NC Court of Appeals clarifies requirements to create a binding oral stipulation in the Family Court.
Many times legal disputes (including domestic relations) are resolved on the proverbial “courthouse steps” without first reducing the agreement to writing. While this is not a preferred method of settlement, it is sometimes the only way to get a case resolved.
But what happens if, after an oral stipulation in court is made resolving the case, one of the parties changes their mind and wants to withdraw their consent and proceed to trial. This issue was addressed by the NC Court of Appeals in a published opinion released today in the matter of VINAYA MADDUKURI v. NIRUPAMA CHINTANIPPU, Mecklenburg County, No. 16-CVD-2703.
In this matter, after a 3 day trial the parties stipulated to an oral agreement resolving a majority of the issues between them and set the terms of their stipulation on the record. Several years later, the parties were unable to resolve the remaining issues and Husband withdrew his consent to the stipulation and asserted claims inconsistent with his oral stipulation. The trial court then set the matter for trial on the remaining issues, which resulted in a final judgement. Wife appealed claiming that the stipulated agreement should have been upheld and the matter tried on only the contested issues.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court and clarified when a stipulated agreement was binding and when it was not.
The court first ruled that an oral stipulation to a settlement is enforceable when “…the trial court made contemporaneous inquiries of the parties at the time the stipulations were entered into…” In this matter, only the Husband was on record as agreeing to the terms of the stipulation, while Wife (the complaining party on appeal) was silent.
Next, the court re-stated the rule that when properly entering a consent order “… the parties’ consent to the terms must still subsist at the time the court is called upon to sign the consent judgment. If a party repudiates the agreement by withdrawing consent before entry of the judgment, the trial court is without power to sign the judgment.” In this case, clearly the judgement was signed by the trial court well after Husband withdrew his consent.
So how could this be avoided?
First, the trial judge could have done a better job in protecting the record. All testimony in court, especially when it comes to qualifying a settlement stipulation, should be clearly articulated by both parties and made part of the record of that case. Had Wife’s responses to the court been made a part of the record the trial several years later would not have happened.
Second, Husband’s lawyer at the time of the stipulation could also have done a better job in protecting the record by requiring that Wife’s testimony be made loud and clear and that it was part of the record in the case.
Had Wife’s testimony at the time of the stipulation been part of the court record, it is very likely that the oral stipulation would have been affirmed on appeal.
Hope you find this post helpful,
Be well and stay safe,
Guy Vitetta, Charleston