Jurisdiction is the authority of a Court to hear the case and render a judgment. A Texas Court has to have jurisdiction in order to hear a case. The Court system at the Texas state level may be divided into the following: (a) Justice Courts, (b) County Courts, (c) County Courts at Laws, (d) District Courts, and (e) Family District Courts. A case must be filed in the proper Court. Failure to file the case in Court which holds proper jurisdiction over the matter will normally have the suit “thrown out,” either by the opposing party’s motion, or, on the motion of the Court itself, the latter is called sua sponte. (The good news is that if a party has a suit dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction, their statute of limitations tolls for 60 days, provided that no fraud was involved on that party’s behalf in filing with the wrong court.)
Jurisdiction is controlled by three concepts: subject matter, amount in controversy, and personal jurisdiction. The Court has to have jurisdiction under all three of those concepts in order to hear the case. This often becomes confusing to parties because these concepts are intertwining and nuanced. Being aware of them before filing will save a party a lot of time and worry. In addition, one has to understand the difference between “jurisdiction” and “venue.” Jurisdiction is the power of the Court to hear a case, whereas venue is the place where the case may be heard. Venue will will be discussed separately in a future blog entry.
Finally, this blog entry does not discuss family-related cases and will only focus on general civil jurisdiction. Family cases have their own specific jurisdictional issues which shall be the topic of a future blog entry.
SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION
Subject matter is the ability of the Court to hear a case base on the subject of the suit. The following suits are to be filed exclusively in District Court: defamation (libel and slander) suits, cases in regards to interest in land and title to land, election contests, and disbarment of an attorney.
Evictions are filed in Justice of the Peace Court wherein they are called “Forcible Entry and Detainer” suits. However, if damages (back rent or damage to the property by the tenant) is over $10,000, then District Court has jurisdiction. In addition, if the eviction is intertwined with a suit about interest in the property, then the District Court has jurisdiction.
Suits about eminent domain are filed in County Court at Law in the county where the property is located. If there is no County Court at Law in this county, then the District Court has jurisdiction. However, if there is a County Court at Law and the eminent domain issue includes a title dispute, in many counties, the suit may be transferred to the District Court.
Probate suits are filed in County Court or County Court at Law. If there is no County Court at Law in the county, County Court has jurisdiction. If probate is contested, then the suit may be transferred to County Court at Law or District Court, depending on the county.
Family suits are heard in Family District Court. If there is no such court in the county, District Court has jurisdiction. If the county has no Family District Court or District Court, then the County Court has jurisdiction (this is more common in smaller counties).
District courts maintain the subject matter jurisdiction for all matters that do not by default fall under any other court. This is called residual jurisdiction. What this means is that if no other court, tribunal, or administrative hearing board has jurisdiction over the claim, the District Court is the “fall back” court.
AMOUNT IN CONTROVERSY
Where a suit is filed is also dependent on the amount in question sought by the suit. This is called “amount in controversy” jurisdiction.
Justice of the Peace Court has exclusive amount jurisdiction to hear cases about $500.00 or less. Justice of the Peace Court has amount jurisdiction to hear cases of $10,000.00 or less, including mortgage foreclosures and and liens on personal property where the amount owed is $10,000.00 or less. Justice of the Peace Courts may also hear cases about subdivision deed restrictions that does not concern structural modifications to a dwelling.
County Court has jurisdiction to hear cases of $500.00 to $10,000.00.
County Court at Law has jurisdiction to hear cases $500.00 and up, with the limit (if any) dependent on the county.
District Court has jurisdiction to hear cases of $500.00 and up with no limit.
As can be seen, some courts have an overlap over a case when it comes to amount in controversy jurisdiction. If so, this is called concurrent jurisdiction, and then the Plaintiff has a choice of where to file.
Calculation of the Amount in Controversy
The following should be included in the computation of the amount in controversy jurisdiction:
• Actual damages
• Exemplary (i.e. punitive) damages
• Attorney fees
• Interest as Damages
Note that attorney fees should be in good faith, and not only is it bad practice to use inflated attorney fees to “tip” into another jurisdiction, but it can also give the other party a basis to challenge the jurisdiction if they argue that the attorney fees are in fact inflated.
The following should not be included in the computation of the amount in controversy:
• Legal costs of the court
• Interest eo nomine
The difference between interest as damages (which may be included in the calculation) and interest eo nomine (also called “interest as interest” and which may not be included in the calculation) is subtle but important.
Interest as damages is compensation allowed by statute as additional damages for lost use of the money due as damages during the lapse of time between the accrual of the claim and the date of judgment; whereas, interest eo nomine is compensation allowed by law or fixed by the parties for the use or detention of money.
If the court originally held proper jurisdiction for the case, and while the case was pending, additional damages had been accrued as a result of attorney fees and miscellaneous reasons, the Court continues to have jurisdiction even if the amount in controversy goes above the Court’s original jurisdictional limit. This is called the “passage of time” rule. In a related doctrine, fluxuation in the total amount due to value of the dollar, or, the Plaintiff’s good faith amendment of the suit that may tip the amount over the limit of the Court’s jurisdiction for controversy. If this is the case, then this does not modify jurisdiction after the suit is filed.
In suits that involve causes of actions for recovery of property; writs such as mandamus, sequestration; or suits that are solely focused on injunctions, the amount of controversy is normally calculated by the property which is the question of the suit.
Jurisdictions and Multiple Parties
If there are multiple plaintiffs, then in District Court, the Plaintiffs add up their causes of action together to determine the amount of controversy jurisdiction. In all other courts, the Plaintiffs cannot add up their causes of action together to determine the amount in controversy jurisdiction and the “highest” cause of action controls the sum.
If there are multiple defendants, the claims against them are not added up, and each cause of action must fall within the amount in controversy allowed by the Court. This is true regardless of which Court hears the case.
Jointly or Alternatively
In cases of one Plaintiff versus one Defendant, the causes of action are added up to determine the amount in controversy, unless the Plaintiff pleads alternatively. If the Plaintiff pleads alternatively, then the highest dollar amount cause of action alone controls the amount of controversy.
Joinder actions are when outside parties become involved in the suit. There are three types of joinders:
• Intervention – when a third party files to join an ongoing lawsuit;
• Interpleader – when a party initiates a lawsuit in order to compel two or more other parties to litigate a dispute; and
• Impleader – when a party in the lawsuit joins a third party involuntarily because that third party is liable to an original defendant.
In cases of intervention, the interventor may become part of the main suit if their cause(s) of action fall(s) under the amount in controversy jurisdiction of the Court. If the interventor’s cause(s) of action is/are less than the amount in controversy of the main suit the interventor is filing to intervene in, then the interventor’s cause(s) of action suit is considered ancillary and the Court may take jurisdiction of the suit.
In cases of an interpleader, the amount in controversy is decided by the amount interpleaded by the Plaintiff (normally placed into the purse of the Court).
In cases of an impleader, the amount of controversy is decided by the doctrine of multiple defendants (as discussed prior in Jurisdiction and Multiple Parties).
In addition to subject matter jurisdiction and amount in controversy, there is another important concept called personal jurisdiction. Whereas subject matter jurisdiction and amount in controversy demand that the Court has the power to hear the suit under the laws of the jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction is the requirement that Defendant has certain minimal contact within the jurisdiction over which the Court that the suit is filed in controls.
In Personam jurisdiction refers to the Court having jurisdiction over a party due to that party’s actions that are within the Court’s jurisdiction or has minimal contacts in the jurisdiction to fall under the Court’s power. In personam jurisdiction has been codified under Texas law under Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 17.042:
(1) contracts by mail or otherwise with a Texas resident and either party is to perform the contract in whole or in part in this state;
(2) commits a tort in whole or in part in this state; or
(3) recruits Texas residents, directly or through an intermediary located in this state, for employment inside or outside this state.
In Rem jurisdiction refers to the Court having jurisdiction over property, most commonly but not exclusively real estate. This is most often cited in suits where interest in the property is debated, foreclosures, or other such seizures.
Quasi in Rem
Quasi In Rem jurisdiction is an alternative to in personam jurisdiction (controversy over a party’s actions) or in rem jurisdiction (controversy over the interest of property). Even if the Court may lack jurisdiction over the Defendant via in personam or in rem, it can claim jurisdiction over the defendant’s property via quasi in rem. A party’s property could be seized at initiation of a suit. If a suit under quasi in rem is filed, this in essence forces a party to appear in Court to answer the suit, or to risk losing the property attached. Quasi in rem jurisdiction has been largely diluted and made ineffective under common law, and nowadays mostly refers to the Court having jurisdiction to seize property in the Court’s geographical location to satisfy a judgment.