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The Uniform Transfer Rules – Appeals from Inferior to Superior Courts (In Brief)

by merlin on April 25th, 2015
  • Sumo

This is a public service announcement on the proper method to handle this situation if it should arise for you in the future in Georgia, as there are folks out there that would like to proceed with matters without the benefit of an attorney, and that is one of the most appreciated aspects of Magistrate Court – it is widely considered a Court for people to proceed in without need for a lawyer, and the maximum amount in controversy – $15,000 – typically addresses most disputes between private persons.

Section 15-10-41(b)(1) of the Official Code of Georgia puts forward the rule that “[e]xcept as otherwise provided in this subsection, appeals may be had from judgments returned in the magistrate court to the state court of the county or to the superior court of the county and the same provisions now provided for by general law for appeals contained in Article 2 of Chapter 3 of Title 5 shall be applicable to appeals from the magistrate court, the same to be a de novo appeal.”

The idea that the appeal is termed “de novo” means, would take place again, as if the prior trial did not exist at all.  It is defined by the Online Legal Dictionary (Black’s) as meaning “[a]new; afresh; a second time. A venire de novo is a writ for summoning a jury for the second trial of a case which has been sent back from above for a new trial.”

However, it is important to remember the concept of res judicata, which is often available as a defense against a claim that something is heard de novo.

The Online Legal Dictionary defines res judicata as follows: “Latin- a thing adjudicated. Once a lawsuit is decided, the same issue or an issue arising from the first issue cannot be contested again.”

This concept is terribly important as balanced against the idea of a de novo appeal when the other maxim that influences these concepts is considered – you cannot benefit from what you should have done when you chose the course of action that made you suffer.  An excerpt from the case below illustrates this better than I just said it:

Mahan v. Watkins, 256 Ga.App. 260, 568 S.E.2d 130 (2002) (where plaintiffs brought a suit in magistrate court that included equitable claims over which magistrate court had no jurisdiction, plaintiffs’ attempt to re-assert these equitable claims in subsequent superior court case was barred by res judicata, as “the [plaintiffs] chose the [magistrate court as their initial] forum and were bound by the limitations of the court that they chose”) (footnote omitted). See also Green v. Bd. of Directors of Park Cliff Unit Owners Assn., 279 Ga.App. 567, 631 S.E.2d 769 (2006) (condo owner who filed suit for money damages in magistrate court could not later assert equitable claims in superior court based on same set of facts).”

The case I just quoted here is listed in full below.  It illustrates that delicate balance between the two concepts.  This was an appeal from a Magistrate Court case that was decided – but incorrectly, because the Magistrate Court lacked jurisdiction to render a verdict, and the case should have been filed in Superior Court, since it had jurisdiction to decide the issues.  This case is Setlock v. Setlock, 286 Ga. 384, 688 S.E.2d 346 (Ga. 2010):

       Ann M. Vaughan, Blairsville, for appellant.

        Bryman & Clerke, David N. Bryman, Marietta, for appellee.

        MELTON, Justice.

        Steven Setlock and his father, Eugene Setlock, entered an alleged oral agreement to purchase a lake house property located in Blairsville, Georgia (“Lake House”). The agreement provided for Eugene to pay $150,000 of the $203,250 purchase price. Steven was to finance the remainder and pay the monthly mortgage payments, taxes, and insurance on the property. Despite the alleged oral agreement for the parties to purchase the property together, title to the property was acquired solely in Steven and his wife’s names, and Steven contends that Eugene and his wife were only allowed to live at the Lake House as Steven and his wife’s tenants. See, e.g., Browning v. Fed. Home Loan Mtg. Corp., 210 Ga.App. 115(3), 435 S.E.2d 450 (1993).

        While Eugene and his wife were living on the property, a dispute arose between the parties, which eventually led to Steven filing a dispossessory action against Eugene and his wife in the Union County Magistrate Court in July 2007. Eugene filed counterclaims seeking to quiet title, a declaratory judgment, and an injunction, and pursuing money damages that exceeded the $15,000 jurisdictional limit1 of the magistrate court (the “Lake House claims”).2 Based on his assertion of equitable claims and a request for money damages in excess of the magistrate court’s jurisdictional limit, Eugene petitioned to have the case removed to the Superior Court of Union County. However, the magistrate court denied transfer and entered a judgment, granting possession of the Lake House to Steven and granting a writ of possession in favor of Steven, requiring Eugene and his wife to vacate the premises. Eugene then attempted to appeal the magistrate court judgment to the Superior Court of Union County, but the superior court dismissed the appeal as untimely.

        On May 22, 2008, Eugene then filed in the Superior Court of Union County a petition to quiet title, which contained the same Lake House claims that he had previously filed as counterclaims in the magistrate court dispossessory action. Steven moved to dismiss the complaint, and the superior court granted the motion with regard to the Lake House claims, determining that the doctrine of res judicata barred Eugene from reviving in superior court the same claims that he had previously asserted as counterclaims in magistrate court. We granted Eugene’s application for discretionary appeal to determine whether the superior court erred in determining that Eugene’s Lake House claims were barred by res judicata. For the reasons that follow, we reverse.

        “The doctrine of res judicata prevents the re-litigation of all claims which have already been adjudicated, or which could have been adjudicated, between identical parties or their privies in identical causes of action.” (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Karan, Inc. v. Auto-Owners Ins. Co., 280 Ga. 545, 546, 629 S.E.2d 260 (2006). Before res judicata applies, three prerequisites must be satisfied — “(1) identity of the cause of action, (2) identity of the parties or their privies, and (3) previous adjudication on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction.” Id. Here, the first two elements are not at issue as the parties involved are the same and the claims Eugene filed in superior court were identical to the counterclaims he had previously alleged in magistrate court. The only question before this Court is whether the magistrate court was a court of competent jurisdiction regarding Eugene’s Lake House claims such that its judgment is binding, which would bar revival of Eugene’s Lake House claims in superior court.

Each magistrate court and each magistrate thereof shall have jurisdiction and power over … [t]he trial of civil claims … in which exclusive jurisdiction is not vested in the superior court and the amount demanded or the value of the property claimed does not exceed $15,000.00 … [and][t]he … issuance of writs and judgments in dispossessory proceedings.

        OCGA § 15-10-2(5) and (6). However, “[f]or the purpose of enabling all persons owning real estate within this state to have the title thereto settled and registered[,] … the superior court of the county in which the land is located shall have exclusive original jurisdiction of all petitions and proceedings had thereupon.” (Emphasis supplied.) OCGA § 44-2-60.

        Thus, here, although the magistrate court had jurisdiction over Steven’s dispossessory action, it did not have jurisdiction to render a binding judgment on Eugene’s Lake House counterclaims which included claims for declaratory judgment, to quiet title, and an injunction, and which sought money damages that exceeded the $15,000 jurisdictional limit of the magistrate court. See Myers v. North Ga. Title & Tax Free Exchange, LLC., 241 Ga.App. 379, 380(1), 527 S.E.2d 212 (1999). Indeed, unlike in the cases cited by Steven in his brief, here, Eugene did not “choose” the magistrate court as the forum within which to bring his Lake House counterclaims, thereby binding him to any judgment rendered in the magistrate court and preventing him from later re-asserting his claims in a future action. See Mahan v. Watkins, 256 Ga.App. 260, 568 S.E.2d 130 (2002) (where plaintiffs brought a suit in magistrate court that included equitable claims over which magistrate court had no jurisdiction, plaintiffs’ attempt to re-assert these equitable claims in subsequent superior court case was barred by res judicata, as “the [plaintiffs] chose the [magistrate court as their initial] forum and were bound by the limitations of the court that they chose”) (footnote omitted). See also Green v. Bd. of Directors of Park Cliff Unit Owners Assn., 279 Ga.App. 567, 631 S.E.2d 769 (2006) (condo owner who filed suit for money damages in magistrate court could not later assert equitable claims in superior court based on same set of facts). To the contrary, Eugene was the defendant in the dispossessory action here. He raised his counterclaims in response to an action that was initially filed by Steven in the magistrate court. To avoid potential waiver of his counterclaims that arose out of the transaction or occurrence that was the subject matter of Steven’s dispossessory action, Eugene was required to raise them in magistrate court. See OCGA 15-10-45(a) (compulsory counterclaims in magistrate court). However, the statutory requirement for Eugene to raise his compulsory counterclaims in magistrate court did not somehow confer jurisdiction in that court to resolve these claims over which, by law, it had no jurisdiction. See OCGA §§ 15-10-2 and 44-2-60.

        Due to the magistrate court’s lack of jurisdiction over the Lake House counterclaims raised by Eugene, it was not a “court of competent jurisdiction” to resolve these claims on the merits, and the doctrine of res judicata did not bar Eugene from re-asserting these same claims in superior court. See Brown Realty Assoc. v. Thomas, 193 Ga.App. 847(2), 389 S.E.2d 505 (1989)(Where party asserted as a defense in magistrate court dispossessory action that property had been fraudulently sold, res judicata did not bar the party from re-asserting this claim in superior court, because “[s]uperior courts have exclusive jurisdiction in cases respecting title to land … [and] [r]es judicata only applies if the [prior] judgment is from a court of competent jurisdiction”) (citations and punctuation omitted). Accordingly, the superior court erred in determining that the Lake House claims asserted in Eugene’s petition to quiet title were barred by res judicata.

        Judgment reversed.

        All the Justices concur.

—————

Notes:

1. See OCGA § 15-10-2(5).

2. Eugene also asserted claims of breach of fiduciary duty and conversion, but those claims are not at issue in this appeal.

—————

This case refers to the idea that the Magistrate Court did not have jurisdiction to decide the equitable claims made in the suit, and it should have been brought in Superior Court, which does have that jurisdiction.  The proper court to hear a dispute is governed by what are known as the Uniform Transfer Rules.  The following is the commentary that governs them:

The Uniform Transfer Rules “are adopted pursuant to the authority of Art. VI, Sec. IX, Par. I on the 1983 Constitution of the State of Georgia to implement Art. VI, Sec. I, Par. VIII of the 1983 Constitution which provides that: “Any court shall transfer to the appropriate court in this state any civil case in which it determines that jurisdiction or venue lies elsewhere.””

As is hinted at in the Setlock case above, the Uniform Transfer Rules would require an affirmative motion by a party who wanted a transfer and, where they apply, it would be error to deny that transfer.  Rule T-4 covers this situation:

These rules shall become operative when a party makes a motion to dismiss, or any other motion or defense, on the basis that the court in which the case is pending lacks jurisdiction or venue or both. Such motion shall be treated as a motion to transfer pursuant to these rules. A motion to transfer shall be made only in the court in which the case is pending. These rules also become operative when a court on its own motion, after a hearing thereon, determines that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction.”

Note that the Court has the power to do this “on its own motion”, but it requires a hearing on the issue and the Court then gets to hear evidence and argument from the two sides concerning the issue.  Again – this is why an attorney is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.

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