wasted on them, allowing the court to focus on the issues that are actually in contention. The use of stipulations of fact is pretty common. It removes the inconvenience of having to show evidence of facts that no one contests. Stipulations can also be used for settlement. These allow for the concession between parties of some rights in return for others. Below is a case where the Court dealt with the potential withdrawal of a stipulation.
- Facts: Defendant and Plaintiff were embroiled in separation litigation for claims of child support, child custody, and equitable distribution. The matter went to trial in 2017, and after three days of hearings the parties came to a settlement on the issues of physical and legal child custody and support, equitable distribution, and attorney fees. There were a few details that the parties did not agree on. The terms of their agreement were read in court, and the Plaintiff acknowledged that he understood and agreed to those terms. However, these terms were not reduced to writing, nor were they entered. The court gave the parties an additional week to iron out the final details. Two years passed. In this time, the parties found more issues, and thus nothing was written or signed pertaining to the agreements from that day in trial. Then Plaintiff withdrew his consent from the prior agreement. The court held a trial, and final orders for custody and ED were entered by the court. Defendant appealed.
- Issue: Did the trial court err by allowing Plaintiff to withdraw his consent to the agreements 2017?
- Rationale: The parties’ agreement from 2017 did not include stipulations of fact but rather a stipulation of settlement. In such a case, the court is required to read out the terms and ask if the parties understand and agree. This was followed to some extent in this case, but the record was silent as to whether the Defendant agreed to the terms. Furthermore, and more importantly, the agreement was not reduced to a writing, signed, and entered by the court. In such a case, whether a party can withdraw consent will be decided by contract law. But since this agreement was not written and signed, Plaintiff can withdraw his consent, and the court is without power to enter into a consent order.
- Lessons and Observations: While this opinion did not discuss it, the case that it cites, Chance v. Henderson, 134 N.C. App. 657, 518 S.E.2d 780 (1999), discussed the doctrine of ratification and estoppel from challenging an Order that was entered when a party withdrew consent beforehand. If Plaintiff had acted consistently with the terms agreed to in 2017, would he have been estopped from withdrawing his consent? What if the agreement was reduced to writing and then entered by the court, and then Plaintiff acted consistently with it? This leaves a very difficult challenge. If the order is entered, a party is under immense pressure to comply with it or face consequences such as contempt—wouldn’t this always lead to ratification? The correct answer may lie with timing. If the notice of appeal is immediate, then time for ratification, the context of following an Order, may be explained away.