A Pure Tort Case in Chancery Court

June 24, 2019 § Leave a comment

Jhonte Wiggins received $350,000 in a personal-injury settlement. Almost all of the money wound up in accounts of his fiancé, Chasity Anderson. Jhonte became seriously ill and died. His mother, Darnice Wiggins, was appointed administratrix of her son’s estate, and, as administratrix, Darnice sued Chasity for conversion. The chancellor granted summary judgment, and Chasity appealed claiming that chancery court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

The COA affirmed in Anderson v. Wiggins, decided May 14, 2019. Here is how Judge Greenlee’s opinion addressed the issue:

¶8. Anderson argues that chancery court was not the proper court in which to file a claim for conversion. She asserts that the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the claim. “The question of subject matter jurisdiction is an issue of law to which this Court must apply a de novo standard of review.” In re Adoption of J.D.S., 953 So. 2d 1133, 1136 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007).

¶9. Our State’s Constitution limits chancery-court jurisdiction:

The chancery court shall have full jurisdiction in the following matters and
cases, viz.:

(a) All matters in equity;
(b) Divorce and alimony;
(c) Matters testamentary and of administration;
(d) Minor’s business;
(e) Cases of idiocy, lunacy, and persons of unsound mind;
(f) All cases of which the said court had jurisdiction under the laws in
force when this Constitution is put in operation.

Miss. Const. art. 6, § 159.

¶10. The matter before us is a conversion claim. “Although property of which conversion is alleged is in the custody of a chancery court,” Georgia-Pac. Corp. v. Blakeney, 353 So. 2d 769, 772 (Miss. 1978) (quoting 18 Am. Jur. 2d Conversion § 135 (1955)), an action for conversion alone is best heard in the circuit court. But if “there is one issue of exclusive equity cognizance, that issue can bring the entire case within subject matter jurisdiction of the chancery court and that court may proceed to adjudicate all legal issues as well.” Newton v. Brown, 198 So. 3d 1284, 1288 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted).

¶11. Wiggins’s complaint only asserts a claim for conversion. She does not indicate any other tort or any other claim for the chancery court to consider. She asserts that the protection of the estate’s assets entitles her to jurisdiction within the chancery court. She contends that Anderson cannot now claim a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction because the chancery court already rendered its decision. But jurisdictional challenges may be raised at any point during litigation, as well as on appeal. Pierce v. Pierce, 132 So. 3d 553, 560 (¶14) (Miss. 2014). Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(h)(3) provides that “[w]henever it appears by suggestion that the parties or otherwise that the court lacks jurisdiction of the subject matter, the court shall dismiss the action or transfer the action to the court of proper jurisdiction.” Additionally, our state constitution determines the ability of appellate courts to reverse a judgment of a chancery court when it lacks jurisdiction:

No judgment or decree in any chancery or circuit court rendered in a civil cause shall be reversed or annulled on the ground of want of jurisdiction to render said judgment or decree, from any error or mistake as to whether the cause in which it was rendered was of equity or common-law jurisdiction; but if the Supreme Court shall find error in the proceedings other than as to jurisdiction, and it shall be necessary to remand the case, the Supreme Court may remand it to that court which, in its opinion, can best determine the controversy.

Miss. Const. art 6, § 147.

¶12. At the summary-judgment hearing, the chancery court discussed the jurisdictional concerns and found that it had jurisdiction over the claim. Specifically, it found that under Wiggins v. Perry, 989 So. 2d 419, 430 (¶28) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008), Anderson could not complain about subject-matter jurisdiction after the court ruled on the motion for summary judgment.

¶13. In that case, Wiggins did not raise the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction until after the chancery court granted summary judgment. Therefore, on appeal, our court was unable to reverse the case on the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction alone. Id. at 430-31 (¶28). We ultimately reversed the decision on other grounds and remanded the case with instructions that it be transferred to the proper court. Id. at 433 (¶47).

¶14. In the present case, the chancery court held:

Now, [the Mississippi Constitution] says a lot. And our case law says even more. In one case . . . it is stated that: “Because a party did not raise the issue of subject matter jurisdiction until after summary judgment had been granted in favor of the adverse party, the reviewing court could only reverse for lack of subject matter jurisdiction where there was also some other trial court error warranting reversal.”

The chancery court found that subject-matter jurisdiction was never an issue before the motion for summary judgment. In her answer to the conversion complaint, Anderson asserted lack of subject-matter jurisdiction as an affirmative defense. But at no point thereafter did she actively pursue that defense. In fact, she never filed any motion based on those grounds. As in Wiggins, without some other error, precedent prevents us from reversing this case on
the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction alone in this situation. [Fn 1]

[Fn 1] 3 Jeffrey Jackson, Mary Miller, and Donald Campbell, Encyclopedia of Mississippi Law § 19:188 (2d ed. 2018) (“Ordinarily, a court of appeals could reverse for lack of subject matter jurisdiction in the trial court even where the parties may not have raised the issue. Section 147 of the Mississippi Constitution provides that the supreme court is without power to reverse where the only error found is ‘want of jurisdiction to render said judgment or
decree, from any error or mistake as to whether the cause . . . was of equity or common-law jurisdiction.’”); James W. Shelton, Miss. Chancery Prac. § 2:7 (2018) (“[T]he Constitution prohibits the Supreme Court from reversing a case where the only error is that the case was brought in chancery court when it should have been brought in circuit court, or vice versa.”); c.f. Waits v. Black Bayou Drainage Dist., 186 Miss. 270, 185 So. 577, 578 (1939) (“Section 147 of the Constitution has no application. It provides that no cause shall be reversed by the Supreme Court on the ground alone of a mistake in the trial court as to whether it is of law or equity jurisdiction. The trouble here is that neither the chancery court nor the circuit court had jurisdiction of this cause, as we will undertake to demonstrate. In the case of Indianola Compress & Storage Co. v. Southern R.R. Co., 110 Miss. 602, 70 So. 703, [704 (Miss. 1916),] [s]ection 147 of the Constitution applied for it was not a question of jurisdiction, but a mistake in jurisdiction.”).

I posted about a circuit judge reforming a deed on June 5, 2019.

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