Sunday, April 27, 2014

Jurisdictional Jousting

Cameron v. Rollo, 2014 VT 40

By Andrew Delaney

Jurisdictional appeals are rarely interesting, but this one may prove the exception to that rule.

Here’s the skinny: wife files for divorce against husband. But there’s a problem. Wife was still married to her first husband even though she thought she was divorced. So, the current marriage is void. The family division closes the case, and then kicks the can to the civil division on property issues. No kids.

Husband follows instructions and files a couple small-claims cases. He wins one, loses the other. He appeals the one he loses and the civil division rules that neither the civil division nor the small-claims division have jurisdiction over the marital property—accordingly, the family division must decide the property issues. Husband sought review in the SCOV.

The majority limits its review to “the legal question of which court has jurisdiction to distribute property under the circumstances of this case.”

It’s a de novo review. The majority begins by noting that property division in divorce proceedings is statutorily authorized and that “[n]o statutory provision denies parties whose marriage is subject to an annulment access to property division by the family division.” The majority also notes that the “only objection to an order dividing property is conceptual.” In other words, a void marriage is a nullity from its inception, and that’s what underlies the family division’s refusal to divide property in this case.

The majority notes that children born of an annulled marriage are still deemed legitimate, because children can hardly be held responsible for their parents’ illegitimate marriage, you know? The same general concept applies when a couple acts as married—believing they are legitimately married—and accumulates property at the same rate as other married couples. This means that the family division is the best forum in which to decide these uniquely family-law-centric issues.

The majority acknowledges the dissent’s concern that the majority’s reasoning reopens the litigation door long after a case is decided—the dissent argues in effect, the majority’s reasoning kicks everything back a couple years and undoes otherwise legitimate final judgments. The majority notes that the family division has exclusive jurisdiction over family-law matters, and points to a plainly-beyond-the-subject-matter-jurisdiction exception to the finality-of-judgments rule. The majority explains its reasoning in these terms: “In holding that the family division has exclusive jurisdiction over the division of marital property in such cases, we seek to discourage exactly the type of collateral litigation filed in successive cases by this defendant.”

Justice Dooley, joined by Justice Robinson, dissents. For the dissent “this case is really about the preclusive effect of subject matter jurisdiction determinations and . . . treatment of litigants.” In the dissent’s view, the majority simply ignores those issues, and while the dissent acknowledges that the majority’s addressed issue is legitimate, the dissent reasons that the issues the majority ignores are essential.

The dissent notes that “[t]he concept that a court can act only when it has subject matter jurisdiction over the matter in issue is fundamental to our justice system.” Though an appellate decision that a lower court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction may be technically correct, undoing the underlying decision is unjust in many instances. Here, the dissent reasons that the lack of subject-matter jurisdiction is no more than a technicality.

The dissent laments that “[t]he majority provides no analysis of how this case meets the” exception to the finality-of-judgments rule on which it relies. Though this case is styled as a case considering whether an annulment gives rise to property-division jurisdiction in the family division, the dissent reasons that this action actually is “a conversion action with respect to property owned by plaintiff and possessed at one time by defendant but not in either’s possession at the time of the annulment.”

In the dissent’s view, applying the exception to the final-judgment rule “creates an exception to issue preclusion so broad as to eat up the rule and bring us back to the days of raising lack of subject matter jurisdiction over and over.” According to the dissent: “Subject matter jurisdiction here is virtually a technicality. We are dealing with two divisions of the superior court. No matter which division is involved, the judge will come from the same pool, and the law applied will be the same.”

The dissent also notes that the small-claims division provides a less-technical forum for resolving disputes. The majority’s opinion contravenes that simplicity: “There is nothing simple, informal, or inexpensive about a process in which a litigant has to spend years to get an answer to a straightforward dispute, pay three filing fees—four under the majority’s decision—and end up fighting pro se a court decision that cites appellate decisions and statutes from six states and a law review article.”

In the dissent’s view (paraphrased by yours truly) the parties deserve a rest and the case was essentially over until the civil division raised a subject-matter-jurisdiction zombie.

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