Trial court judgments in bench trials must contain findings of fact and conclusions of law. Orders disposing of motions, on the other hand, normally only need findings and conclusions if a party requests that the trial court make them. There are some situations, however, where a trial court should not make findings of fact in an order, even if a party requests them. This is because of the trial court’s particular role in those specific proceedings and the possibility for meaningful appellate review of the trial court’s orders without the inclusion of findings and conclusions. This post explores this exception-to-an-exception regarding findings and conclusions for certain dispositive motions.
Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law
The requirement that a trial court make both findings of fact—the determination of the relevant facts in a lawsuit—and conclusions of law—the application of the legal rule to those facts—is mandatory for judgments in bench trials. Rule 52(a)(1), (3). Clear findings of fact and conclusions of law allows the reader to follow the legal reasoning behind a decision and “allow[s] meaningful review by the appellate courts.” Friday Invs., LLC v. Bally Total Fitness of the Mid-Atl., Inc., 370 N.C. 235, 240–41 (2017) (cleaned up); accord Jones v. Murdock, 20 N.C. App. 746, 747 (1974). Without their inclusion, an appellate court may be unable to determine “whether there was competent evidence to support the trial court’s findings of fact and whether its conclusions of law were proper in light of such facts.” Pineda–Lopez v. North Carolina Growers Association, Inc., 151 N.C. App. 587, 589 (2002).
As discussed below, the default rule for orders on motions is that findings of fact and conclusions of law are not required unless requested. However, “[w]hen requested, the trial court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law must be sufficiently detailed to allow for meaningful appellate review.” Williams v. Allen, 2021-NCCOA-410, ¶ 22.
For Decisions on Motions, Findings and Conclusions Are Normally Only Required if a Party Requests Them
North Carolina Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(2) states that “[f]indings of fact and conclusions of law are necessary on decisions of any motion or order ex mero motu only when requested by a party.”
A recent North Carolina Supreme Court decision reiterates this default rule. In Taylor v. Bank of America, N.A., 2022-NCSC-117, the Supreme Court overturned a Court of Appeals decision remanding a trial court order dismissing a complaint pursuant to N.C. Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The Court of Appeals had determined that it could not “conduct a meaningful review of the trial court’s conclusions of law, and … accordingly reverse[d] and remand[ed] the order for further findings.” Taylor v. Bank of Am., N.A., 2021-NCCOA-556, ¶ 10, vacated and remanded, 2022-NCSC-117, ¶ 10. However, in Taylor, the parties never requested that the trial court make findings of fact and conclusions of law. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals with a straightforward application of the rules of civil procedure: “Pursuant to Rule 52(a)(2) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, a trial court is not required to make factual findings and conclusions of law to support its order unless requested by a party.” Taylor, 2022-NCSC-117, ¶ 8. Because no such request was made, the Supreme Court noted, there was not a “legal basis or practical reason for the Court of Appeals to remand the case to the trial court to make factual findings and conclusions of law.” Id.
There are, of course, exceptions to this default rule. For example, Rule 52(a)(2) explicitly exempts Rule 41(b) dismissals after a plaintiff’s evidence, which always require findings and conclusions. Statutes and caselaw provide many additional exceptional orders that must contain findings of fact and conclusions of law, even if a party does not request them.
This post, however, focuses on an exception to an exception: where even when a party requests findings of fact under Rule 52(a)(2), such findings are still not appropriate.
Exception-To-An-Exception: when findings of fact are inappropriate, even if requested by a party
In Taylor, the NC Supreme Court was asked to consider whether findings and conclusions are required in an order granting a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6); it did not need to reach this question, however, as no party “requested factual findings or conclusions of law.” Taylor, 2022-NCSC-117, ¶¶ 7-8. Although the Supreme Court did not address this question in Taylor, there is an answer as to whether findings of fact are needed in an order granting a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). The answer is no. Our courts of appeal have addressed in several instances the relevance of findings of fact when the trial court is disposing of a matter without acting as a trier of fact. In the following instances, even when a party does request findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Rule 52(a)(2), findings of fact are neither required nor appropriate:
- Rule 56 summary judgment orders
- Rule 12(b)(6) and (c) dismissals
- Rule 50 directed verdicts and judgments notwithstanding the verdict
There are two related reasons that findings of fact are not appropriate in these specific orders.
First, each of these dispositions are determined by a purely legal standard without any factual determination to be made by the trial court. Notwithstanding a party’s request, a trial court should not make findings of fact where the disposition at hand does not, by its nature, include factual determinations. For example, findings of fact are not appropriate in summary judgment orders as “it is no part of the court’s function to decide issues of fact but solely to determine whether there is an issue of fact to be tried.” Craddock v. Craddock, 188 N.C. App. 806, 813 (2008). Indeed, a trial court that makes “findings of fact on summary judgment … demonstrates to the appellate courts a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of summary judgment proceedings.” War Eagle, Inc. v. Belair, 204 N.C. App. 548, 552 (2010). Similarly, a “court is not required to find facts in a judgment on the pleadings since the facts determining disposition are those alleged in the pleadings.” United Virginia Bank v. Air-Lift Assocs., Inc., 79 N.C. App. 315, 323 (1986) (cleaned up). Likewise, when addressing a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the trial court assumes the facts alleged in the pleading to be true, and as a result, courts of appeal are “not bound” by any purported findings of fact by the trial court. White v. White, 296 N.C. 661, 667 (1979); see also Tuwamo v. Tuwamo, 248 N.C. App. 441, 446–47 (2016) (“Of course, neither an order for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) nor a summary judgment order should include findings of fact.”)
Secondly, because the disposition of these motions, by their nature, does not involve factual determinations by the trial court, the standard of review on appeal is a de novo standard. Findings of fact and conclusions of law by the trial court, therefore, are not necessary to meaningful appellate review of these orders. For example, “a trial court cannot make ‘findings of fact’ conclusive on appeal on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6)” as “[t]he only purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is to test the legal sufficiency of the pleading against which it is directed.” White v. White, 296 N.C. 661, 667, 252 S.E.2d 698, 702 (1979). When an appellate court conducts a de novo review of a trial court order, “the purpose for requiring findings of fact and conclusions of law under Rule 52—to allow meaningful appellate review—does not arise,” as the appellate court will “freely substitute [its] judgment for that of the trial court regardless of whether the trial court made findings of fact and conclusions of law.” N. Carolina Indus. Cap., LLC v. Clayton, 185 N.C. App. 356, 370–71 (2007) (rejecting findings of fact and conclusions of law in a Rule 50 order).
Thus, for these particular orders, which are decided without the trial court resolving any disputes of fact, findings of fact and conclusions of law are neither appropriate nor necessary for the corresponding de novo appellate review.