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Breeder’s bid for higher damages claim blocked

Nick Hurston//January 16, 2023

Breeder’s bid for higher damages claim blocked

Nick Hurston//January 16, 2023

Litter of kittens

A cat-breeder’s attempt to sweeten the kitty by demanding damages beyond the district court’s $25,000 jurisdictional limit while on appeal to the circuit court has been rejected by the Court of Appeals of Virginia.

Despite winning at trial, the breeder appealed to the circuit court and was granted leave to amend her complaint, which added new causes of action and increased her general ad damnum to $40,000. A jury had awarded the breeder more than $30,000.

It’s unlikely the breeder is grinning like the Cheshire Cat after the appeals court weighed in, though.

“We hold that the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to permit the filing of the amended complaint and to enter judgment on it,” Chief Judge Marla Graff Decker wrote. “As a result, we vacate the circuit court’s judgment, dismiss the amended complaint, and remand the case for further proceedings ….”

The case is Ruderman v. Pritchard (VLW 022-7-581). Judges Richard Y. AtLee Jr. and Mary B. Malveaux joined Decker’s opinion.

‘Unjustly withheld’ cats

Kathy Pritchard breeds Cornish Rex cats and, after a series of prior transactions, got into a dispute with Jill Ruderman, a veterinarian, over several of the cats and their offspring. Pritchard filed a pro se warrant in debt against Ruderman in the general district court.

Pritchard’s warrant listed 11 cats that she claimed Ruderman had “unjustly withheld” from her — including one named Lady Godiva — and provided a dollar amount representing each cat’s “alternate value.”

The breeder was awarded $24,100 and Ruderman had to give back some cats.

Although she prevailed at trial, Pritchard appealed to the circuit court. She felt it was erroneous to allow Ruderman to decide whether to keep Lady Godiva or pay for her and said the district court failed to determine that Lady Godiva’s offspring belonged to Pritchard.

While the appeal was pending, Pritchard was allowed to amend her complaint. Additional kittens were added to its scope, as well as new counts for breach of contract, conversion, declaratory judgment and permanent injunctive relief.

Seeking the return of several cats and transfer of registrations, Pritchard included a single ad damnum demand for damages of $20,000, punitive damages of $20,000 and attorneys’ fees and costs not to exceed $30,000.

Ruderman moved to dismiss the amended complaint. The circuit court lacked jurisdiction, she contended, because the amended ad damnum, $40,000, exceeded the district court’s $25,000 jurisdictional limit.

The circuit court denied the motion. Pritchard was allowed to add new claims “so that pursuant to Rule 1:6, all of [Prichard’s] claims against [Ruderman] could be litigated once.”

A jury said Pritchard was the rightful owner of Lady Godiva and her offspring and awarded more than $9,100 for “their wrongful detention.”

Ruderman appealed.

No jurisdiction

Ruderman said the circuit court’s subject matter jurisdiction was limited to that of the general district court and that Pritchard shouldn’t have been allowed to seek excessive damages.

But Decker pointed out that subject matter jurisdiction is “derivative of the court not of record from which that appeal is taken” when a circuit court exercises its appellate discretion in a de novo appeal.

“Under these circumstances, therefore, ‘the circuit court has no more subject matter jurisdiction than the general district court had in that court’s original proceeding,’” Decker explained. “This also means that ‘the jurisdictional limits’ of the general district court, including the dollar limits, ‘carry over to the appeal’ of a judgment of that court to the circuit court.”

For the claims at play in this case, the applicable jurisdictional dollar limit is $25,000.

“Consequently, in the appeal of Pritchard, the plaintiff, to the circuit court, that court’s subject matter jurisdiction permitted it to entertain an ad damnum of no more than $25,000 absent a statutory or common law exception to these principles,” the judge wrote.

Decker noted a potential exception under Virginia Code § 16.1-114.1.

“That statute … expressly authorizes the circuit court to permit an increase in the amount of the claim above the jurisdictional dollar amount of $25,000 … in ‘an appeal …. taken by a defendant,’” she wrote. “By omitting plaintiffs from this provision, the General Assembly signaled its intent that the circuit court’s authority to permit an amendment of the pleadings to increase the ad damnum in a de novo appeal does not include an appeal taken by a plaintiff such as Pritchard.”

Further, the judge said that language in Virginia Code § 16.1-77 allows a plaintiff to increase their ad damnum beyond the district court limit prior to trial, but the case has to be transferred to the circuit court for trial.

“The existing statutory framework makes clear that after trial in the district court, on de novo appeal to the circuit court, an increase in the amount of the claim beyond the $25,000 jurisdictional limit is permitted only if the defendant appeals,” Decker wrote.

Finally, the court assumed without deciding that the circuit court had the authority to allow Pritchard to amend her complaint to add new claims to her de novo appeal. Even so, the judge said, the new claims “depended on the legitimacy of the de novo appeal for their existence.”

“This is so because the new claims proceeded as a single amended complaint under the original docket number assigned to that appeal,” Decker explained. “In other words, the amended complaint wholly supplanted the original warrant in detinue in the circuit court.”

As such, Pritchard’s amended complaint requested relief that was outside of the circuit court’s subject matter jurisdiction.

Heading to the high court

Arlington litigator Matthew B. Kaplan handled Ruderman’s appeal. He told Virginia Lawyers Weekly that, absent the new appeal by right rule, his client’s case may not have been heard by the Court of Appeals because there was no case law directly on point.

Despite Pritchard’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia, Kaplan doesn’t anticipate the high court will grant review or reverse what the opinion stands for.

“If you choose to go to general district court, you’re stuck with those jurisdictional limits,” he pointed out.

Unfortunately, Kaplan wasn’t able to comment on Lady Godiva’s whereabouts or circumstances.

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