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COA: Substance trumps form in domestic violence complaint


Even before the current recession, courts in North Carolina were struggling to deal with a steady growth in the number of people trying to navigate the judicial system without the aid of an attorney. The uptick in pro se filings has increasingly left trial judges feeling squeezed between the legal requirements for motions and pleadings and the reticence to toss out meritorious claims over technicalities.

In the area of domestic violence complaints, at least, the state’s Court of Appeals has come down on the side of valuing substance of form, reversing a trial court’s decision to dismiss a plaintiff’s request for a protective order simply because her complaint form had failed to reference any of the attachments detailing the allegations against her husband.

The plaintiff in the case (Lawyers Weekly is choosing not to use the litigants’ names in this story) filed a pro se motion for a domestic violence protective order (DVPO), and her husband successfully persuaded a Jackson County District Court judge to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the allegations were not specific enough. The allegations were detailed with extensive specificity in some attachments filed with the complaint, but these attachments were not referenced anywhere in the body of the complaint itself.

The husband in the case relied on the Court of Appeals’ 2018 decision in Martin v. Martin, in which it ruled that anyone seeking a DVPO must include any alleged acts of domestic violence in writing in their complaints in order to introduce them as evidence at a hearing. Lawyers Weekly reported on the ruling at the time; in 2019 the court published a substitute opinion clarifying that courts may admit evidence of unpleaded domestic violence allegations so long as the complaint’s allegations provide sufficient notice of the nature and basis of them.

But Judge Donna Stroud, writing for a unanimous Court of Appeals panel in a May 5 opinion, said that in any case the defendant’s reliance on Martin was misplaced since it concerned the admission of evidence at a hearing, and not whether to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim. In this case, the plaintiff had stated her allegations with enough specificity to put her husband on notice of them, Stroud wrote.

“While plaintiff did not use legalese in her complaint, the attachments were included with the filed complaint and the purpose of each attachment was obvious by the numbers on the attached pages,” Stroud wrote. “Defendant did not contend to the trial court that he did not receive the attached pages with the filed complaint or that they were added after the complaint was filed. Defendant’s argument was simply that the form complaint did not state ‘see attachment” or “see additional.’ But even a brief examination of the complaint reveals that the numbered attachments each relate to a particular paragraph number in the form complaint.”

Stroud said that although the “better practice” would have been to note on the form complaint that additional pages are attached, the complaint included the attachments and made their purpose clear. There was no question that the defendant received the full complaint, and so the trial court should have considered the allegations in the attachments, as the appeals court did, Stroud wrote.

Elysia Prendergast Jones, Suzanne Saucier, Devin Trego, TeAndra Miller, and Celia Pistolis of Legal Aid of North Carolina represented the plaintiff on appeal. Saucier, the lead attorney on the case, said that requests for DVPOs are often filed pro se, and the process is intended to be friendly to pro se litigants. Had the ruling gone the other way, she said, it would have placed a significant burden on domestic violence victims and led to a lot of complaints being dismissed on technical grounds.

“The reason why this case got published is because of the court holding that we don’t have to get mired down in the technicalities of the pleading, Saucier said. “Substance over technicality, or form, is really what this case is about.”

No appellate brief was filed on behalf of the defendant.

The 12-page decision is Quackenbush v. Groat (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-125-20). The full text of the opinion is available online at

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

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