SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION,
PERSONAL JURISDICTION, VENUE &
FORUM NON CONVENIENS
STATE BAR OF TEXAS
14TH ANNUAL ADVANCED PERSONAL INJURY
JULY - AUGUST 1998
CHARLES S. SIEGEL
Attorney at Law
Dallas, Texas 75205
Telephone (214) 522-9111
Facsimile (214) 522-7715
This paper sets out the basic rules in four areas, each having to do with forum selection: subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, venue and forum non conveniens.
Jurisdiction in Texas is a creature of the Texas Constitution, and of statutes. Chenault v. Philips, 914 S.W.2d 140, 141 (Tex. 1996).
There are four trial courts in Texas: district, county, justice and "other." Each type of court has jurisdiction over a specific type of case. Each type can render a judgment for damages. Not all courts, however, can award other relief, such as injunctive relief.
Subject matter jurisdiction essentially is coterminous with the amount in controversy, unless the suit is of a type which is specifically excluded from the subject matter jurisdiction of a paticular court.
A. Calculating the amount in controversy
1. Plaintiff's Pleadings
In Texas the amount in controversy for jurisdictional purposes is determined by the good faith allegations of the plaintiff's pleadings. Smith Detective Agency & Nightwatch Serv., Inc. v. Stanley Smith Sec., Inc., 938 S.W.2d 743, 747 (Tex. App. - Dallas 1996, writ denied).
a. Single plaintiff - single defendant.
In the case of a single plaintiff suing a single defendant, if the plaintiff has brought multiple claims they may be aggregated to arrive at the amount in controversy. See Tex. Gov't Code 24.009; Box v. Associates Inv. Co., 389 S.W.2d 687, 689 (Tex. Civ. App. - Dallas 1965, no writ). Conversely, if a plaintiff has advanced several alternate theories of recovery, the jurisdictional amount is determined by the theory that offers the highest possible recovery. Lacey v. Southeast Tex. Emerg. Physicians Assoc., 802 S.W.2d 300, 302 (Tex. App. - El Paso 1990, writ denied).
b. Multiple plaintiffs - single defendant.
Where there are multiple plaintiffs suing a single defendant, their claims are aggregated to calculate the amount in controversy. Smith v. Clary Corp., 917 S.W.2d 796, 798 (Tex. 1996). Under this rule, a putative class of claimants may aggregate their claims so that the district court will have jurisdiction.
c. Single plaintiff - multiple defendants.
On the other hand, where one plaintiff sues multiple defendants on separate and independent claims, the amounts for each claim may not be aggregated. Each claim is the subject of a separate amount - in - controversy analysis. Borrego v. Palacio, 445 S.W.2d 620, 622 (Tex. Civ. App. - El Paso 1969, no writ).
Texas law recognizes a distinction between what is called interest eo nomine ("interest as interest") and interest as damages. The former refers to that interest which is provided for by agreement or statute; it is part of the underlying debt. This type of interest is excluded from the amount-in-controversy calculation. Conversely, interest which is part of the plaintiff's damages is included. This typically would be interest which is afforded by law for the defendant's failure to pay the debt timely, such as in the case of equitable prejudgment interest. Barnes v. United States Fid. & Guar. Co., 279 S.W.2d 919, 921 (Tex. Civ. App. - Waco 1955, no writ).
e. Attorney's Fees.
Attorney's fees are usually included in the amount in controversy calculation. Long v. Fox, 625 S.W.2d 376, 378 (Tex. App. - San Antonio 1981, writ ref'd n.r.e.). But for cases in the county courts at law, attorney's fees, penalties and punitive damages are excluded by Gov't Code 25.0003 (c)(1).
Like the scenario in which a plaintiff's multiple claims are directed at multiple defendants, counterclaims are also examined singly. Each must meet the amount - in - controversy test independently. See Tex. R. Civ. Proc. 97; Color Tile Inc. v. Ramsey, 905 S.W.2d 620, 623 (Tex. App. - Houston [14th Dist.] 1995, no writ). A counterclaimant may not piggyback her counterclaim on the plaintiff's properly brought claim. A counterclaim which exceeds the jurisdictional limit for a particular court should be dismissed. Kitchen Designs, Inc. v. Wood, 584 S.W.2d 305, 307 (Tex. App. - Texarkana 1979, writ ref'd n.r.e.).
3. Actions for injunctive relief
Actions for injunctive relief are properly brought in district court and are not dependent upon an amount in controversy to fix jurisdiction. Super X Drugs, Inc. v. State, 505 S.W.2d 333, 336 (Tex. Civ. App. - Houston [14th Dist.] 1974, no writ).
After a court has become vested with jurisdiction, a subsequent event generally will not divest the court of that jurisdiction. Continental Coffee Prods. Co. v. Casarez, 937 S.W.2d 444, 449 (Tex. 1996). Jurisdictional amount is determined by the initial pleadings. A subsequent amendment lifting the amount in controversy above the jurisdictional ceiling will not divest the court of jurisdiction if the additional damages are the result of the mere passage of time. Mr. W. Fireworks, Inc. v. Mitchell, 622 S.W.2d 576, 577 (Tex. 1981). However, if a plaintiff delays in adding a claim which could have been brought at the outset, and its subsequent addition brings the total amount in controversy over the limit, the added claim should be dismissed. Hawkins v. Anderson, 672 S.W.2d 293, 296 (Tex. App. - Dallas 1984, no writ).
B. District Courts.
The Texas Constitution gives the district courts exclusive, original and appellate jurisdiction over all actions except where the Constitution or other law confers jurisdiction on another tribunal. See Const. art. 5, 8; Gov't Code 24.007-008, 24.011. This jurisdiction is sometimes called "residual" jurisdiction -- i.e. jurisdiction over all cases not within the purview of the county or justice courts.
1. Constitutional district courts
The district courts have jurisdiction in cases where more than $500 is in controversy. Peek v. Equipment Serv. Co., 779 S.W.2d 802, 803-04 n. 4 (Tex. 1989). There is no upper limit to the district court's jurisdiction, unlike in the case of the other courts. Gov't Code. 25.0003 (c), 26.042 (d), 27.031.
b. The district court's jurisdiction is concurrent with other courts' in the following amounts:
- $500 - $5,000 (justice court)
- $500 - $5,000 (constitutional county court)
- $500 - $100,000 (statutory county court)
2. Legislative District Courts.
In addition to the constitutional district courts, the Legislature has the authority to create other courts which it deems necessary. Tex. Const. art 5, 1. The Legislature has created family district courts to handle a variety of family law matters. These courts have jurisdiction equal to that of the district courts, but have primary responsibility for divorce, annulment, child conservatorship and support matters. See Gov't Code 24.601 (a); Beach v. Beach, 912 S.W.2d 345, 347 n. 3 (Tex. App. - Houston [14th Dist.] 1995, no writ).
C. County Courts.
Every Texas county has a constitutional county court which also serves as the office of the chief administrator. Pursuant to Tex. Const. art. 5, 16, these county courts have jurisdiction provided by statute. Gov't Code 26.041-44, 26.048, 26.050-51; Tex. Civ. Pra. & Rem. Code 51.001-002, 61.021-022.
The constitutional county courts have original jurisdiction for those cases where the amount in controversy is between $200 and $5,000. Gov't. Code 26.042(a).
Pursuant to the Probate Code, 4 & 5 (b) and 605, the constitutional county courts have original jurisdiction of probate and guardianship matters.
c. Appellate jurisdiction
Under Gov't Code 26.042(e), these courts have appellate jurisdiction over cases from justice or small claims courts in which the judgment exceeds $20. The "appeal" is a trial de novo.
In isolated instances the Legislature has given specific constitutional county courts jurisdiction over specifically enumerated matters.
D. Statutory Probate Courts.
The Legislature has established statutory probate courts with nearly exclusive probate jurisdiction. Green v. Watson, 860 S.W.2d 238, 242 (Tex. App. - Austin 1993, no writ).
1. Overlapping Jurisdiction.
In a county that has a statutory probate court as well as a constitutional county court, both may hear probate matters. Gov't Code 25.003(e). Upon a proper motion the constitutional county court shall transfer the probate matter to the statutory probate court. Probate Code 5(c). In counties without statutory probate courts, probate matters shall be heard in the constitutional county courts.
2. Matters Involving Representative.
The Probate Code, 5A(c)-(e), vests in courts with original probate jurisdiction, jurisdiction concurrent with that of the district courts in cases by or against a personal representative, as well as for actions involving inter vivos, charitable or testamentary trusts. These cases do not have to be "appertaining to or incident to an estate." Palmer v. Coble Wall Trust Co., 851 S.W.2d 178, 181-82 (Tex. 1992).
3. Matters Appertaining or Incident to An Estate.
In addition to the types of suits discussed immediately above, the Probate Code also gives those courts with original probate jurisdiction the power to hear all matters "appertaining to or incident to" an estate. Probate Code
5(c). This type of case is one in which the controlling issue is the settlement, partition or distribution of the estate. Palmer, 851 S.W.2d at 181. Because, as just noted, courts exercising original probate jurisdiction also have jurisdiction over claims by or against the personal representative, it is only necessary to determine whether a matter is "appertaining to or incident to" an estate when the personal representative is not a party to the suit.
4. Which Court has Priority.
If a suit is filed first in the probate court its jurisdiction becomes dominant over that of any other court. Bailey v. Cherokee Cty. Appr. Dist., 862 S.W. 2d 581, 586 (Tex. 1993). If an action pertains, or is incident, to an estate, and is filed in another court, it can be dismissed upon a plea to the first court's jurisdiction. Speer v. Stover, 685 S.W.2d 22, 23 (Tex. 1985). The probate court can transfer to itself any cause of action, pertaining to or incident to an estate, which is pending in that probate court. Henry v. Lagrove, 842 S.W.2d 324, 327 (Tex. App. - Amarillo 1992, orig. proceeding.).
E. Justice Courts.
1. General Jurisdiction
These courts are established by Tex. Const. art. 5, 19, provide juries and have jurisdiction over cases involving small dollar amounts. Gov't Code 27.031(a)(1) limits the jurisdiction of these courts to amounts in controversy of not more than $5,000. They also have exclusive original jurisdiction over matters involving less than $200. Up to their limit of $5,000, justice courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the district and county courts.
2. Forcible Entry and Detainer.
Justice courts also have original jurisdiction over forcible entry and detainer actions in the precinct where the disputed real property is located. Gov't Code 27.031 (a)(2); Property Code 24.004. Forcible entry and detainer actions determine the right to possession of particular property. If the accompanying claim for unpaid rent on the property exceeds the justice court's jurisdictional limit, the rent claim may not be brought in the same proceeding. Haginas v. Malbis Mem. Found, 354 S.W.2d 368, 371 (Tex. 1962). However, if the amount in controversy is within the court's jurisdictional limit, justice courts can foreclose mortgages and enforce liens on personal property. Gov't Code 27.031 (a)(3).
G. Small Claims.
A justice of the peace may function as the judge of a small claims court, which operates according to less formal rules. Gov't Code 28.002. A small claims court has jurisdiction up to $5,000. Gov't Code 28.003(a).
H. Challenging Jurisdiction
1. Plea to the jursdiction
A defendant challenges the jurisdiction of the court selected by the plaintiff by filing a "plea to the jurisdiction." Such a plea asserts that the plaintiff's petition shows on its face that it is outside the court's jurisdiction. It should be noted that governmental imunity and preemption defenses are both jurisdictional in nature and should be raised by a plea to the jurisdiction. Southlake Life Ins. Co. v. Estate of Small, 806 S.W.2d 800, 801 (Tex. 1991).
When evaluating a plea to the jurisdiction, a plaintiff's allegations are taken as true, and the pleadings are construed in the plaintiff's favor. Texas Ass'n of Bus. v. Texas Air Control Bd., 852 S.W.2d 440, 446 (1993); Firemen's Ins. Co. v. Board of Regents of the U.T. Sys., 909 S.W.2d 540, 542 (Tex. App. -- Austin 1995, writ denied).
2. No waiver
Subject matter jurisdiction in Texas courts cannot be waived. Continental Coffee Prods. Co. v. Casarez, 937 S.W.2d 444, 448-9 n. 2 (Tex. 1996). A challenge can be raised by any party or by the court SUA sponte, at any time -- even on appeal. Tullos v. Eaton Corp., 695 S.W.2d 568 (Tex. 1985).
Except in rare cases such as child custody matters, mandamus is not available to review rulings on subject matter jurisdiction; ordinary appeal is the remedy. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc. v. Walker, 787 S.W.2d 954, 955 (Tex. 1990).