In 2004, the Legislature enacted a Statewide one-trial system for civil cases. St. 2004, c. 252. It provided that a civil case could proceed to trial in the District Court "only if there is no reasonable likelihood that recovery by the plaintiff will exceed $25,000," G. L. c. 218, § 19. The statute also provides that a judge in the District Court "may dismiss the case without
The question presented is one of statutory construction, that is, whether under the one-trial system a District Court judge has the discretion to permit a case to proceed to trial in the District Court where there is no reasonable likelihood that the estimated damages will be consistent with, that is, below, the $25,000 threshold. We conclude that the $25,000 limitation is a procedural rather than jurisdictional requirement, but that a judge has no discretion to refuse to dismiss such an action where a party makes a timely objection and the judge is satisfied that there is no reasonable likelihood that recovery by the plaintiff will not exceed $25,000. In the absence of a timely objection, a judge in the District Court has the discretion sua sponte to dismiss the action or allow it to proceed.
1. Background. a. Farese's claim in the District Court. Alfred Paul Farese, in his capacity as trustee of ALPFA Realty Trust, filed suit against Paul Sperounes, individually and as trustee and officer of Python Inc., for breach of a commercial lease and damage caused to the leased property.
b. The civil "one-trial" system. Until 1996, the District Court handled civil matters under the "remand-removal" system. Under that system, cases filed in the Superior Court with a claim for $25,000 or less were transferred to the District Court for a bench trial. G. L. c. 231, § 102C, as amended through St. 1986, c. 278, § 1. A party aggrieved by the District Court judgment could then seek retransfer of the matter to the Superior Court for a de novo jury trial. Id. Cases filed in the District Court seeking damages of $25,000 or less would proceed to a bench trial in the District Court and the aggrieved party could then appeal to the Superior Court for a de novo jury trial. G. L. c. 231, § 104, as amended through St. 1987, c. 251, § 2. A plaintiff who filed a case in the District Court for more than $25,000 risked waiving his right to a jury trial in the Superior Court unless he took certain steps to preserve the right. G. L. c. 231, § 103, as appearing in St. 1987, c. 251, § 1. See M.G. Perlin & J.M. Connors, Civil Procedure in the Massachusetts District Court § 2.9, at 47-48 (3d ed. 2003) (Perlin). Similarly, a defendant in such a case lost his right to a jury trial unless he removed the case to the Superior Court before the trial in the District Court commenced. G. L. c. 231, §§ 103, 104. See J.S. Berg, Rough Justice to Due Process — The District Courts of Massachusetts 1869-2004, 100-101 (Mass. Continuing Legal Educ. 2004) (Berg). Under this system, both the Superior and District Court Departments had jurisdiction over matters involving any amount of damages and the District Court was able to award more than $25,000 in damages, just as the Superior Court could award less. See Haddad v. Pulaski, 36 Mass.App.Ct. 964 (1994); Perlin, supra, § 2.3, at 39-40 n.7.
The remand-removal system was created because civil juries were historically unavailable in the District Court and the Massachusetts Constitution provides for the right to a jury trial in
In 1996, the Legislature approved an act establishing a one-trial system for civil cases and abolishing the remand-removal system in Norfolk and Middlesex counties on an experimental basis. St. 1996, c. 358. Under this new system, tort and contract actions seeking money damages where there was no reasonable likelihood of recovery greater than $25,000 were required to be filed in the District Court, and all others were to be filed in the Superior Court. Id. at § 4. District Courts were authorized to conduct jury trials with six jurors — instead of with twelve, as in the Superior Court — and were granted the same equity jurisdiction as the Superior Court in money damage actions. Id. at §§ 3, 8. Appeals from judgments in the District Court were to the Appellate Division of the District Court Department. Id. at § 8. The system proved successful in Norfolk and Middlesex counties and was continued and extended to additional counties in 2000 and 2002. See St. 1998, c. 157; St. 2000, c. 142; St. 2002, c. 70. In August, 2004, the Legislature approved the one trial system and, with certain changes, made it applicable to all divisions of the District and Boston Municipal Court Departments. St. 2004, c. 252.
Presently, the District Court has original jurisdiction of civil actions for money damages. The actions may proceed only if there is no reasonable likelihood that recovery by the plaintiff will exceed $25,000. See G. L. c. 218, § 19.
The parties have not directed us to, nor have we found, any legislative history that provides specific insight into the reason the Legislature chose the language ultimately adopted in G. L. c. 218, §§ 19 and 19A. In cases concerning earlier iterations of
During the experimental years of the one-trial system, the District Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over cases in which there was "no reasonable likelihood that recovery by the plaintiff [would] exceed twenty-five thousand dollars,"
Under the 2004 legislative scheme, G. L. c. 218, § 19A,
Where a defendant properly objects to the matter proceeding in District Court, the judge must provide an opportunity for written responses from the parties, hold a hearing if a party so requests, and, if satisfied that there is a reasonable likelihood the plaintiff will recover more than $25,000, must dismiss the case. Construing the statute to require dismissal in such circumstances gives meaning to the language of G. L. c. 218, § 19, that actions may
However, where there has been no timely objection to the action proceeding in District Court, we conclude that G. L. c. 218, § 19A, permits a judge discretion to determine whether to retain or dismiss the complaint. While nothing in the statute requires a judge to act sua sponte to dismiss an action that does not comply with the limitation requirement of G. L. c. 218, § 19, a judge may elect to do so based on a reading of the plaintiff's statement of damages. Before dismissing an action on this basis however, the judge must solicit written responses from the parties and, if one so requests, hold a hearing.
In determining whether to dismiss the action, the judge should consider the amount reasonably likely to be recovered by the plaintiff and whether that amount is marginally or substantially higher than $25,000; whether the matter would be more appropriate for a jury of twelve or a jury of six; and whether resolution of the matter will be substantially delayed by dismissal, or particularly costly to the parties because of the number of filings that will need to be repeated in the Superior Court. A judge should also consider other relevant factors presented by the parties and whether the action is similar in scope to those that fit within the $25,000 limitation.
In the instant case, Sperounes filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on the ground that there was no reasonable likelihood Farese would recover less than $25,000. This motion was denied, as noted above, on the erroneous ground that the judge had the discretion to permit the case to proceed, even in the face of a timely objection. In his answer, filed subsequently, Sperounes again asserted that the case could not proceed in the District Court because of the $25,000 limitation. The defendant adequately
Sperounes also argues that G. L. c. 218, § 19A, is unconstitutional because it provides the plaintiff with the right to appeal from a judge's dismissal of an action for failing to comply with the $25,000 limitation, see G. L. c. 218, § 19A (c), but denies the defendant the right to appeal from the denial of such a dismissal, see G. L. c. 218, § 19A (b).
3. Conclusion. The order of the single justice denying Sperounes's petition under G. L. c. 211, § 3, is reversed. The case is remanded to the county court for the entry of an order reversing the District Court judge's denial of Sperounes's motion to dismiss.