By Molly Martinson and Bridget Warren
Picture this: You’re about to file a Motion to Dismiss. You filed one last month, too. But was that in Guilford County . . . or Mecklenburg County? You can’t remember. When do you have to file a Notice of Hearing? How do you submit a calendar request?
Sound familiar? Attorneys practicing in North Carolina state courts often lament the disparities among various counties’ local rules and practices. Nevertheless, knowledge of each county’s requirements for civil practice is crucial to the effective representation of your clients.
In this three-part blog series, we asked Trial Court Administrators (“TCAs”) in several of the most populated counties in North Carolina to discuss attorneys’ common mistakes and frequently asked questions, and to give advice for attorneys practicing in their respective counties.
For our first installment, we highlight our discussions with TCAs in the Triad and Sandhills regions of North Carolina: Guilford, Forsyth, and Cumberland counties. We created the five rules below based on these discussions.
Rule No. 1: Know Your Local Rules and Rules of Civil Procedure
First and foremost, attorneys should familiarize themselves with the local rules of the county in which they are practicing. This might seem like a no-brainer, but as Craig Turner, the TCA for the 18th Judicial District (Guilford County), stated: “Most mistakes occur because attorneys are just not well-versed in submitting the necessary paperwork for their case with the court.” Moreover, Mr. Turner has found that attorneys are not familiar with civil procedure, in general, which creates even more mistakes. Overall, attorneys should thoroughly read the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, mediation rules, and the local rules of each county in which they are handling cases. If you only follow one rule—follow this one.
Rule No. 2: Utilize the County’s Online Resources
Attorneys should take advantage of the online resources each county has to offer, specifically, forms and calendars. Multiple TCAs noted that they spend significant time and resources updating their judicial district’s content on the North Carolina Court System website. Reviewing the calendar online, which specifies dates for motions for the entire year, will eliminate a common question received by Mr. Turner: “When can my motion be put on the docket?” Further, once your motion is calendared, according to the TCAs, it is imperative that attorneys track their motions for each case to avoid missing deadlines, filing delinquent administrative responses, and submitting late filings to the Court.
Rule No. 3: When Rules No. 1 and No. 2 Fail, Contact the TCA or TCC
Communication is key. After reading the local rules and reviewing the online resources, if attorneys still have questions they should reach out directly to the TCA or Trial Court Coordinator (“TCC”) of that judicial district. As noted by Cecelia Gordon, the TCA for 21st Judicial District (Forsyth County), attorneys should “never assume,” rather they should call the office if they are unsure of something, such as what type of calendar request is required by that judicial district. Communication, of course, is a two-way street. Attorneys should always promptly respond to questions from court administrators. Too often, Mr. Turner relayed, attorneys fail to respond in a timely manner, which leads to “unnecessary delays and duplication of work.”
Rule No. 4: Actually File for Secured Leave
The process for attorneys to obtain secured leave is provided by Rule 26 of the General Rules of Practice for the Superior and District Courts. However, as Ellen Hancox, the TCA for the 12th Judicial District (Cumberland County), noted, many attorneys do not file designations of secured leave.
The secured leave procedure exists for a reason: to provide for “the heightened level of professionalism that an attorney is able to provide when the attorney enjoys periods of time that are free from the urgent demands of professional responsibility and to enhance the overall quality of the attorney’s personal and family life[.]” Sounds like a goal we can all get behind.
Failing to properly file for secured leave in each county in which the attorney has a pending matter can cause scheduling headaches for the TCAs. Err on the side of caution and file for secured leave whenever you know you will be unavailable to appear in court for personal reasons. Prior to filing, remember to check each county’s form bank and use the proper secured leave form.
Relatedly, if a scheduling conflict arises because of an attorney’s conflicting engagements in different courts, Ms. Hancox noted that attorneys must refer to Rule 3.1 of the General Rules of Practice to determine the priority of each matter. Once the matter’s priority is established in accordance with Rule 3.1, refer to our Rule # 3, above, and let the TCA know about the conflict.
Rule No. 5: Don’t Assume that the TCA has the Same Information as the Clerk’s Office
North Carolina state courts have not implemented an electronic filing system at the trial-level (yet). Therefore, as a general matter, both the county clerk’s office and the TCA or TCC (if the judicial district has one) are charged with collecting case documents and managing each case in accordance with their respective responsibilities. Ms. Hancox warned, however, that attorneys should not assume that the TCA’s office has all of the same file materials as the county clerk’s office. For example, in Cumberland County, Local Civil Calendaring Rule 1.9 provides that “all papers filed in civil [superior court] actions . . . shall include as the first page of the filing an original plus one copy of the appropriate cover sheet[.]” The reason for this rule, Ms. Hancox stated, is to provide both the clerk’s office and the TCA with at least a cursory description of every document filed and the identity of the filer. If a party neglects to file the requisite cover sheet and copy of the cover sheet (as many have in the past) then the TCA will not be aware of that filing—or, with respect to the filing of an Answer or Notice of Appearance, the TCA might not be aware of your involvement in the case at all.
Therefore, do not assume that everything you file with the clerk’s office has necessarily made its way into the TCA’s hands, and pay particular attention to rules requiring that two copies of certain documents be provided. In all likelihood, one of those documents is for the TCA.
Stay tuned for the next two installments of this series, where we discuss what your TCA wants you to know in the Eastern and Western regions of the state.