The North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure are fairly identical to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of any substantial differences.
But the lack of one word contained in FRCP 14 — “original” — but omitted from the parallel NC Rule made all the difference in the NC Business Court’s Opinion in AP Atlantic, Inc. v. Crescent University City Ventures, LLC, 2017 NCBC 91.
The case had to do with Plaintiff AP filing a third party complaint against multiple Defendants after Defendant Crescent University amended its Answer and counterclaim. Big deal, you are probably thinking. Rule 14 says that you can add as a third party Defendant anyone who “is or may be liable” to that party. It is designed to “promote judicial efficiency and the convenience of parties by eliminating circuity of action . . . by consolidating [all] suits into one action.” Op. ¶26 (quoting Heath v. Board of Comm’rs, 292 N.C. 369, 376, 233 S.E.2d 889, 893 (1977)(quoting Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 1442 (1971)).
What made the AP Atlantic case unusual was that the counterclaim against AP which entitled it to add third party defendants who “were or might be liable to it” was first made in January 2016. It wasn’t until a year and a half later (in July 2017), when Crescent amended its counterclaim, that AP made its third party complaint against thirteen new third party defendant subcontractors.
AP Did Not Need The Permission Of The Court To File Its Third Party Complaint
Defendant Crescent said that AP needed to leave of court to make its third party complaint. Crescent, relying on NCRCP 14, disputed that it had needed leave of court. North Carolina’s Rule 14 says:
At any time after commencement of the action a defendant, as a third-party plaintiff, may cause a summons and complaint to be served upon a person not a party to the action who is or may be liable to him for all or part of the plaintiff’s claim against him. Leave to make the service need not be obtained if the third-party complaint is filed not later than 45 days after the answer to the complaint is served.
N.C. R. Civ. Pro. 14(a)(emphasis added).
The third party complaint adding the thirteen new parties was filed 21 days after the Answer amending the counterclaim against AP. Timely? Not under federal Rule 14, which says that:
the third-party plaintiff must, by motion, obtain the court’s leave if it files the third-party complaint more than 14 days after serving its original answer.
FRCP 14(a)(1)(emphasis added).
The absence of the word “original,” or any reference to amended pleadings in NCRCP 14, led Judge Bledsoe to rule that the words “answer to the complaint” in NCRCP 14 were ambiguous. Op. ¶18. He then embarked on an effort to determine the intention of the North Carolina Legislature in adopting a rule that did not parrot the “original answer” language of FRCP 14.
It Was Fundamental To The Court’s Decision That The NC Legislature Is Presumed To Know Everything
He started with the proposition that:
Because North Carolina’s rule was first enacted in 1967, and because the Court must presume the legislature acted with full knowledge of prior and existing law, the Court must presume that the legislature knew of the language in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 14 and — and continues to make — a deliberate decision not to use it in North Carolina’s rule.
The presumption that the NC Legislature was omniscient and well versed in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is not something that Judge Bledsoe created out of thin air. The North Carolina Supreme Court has said many times that “[i]t is always presumed that the legislature acted with care and deliberation and with full knowledge of prior and existing law.” See, e.g., State v. Benton, 276 N.C. 641, 174 S.E.2d 793, 805 (1970).
Judge Bledsoe moved on to considering the meaning of the words “original answer” in the federal rule, concluding that it “would be the first or earliest answer filed in a lawsuit, as no answer would have been filed before it.” Op. ¶23. It follows from that proposition that North Carolina’s version of Rule 14 doesn’t make a distinction between original or amended pleadings. Op. ¶23.
So, AP was allowed to amend its third party complaint — without leave of Court — to add more than a doen new parties to the case well more than a year after the case was first filed.
Judge Bledsoe obviously had some uneasiness about this ruling, saying that he made his decision “reluctantly.” Op. ¶23.