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Deadlines in Family Law Litigation – What You Need to Know

February 29, 2016 John W. Narron

Often in the world of courts and litigation, participants have to meet certain deadlines to file documents, make payments, and produce certain items. Rules of Civil Procedure are designed to specify these deadlines, but at the same time, the rules frequently provide ways for litigating parties to obtain extensions of time, thereby extending the deadlines.

One of the most common deadline extensions encountered in litigation is the extension of time to file an answer once a complaint has been filed against a defendant. It is routine in most cases for a defendant to obtain at least a 30-day extension, thereby giving the defendant 60 days to respond to the complaint rather than 30 days.  Also, in many situations where parties are engaged in discovery, it is common for the responding party to obtain extensions under the Rules of Civil Procedure.

However, when a deadline is set by a Court order or judgment, the traditions and rules on obtaining extensions of time are quite different. Recently, the North Carolina Court of Appeals considered this very issue in the case of Gandhi v. Gandhi.  In the Gandhicase, the defendant-husband was ordered by the court to pay $590,000.00 to the plaintiff-wife within 30 days of the entry of the order.  If he did not do so within 30 days, his total payout would increase by $110,000 to $700,000.

In response to that order, the defendant-husband paid plaintiff-wife $400,000.00 of the $590,000 relatively quickly but did not pay the remaining balance of $190,000.00 within the 30-day deadline period required by the court order. Eight days after the deadline, the defendant-husband offered to pay the $190,000.00 remaining, but the plaintiff-wife declined to accept the $190,000.00 payment, instead insisting that she was entitled to the total of $700,000.00 as prescribed by the court order since the husband was late in making the payment.

The plaintiff-wife and her attorney filed a motion with the District Court, asking that the defendant-husband be held in contempt for noncompliance with the court order. After much delay, the trial court, citing Rule 6(b), determined that the defendant-husband had done his best to make the payment within 30 days and therefore was not required to pay the additional $110,000.00.  This decision by the trial court, which in essence forgave the defendant-husband for being 8 days late with his payment, was appealed by the plaintiff-wife to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals came down hard, ruling that 30 days means 30 days unless it is otherwise extended. The court reviewed various rules allowing extensions of time and determined that Rule 6(b) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides for extensions of time, only applies to those deadlines established by the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, not to deadlines established by court orders. In this case, the specific deadline was imposed by court order and not by one of the Rules of Civil Procedure. Therefore, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court made an error when it extended the husband’s deadline on the basis of Rule 6(b).

The Court of Appeals did point out that there were procedures available to the husband that he could have invoked to obtain the extension of time that he needed. Rules 59 and 60 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure specifically provide a method to request that a court modify a judgment. In this case, it appears that had the husband filed a Rule 60 motion promptly upon finding out that he could not obtain the funds within 30 days such a motion might have been granted. However, in this situation the husband did not request relief pursuant to Rules 59 or 60 and instead made an oral motion in court at the conclusion of the hearing for the extension citing Rule 6(b). The Court of Appeals concluded firmly that this was not the correct procedure, and the husband in this case owed the wife the additional $110,000.00 because he did not pay her the full $590,000.00 within the 30 days specified in the District Court’s order.

The lesson coming from the Gandhi v. Gandhi decision is clear. When a deadline is imposed upon someone by a court order, the only way to obtain an extension or modification of that deadline is through a Rule 59 or 60 motion to modify the court’s order, citing in support of the motion one of the reasons stated in those rules for obtaining such a modification.

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