Between Judge Bradley Letts’ denial of the plaintiff-lessor’s motion for summary judgment and Judge Daniel Kuehnert’s grant of judgment for the lessor as a matter of law, the only significant change was the lessor’s assertion of a claim for compensatory damages. Judge Kuehnert lacked the authority to overrule Judge Letts’ order.
We vacate Judge Kuehnert’s judgment in favor of the lessor.
A lease allowed lessee Ruth Owens, “or the survivor of the Lessee,” to live on a campground in exchange for maintaining the campground. The lease allowed Ruth’s children to live with her, and defendant William Owens did so. After Ruth became unable to maintain the campground, William took over her duties, at least for a time.
The lessor filed this action alleging defendants were in breach of the lease and seeking a declaratory judgment as to the rights of the parties under the lease. Ruth passed away.
The lessor moved for summary judgment. Judge Letts denied the motion.
The lessor amended its complaint to voluntarily dismiss its claims against Ruth and to assert a claim for compensatory damages against William. Thereafter, Judge Kuehnert granted summary judgment for the lessor.
One superior court judge may not correct another’s errors, and ordinarily one judge may not modify, overrule, or change the judgment of another superior court judge previously made in the same action. A trial court judge has the authority to modify an interlocutory order only when there is a showing of changed conditions which warrant such action.
Judge Letts’ order definitively concluded that neither party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law regarding William’s rights in the lease. Judge Kuehnert considered this issue a second time and incongruously concluded, as a matter of law, that William did not have any rights in the lease.
The record reveals no change in circumstances that permitted Judge Kuehnert to reverse Judge Letts’ decision. Neither the lessor’s dismissal of its claims against Ruth nor its addition of a compensatory damages claim had any bearing on the legal issue of whether William had any rights in the lease. Because Judge Letts had concluded that the case could not be resolved as a matter of law, Judge Kuehnert did not have the authority to enter a contrary order.
William was not required to preserve for appeal his argument that Judge Kuehnert had no authority to overturn Judge Letts’ order. Judge Kuehnert’s authority to make a declaratory judgment is a question of subject matter jurisdiction, which may be raised at any time.
Adventure Trail of Cherokee, Inc. v. Owens (Lawyers Weekly No. 012-523-22, 10 pp.) (Jefferson Griffin, J.) Appealed from Jackson County Superior Court (Daniel Kuehnert, J.) Shira Hedgepeth for plaintiff; Mark Hayes for defendant. 2022-NCCOA-850