RALEIGH – In a very unusual rebuke, the N.C. Court of Appeals sanctioned the N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office Friday for using delaying tactics in the case of a seven-year-old Sampson County girl struck and killed as she exited her school bus. State taxpayers may be on the hook for the legal expenses brought on by the delays by Special Deputy Attorney General Staci T. Meyer, head of the Attorney General’s tort claims section, and another lawyer in Cooper’s office.
“It has been absolutely, incredibly frustrating to deal with all of these frivolous appeals,” said Cara Luther, an attorney for the family of Alyiah Morgan, the first-grade girl killed in the accident. “It just makes absolutely no sense and has been unfair and tortuous for the family. It’s been a total waste of taxpayers’ money and has been unnecessary and appalling.”
Cooper’s office declined to comment on this story.
A tragic death, a prison sentence and a lawsuit
In 2013, Alyiah Morgan got off her school bus near the Sampson County town of Harrells and tried to cross the road to where her mother waited for her. A log truck passed the stopped school bus and struck her. The truck driver received a 19-year prison sentence for his role in her tragic death, but Alyiah’s relatives also believe the school bus driver should not have let her exit the bus. They sued the school system in 2014.
The case has not been a slam dunk for Brenda Merritt, Alyiah’s mother. The Industrial Commission, a body that oversees tort claims against state agencies, has denied some of the Merritt’s legal motions and granted some. Both sides have had small victories and small defeats in the case. But regardless of whether Sampson County’s Board of Education is ever held liable for damages, the state’s taxpayers will be footing the bill for the legal counsel provided by the Attorney General, whose office acts as the board’s lawyers.
A string of “frivolous” delays leads to sanction
The appeals court sanctioned the Attorney General’s office based on a May petition by Alyiah’s lawyers that claimed unfair delays. “At each and every stage of the proceedings the defendant/appellant sought a delay of the proceedings to delay the final resolution of this case,” the petition stated.
By that time, the Attorney General’s office was appealing the denial of petition to review the denial of an appeal of a Dec. 5, 2014 Industrial Commission ruling. The entire, confusing record of appeals, and the delay of a case that Luther feels sure would otherwise already have gone to trial or been settled by now, stems from the refusal of the state to provide one witness for a deposition.
“There’s just no explanation for this type of behavior,” Luther said. “It’s outside what anyone would expect, particularly in a case like this when a seven-year-old child was killed crossing the street to get to her home upon exiting her school bus.”
A sanction with monetary damages by an appeals court in the middle of a case is an extremely unusual occurrence, according to legal experts. While delaying a case is a time-honored tactic in tort cases, the Court of Appeals decided that the Attorney General’s office went far too far in this instance. Sanctions are usually imposed on parties representing themselves who are not lawyers and do not know the proper way to navigate the legal system. Even then, sanctions are rarely monetary – they often extend to no more than the dismissal of a motion that was improperly filed, legal experts say.
Delays large and small
The string of appeals in the case was not the only delays Alyiah’s lawyers faced, according to court filings. The plaintiffs say they have been stymied in small things as well.
Even before the November 2014 order that sparked the chain of appeals, lawyers for Alyiah’s mother were upset at the way the case was being handled by opposing counsel. Diane Moore, one of the attorneys, wrote an email on Oct. 7, 2014 complaining of unnecessary delays:
“Although ordered to provide the prosecution file immediately after it was received, defendant sent the documents by U.S. Mail refusing to utilize the Federal Express prepaid account offered by plaintiff thereby delaying plaintiff’s receipt of these documents until after depositions were arranged. Upon reviewing those documents additional depositions must be taken in time for plaintiff’s experts to be able to use the materials and without delaying the trial of this case.”
Staci Meyer is the head of Cooper’s tort claims section and is the attorney named in the motion for sanctions. Meyer, 54, is no novice. She has worked for Attorney General Roy Cooper for more than a decade and earns an annual salary of $112,730. Associate Attorney General Laura Askins has also worked on the case. Cooper has been North Carolina’s Attorney General since 2001 and has announced he will try to unseat Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016.
A spokesman for the Industrial Commission said that neither the chairman nor the commission can comment on pending litigation, but did say that J. Brad Donovan, a deputy commissioner, “has given the parties until November 30 to submit briefs and proposed orders regarding the amount and nature of sanctions.”