With which court do I file my civil action, the Massachusetts Superior Court, the Massachusetts District Court, or the Small Claims Session?
1 October 2014
One of the first decisions that a plaintiff has to make after they decide to file suit is which court in Massachusetts to file their case in. This is not as easy as one may think in many cases.
There are some general rules. Superior Court has jurisdiction over cases involving $25,000 or more. Mass. Gen. Laws c. 212 § 3. District Court has a procedural limit of no more than $25,000. Notice that I switched from the word jurisdiction to “procedural limit.” This is because if a case is filed in the District Court that involves over $25,000.00 it can still go forward in the District Court, unless, the defendant properly objects, or, less likely, the judge independently removes the case. Sperounes v. Farese, 419 Mass. 800, 804-07 (2003). (Debt collectors frequently sue for over $25,000 in the District Court and hope there is no objection.). The case can be dismissed based on the procedural limit, but the District Court has jurisdiction the whole time. Id. If the case stays in the District Court the District Court is empowered to issue judgment for any amount, including one over $25,000. Id. This difference in procedural amount is one reason the Superior Court is perceived as a “higher court” but they are both trial courts for the most part.
Another traditional distinction relates to equity jurisdiction. Equity, as opposed to legal, or at law, relief. This distinction goes back to English history that had courts of law and courts of equity (a.k.a. courts of chancery), each having different and distinct powers. Generally, a court of equity has the power to order someone to do something or not do something, a court of law has the power to order money damages.
In Massachusetts, the Superior Court has traditionally been the court with equity jurisdiction, but in recent history the law changed in Massachusetts to provide the District Court equity power in cases that had a legal component/claim to it. Mass. Gen. Laws c. 218 § 19C. It also appears that one can bring a claim that normally could only be brought in the Superior Court if they also bring a claim that is permitted in the District Court in the same case. Ravnikar v. Bogojavlensky, 438 Mass. 627 (2003).
As with most of the law in Massachusetts, there are exceptions to the general rule. For example, there are some special circumstances where the Superior Court has exclusive jurisdiction, even if money damages are sought. Some are: 1) actions under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act; 2) claims against Massachusetts; 3) claims under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act; and 4) actions for negligence involving alcohol. Mass. Gen. Laws. c. 258; c. 212 § 3; c. 12 § 11H; c. 231 §60J.
There are also rare exceptions where the District Court has equity jurisdiction even though there is not a money damages (at law) component to the case. Some subjects are: 1) sanitary code/unfit buildings; 2) lead paint poisoning prevention; 3) appeals from zoning boards; and 4) illegal entry onto land. Mass. Gen. Laws c. 219 §19C; c.111 § 198; c. 40A § 17; c. 184 § 18.
Making matters more difficult, there are also myths that circulate about what types of claims have to be brought where. One you will often hear is that defamation actions may only be brought in Superior Court. This is not true. Ravnikar v. Bogojavlensky, 438 Mass. 627 (2003). The district court is the proper court for defamation actions in Massachusetts. Id. It is true that defamation cases are not permitted in the small claims session that is technically a part of the District Court, which may be the bit of truth the myth is based on.
With respect to the small claims session, its jurisdictional limit was recently raised to $7,000! Discovery is available, but rare to occur. The rules of evidence are relaxed, such as hearsay is generally admissible. It is a much faster moving court, with decisions taking months, rather than the years sometimes that can pass before you can obtain a judgment in either the Superior Court or the District Court.
In the event that you file in the wrong court, the court may transfer it. It can also be a signal that you have not done your homework before filing your case. For these reasons, it is important to file your case in the right court. If you need legal help in deciding what court is appropriate for you claim, feel free to give this office a call.