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AFIFY v. SIMMONS, et al.

AFIFY v. SIMMONS, et al.

September 12, 1997
Record No. 961781





Thomas S. Shadrick, Judge
Present: Carrico, C.J., Compton, Stephenson,[1] Lacy,
Keenan, and Koontz, JJ., and Whiting, Senior Justice

In this appeal, we consider whether prior to July 1, 1997, a
plaintiff who initially filed a claim in the general district
court was permitted to amend the ad damnum clause
of his claim to seek damages in excess of the civil
jurisdictional limits of that court, Code ? 16.1?77,[2] where the defendant has elected
to remove the case to circuit court under Code ? 16.1?92.

On September 30, 1993, Michael David Simmons and Linda J.
Young Simmons filed three warrants in detinue in the City of
Virginia Beach General District Court against Mohamad A. Afify.
One warrant sought recovery of property or damages for property
jointly owned by the Simmonses valued at $9,976, another sought
to recover property or damages for property belonging to Mr.
Simmons valued at $9,953, and the third, filed in her maiden
name, sought recovery of property or damages for property
belonging to Mrs. Simmons valued at $9,952.92. These claims arose
out of the Simmonses’ employment by Afify as resident managers of
a residential motel and his retention of their property after
their employment was terminated.

On November 30, 1993, Afify filed an application, with the
appropriate supporting affidavit, to remove the cases to the
Circuit Court of the City of Virginia Beach. Following a stay in
the proceedings pending conclusion of Afify’s bankruptcy, the
Simmonses filed a motion to amend the warrants in detinue in the
form of a single motion for judgment. In the motion for judgment
which was filed on March 13, 1995, the Simmonses asserted new
claims for wages and unreimbursed expenses under a theory of
breach of contract. The Simmonses further asserted a claim for
conversion of the property previously itemized in their general
district court claims, increasing the damages sought to $60,000.
In addition, the Simmonses sought punitive damages in the amount
of $120,000 for the alleged conversion. A subsequent amendment to
the motion for judgment increased the claim for punitive damages
to $330,000.

In a jury trial, the Simmonses were awarded compensatory
damages of $20,800 for loss of personal property and unreimbursed
expenses and punitive damages of $300,000. Afify filed a
post-trial motion seeking, inter alia, to have the
verdict reduced to comport with the civil jurisdictional limits
of the general district court, asserting that those limits
applied to claims removed to the circuit court. The circuit court
denied this motion and entered judgment on the jury’s verdict. We
awarded Afify this appeal.

It is settled law in this Commonwealth that when a judgment
is rendered in the general district court, the jurisdictional
limits of that court carry over to the appeal of that judgment in
the circuit court. Stacy v. Mullins, 185 Va. 837, 844, 40
S.E.2d 260, 265 (1946); see also Hoffman v. Stuart,
188 Va. 785, 794, 51 S.E.2d 239, 244 (1949). In Hoffman,
we went on to explain that the removal of a case from the
general district court to the circuit court permits a defendant
to file a counterclaim in excess of the jurisdictional limits of
the general district court. Id. at 795, 51 S.E.2d at 244.
The rationale supporting the holding expressed in Hoffman
was that the claims of a defendant who promptly removes a case
should not be subject to the jurisdictional limits of a tribunal
not of his choosing and that one of the functions of removal is
to afford the defendant the opportunity to select a forum
in which his claims can be fully adjudicated. Id.
Accordingly, unless an express provision in Code ? 16.1?92, the statute
permitting removal by the defendant of a plaintiff’s claims from
the general district court to the circuit court, authorizes the
circuit court to exercise broader jurisdiction with respect to
such claims, the plaintiff will remain bound by the civil
jurisdictional limits of the general district court.

The Simmonses assert that our decision in Jackson v.
, 236 Va. 199, 372 S.E.2d 155 (1988), implicitly found
such authority within the statute. In Jackson, the trial
court permitted the plaintiff, after removal, to increase the
amount of her claims in a motion for judgment beyond the civil
jurisdictional limits of the general district court and entered a
default judgment in her favor when the defendant failed to file a
timely response. Id. at 204, 372 S.E.2d at 158. On appeal,
the defendant did not assert that permitting the amendment was
error, asserting instead that the removal affidavit was a
responsive pleading barring the entry of a default judgment. We
limited our review to that issue. Id. at 205, 372 S.E.2d
at 159.

Similarly, in Hetland v. Worcester Mutual Insurance Co.,
231 Va. 44, 340 S.E.2d 574 (1986), the trial court permitted a
plaintiff to increase her ad damnum claim when
filing her motion for judgment following removal, but refused as
untimely a further amendment increasing the amount of her claims.
The initial increase did not exceed the jurisdictional limits of
the general district court. The issue presented to us in that
case was whether the refusal to permit the further amendment was
an abuse of discretion. Holding that it was not, we did not reach
the issue of whether the jurisdictional limits of the lower court
would have otherwise prohibited the subsequent amendment. Id.
at 47, 340 S.E.2d at 576.

Accordingly, we have never before considered whether Code ? 16.1?92, as in
effect at the time Afify removed the Simmonses’ cases, permitted
the plaintiffs to increase the amount of their claims beyond the
civil jurisdictional limits of the general district court
following removal of the claims by the defendant to the circuit
court. We hold that it did not.

Prior to its amendment in 1997, the statute permitted the
circuit court, following removal, to allow amendments, enter
orders, and otherwise conduct proceedings "to correct any
defects, irregularities and omissions in the pleadings."[3] Thus, there was an express
limitation in the statute on the power of the circuit court to be
liberal in granting leave to amend. See Rule 1:8. Nothing
in the statute at the time under consideration expressly
permitted the Simmonses to take advantage of the jurisdiction of
the circuit court in order to increase the amount of the claims
made in the general district court.

Moreover, none of the additions made by the Simmonses in the
original motion for judgment or the subsequent amended motion for
judgment were necessary to correct a defect, irregularity, or
omission in the warrants in detinue. Accordingly, it was error to
permit the Simmonses to amend their original claims to increase
the damages sought to amounts in excess of the jurisdictional
limits of the general district court. Because the circuit court
was without jurisdiction to consider the amended claims, the
trial and verdict on that pleading are nullities.

For these reasons, we will vacate the judgment of the circuit
court and remand the case for a new trial limited to the claims
raised in the original warrants in detinue and, with respect to
those claims, subject to the civil jurisdictional limits of the
general district court.[4]

Vacated and remanded.





[1] Justice Stephenson participated
in the hearing and decision of this case prior to the effective
date of his retirement on July 1, 1997.

[2] At all times relevant to this
appeal, the civil jurisdictional limit for claims filed in a
general district court was $10,000. As of July 1, 1997, that
limit was increased to $15,000.

[3] Code ? 16.1?92 was amended
effective July 1, 1997 allowing the circuit court to "permit
all necessary amendments, including amendments to increase the
amount of the claim above the jurisdictional" limits of the
general district court. The addition of this new language by the
legislature lends support to our conclusion that the prior
form of the statute
did not permit such amendments. See
Wisniewski v. Johnson, 223 Va. 141, 144, 286 S.E.2d 223,
224-25 (1982); Richmond v. Sutherland, 114 Va. 688, 693,
77 S.E. 470, 472 (1913).

[4] Our resolution of the
jurisdictional issue renders moot the remaining issues raised by
the appellant. In addition, the appellant has not raised an issue
concerning the validity of the appellees’ amendments asserting
new theories of breach of contract and conversion following
removal of the original claims to the circuit court. Accordingly,
we express no opinion as to these issues.