WALKER v. SUPERIOR COURT

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Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 7, California.

Michael WALKER, Petitioner, v. SUPERIOR COURT, County of Los Angeles, Respondent.

RESIDENTIAL CONSTRUCTION ENTERPRISES and Larry Millikin, Real Parties in Interest. Charlene WHITE, Petitioner, v. SUPERIOR COURT, County of Los Angeles, Respondent. Charles D. SLATON and Charles M. Slaton, Real Parties in Interest.

Nos. B044800, B045419.

Decided: February 14, 1990

Weldon Diggs, Upland, and Linda M. Wilde for petitioner in No. B044800. DeWitt W. Clinton, County Counsel and Frederick R. Bennett, Assistant County Counsel for respondent in No. B044800. Anderson, McPharlin and Conners and Ann Graupmann, Los Angeles, for real parties in interest in No. B044800. Richard L. Garrigues, Los Angeles, and Frank M. Harford for petitioner in No. B045419. DeWitt W. Clinton, County Counsel and Frederick R. Bennett, Assistant County Counsel for respondent in No. B045419. Patrick J. Hast, Van Nuys, for real parties in interest in No. B045419.

 Consolidated petitions for a writ of mandate.   The dispositive question is this:  when a complaint, filed in good faith, seeks a judgment in excess of $25,000 does a superior court judge, in whose opinion the case is not “worth” $25,000, have discretion to transfer the case to municipal court?   Our answer is no.   We grant the petitions for a writ of mandate.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Both matters arise from automobile accidents and both petitioners filed a complaint for personal injuries.   The record in each case is understandably skimpy, each action having been abruptly suspended before trial by an order of transfer.   For background purposes we rely on counsels' factual representations.

Petitioner Walker was on his motorcycle in the center lane, for left turning vehicles only, when an employee of Real Parties in Interest (RPsI) turned into that lane, striking petitioner.   The employee never saw petitioner before impact.   Petitioner landed on the hood of employee's car and then on the roadway.   Petitioner sued employee and RPsI.   Petitioner received a $15,000 settlement from employee and employee is not a party to this action.   In his May 18, 1988, amended at-issue memorandum petitioner stated he had sustained injuries to his knee, neck, and back and that he had had knee surgery (presumably before the accident with employee).   He claimed general damages of $1 million, medical expenses of $6,011 and continuing, lost earnings of $1,819 and continuing, and property damage of $750.

The matter was referred to arbitration and on March 17, 1989, petitioner received a $30,000 award, less the $15,000 settlement amount.   RPsI requested a trial de novo.   On July 7 and August 11, 1989, Judge Workman conducted status conferences with the parties and on the latter date ordered them to attend a “voluntary settlement conference.”   This conference, before two pro tem judges, was held on August 24, 1989, with a settlement recommendation of $25,000.   On September 7, 1989, the parties again appeared before Judge Workman for another status conference.   At this conference Judge Workman ordered the case transferred to the municipal court.

Petitioner White was a pedestrian crossing Wilshire Boulevard near Normandie in Los Angeles when she was struck by RPI driving east on Wilshire.   Petitioner claimed over $17,000 in medical expenses and more than $10,000 in lost wages.   The matter was referred to arbitration with an award to petitioner of $25,000 plus costs.   The award noted that “Principles of comparative negligence have been applied.”   RPsI requested a trial de novo.   On September 12, 1989, a date scheduled only for a status conference, Judge Kakita ordered the case transferred to the municipal court.

DISCUSSION

Jurisdiction:  The Law

Superior courts have original jurisdiction in all civil cases except when jurisdiction is conferred to inferior courts.  (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 5.)  Code of Civil Procedure 1 section 86, subdivision (a)(1) confers jurisdiction to municipal courts “[i]n all cases at law in which the demand ․ amounts to twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) or less ․”.

Until Campbell v. Superior Court (1989) 213 Cal.App.3d 147, 261 Cal.Rptr. 509, which we later consider, it was settled that when jurisdiction depended upon the dollar amount in controversy, the demand was determinative.  (Jackson v. Whartenby (1855) 5 Cal. 94 [The demand was $951 but the proof less than the $200 jurisdictional minimum.   Trial court's granting of non-suit reversed];  Rodley v. Curry (1898) 120 Cal. 541, 52 P. 999 [good faith accounting error in demand did not vitiate jurisdiction];  Harris v. Seidell (1934) 1 Cal.App.2d 410, 417, 36 P.2d 1104;  Brix v. Peoples Mut. Life Ins. Co. (1935) 2 Cal.2d 446, 41 P.2d 537 [Demand in cross-complaint provided jurisdiction];  Stratton v. Superior Court (1935) 2 Cal.2d 693, 43 P.2d 539 [Municipal court cannot consider pleadings in related superior court case;  Municipal court pleadings determine jurisdiction];  Sellery v. Ward (1942) 21 Cal.2d 300, 304, 131 P.2d 550;  Schwartz v. Cal. Claim Service (1942) 52 Cal.App.2d 47, 56, 125 P.2d 883 [Jurisdiction conferred by $50 actual and $5,000 punitive damages demand];  Muller v. Reagh (1957) 150 Cal.App.2d 99, 102, 309 P.2d 826 [During trial transfer to municipal court reversed:  punitive damages demand established superior court jurisdiction];  Allstate Leasing Corp. v. Smith (1965) 238 Cal.App.2d 128, 130, 47 Cal.Rptr. 636 [“The decisive factor in determining the amount of money at issue for jurisdictional purposes is the demand of the pleadings, not the amount of a subsequent judgment.”];  Cochrane v. Superior Court (1968) 261 Cal.App.2d 201, 203, 67 Cal.Rptr. 675;  Omni Aviation Managers, Inc. v. Municipal Court (1976) 60 Cal.App.3d 682, 131 Cal.Rptr. 758 [When complaint severed from cross-complaint, thus creating two cases, jurisdiction determined independently by the demand in each case].)

Two exceptions, pertinent to superior court jurisdiction, are recognized:  a demand made in bad faith (Security Pac. Nat. Bank v. Lyon (1980) 105 Cal.App.3d Supp. 8, 12, 165 Cal.Rptr. 95) and one not supported by the allegations of the pleading (Sellery v. Ward, supra, 21 Cal.2d 300, 305, 131 P.2d 550;  Williams v. Rosinsky Motor Co. (1955) 133 Cal.App.2d Supp. 798, 284 P.2d 979;  Greene v. Municipal Court (1975) 51 Cal.App.3d 446, 124 Cal.Rptr. 139;  Security Pac. Nat. Bank v. Lyon, supra, 105 Cal.App.3d Supp. 8, 13, 165 Cal.Rptr. 95).  “These exceptions ․ are difficult and should be applied by a trial court with caution and only if the exception is clear on the face of the record before that court.”  (Id. at p. 13, fn. 6, 165 Cal.Rptr. 95.)

 If a court has jurisdiction it cannot divest itself of jurisdiction nor refuse to determine the matter.  (Temple v. Superior Court (1886) 70 Cal. 211, 212, 11 P. 699 [Superior court refused to conduct contempt of court hearing and dismissed action.   Petition for writ of mandate granted.  “․ The court cannot, by holding without reason that it has no jurisdiction of the proceeding, divest itself of jurisdiction and evade the duty of hearing and determining it.”];  Cahill v. Superior Court (1904) 145 Cal. 42, 46, 78 P. 467 [“The law specially enjoins upon the superior court ․ the duty of hearing and determining all matters which are within its jurisdiction and which come properly before it.”];  Hennessy v. Superior Court (1924) 194 Cal. 368, 228 P. 862 [Superior court refused to entertain motion for costs following judgment because an appeal had been filed.   Writ of mandate issued];  Cook v. Winklepleck (1936) 16 Cal.App.2d Supp. 759, 762, 768, 59 P.2d 463.)   Until 1933, when section 396 was enacted (Stats.1933, ch. 744, § 7, p. 1841), if a court lacked jurisdiction it had to dismiss.  (Cook v. Winklepleck, supra, 16 Cal.App.2d Supp. at pp. 767–768, 59 P.2d 463.)   With the enactment of section 396, if a court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, as determined by the complaint, “the action ․ shall not be dismissed ․ but shall ․ be transferred to a court having jurisdiction․”  (§ 396.) 2

The purpose of this remedial legislation was to “support jurisdiction and not to defeat it, to aid a litigant by channeling his cause into the proper court and keeping it there unless that court loses jurisdiction by reason of some later event.”  (Babcock v. Antis (1979) 94 Cal.App.3d 823, 829, 156 Cal.Rptr. 673;  see also Security Pac. Nat. Bank v. Lyon, supra, 105 Cal.App.3d Supp. 8, 13, fn. 6, 165 Cal.Rptr. 95.)

A Trial Court's Opinion Of What A Case Is Worth:  Davis v. Superior Court

As in the instant matters, the plaintiffs-petitioners in Davis v. Superior Court (1972) 25 Cal.App.3d 596, 102 Cal.Rptr. 238 filed a personal injury action in superior court.   Each demanded $25,000.   Mr. Davis alleged that he sustained injury to his neck, back and spine and experienced pain, shock, and suffering.   He sought damages for hospitalization, x-rays, medical and nursing care and for lost earnings.   Mrs. Davis alleged she sustained injury to her cervical spine, trochanter, head and body and experienced pain, shock and suffering.   Her attorney declared that she lost two teeth and required considerable additional dental work.   Her medical expenses were $1,368 and lost wages $108.

At the settlement and trial setting conference, despite these allegations and factual representations, “the judge announced that in his opinion the case of Marie Davis would not justify a verdict of $5,000 [the minimum jurisdictional amount]” (id. at p. 598, 102 Cal.Rptr. 238) and transferred the case to the municipal court.

In granting the writ of mandate the Court of Appeal noted that “[t]o permit the setting judge to determine sua sponte that an alleged claim is unfounded or fraudulent is to deny the plaintiff his right to a jury trial.”  (Id. at p. 600, 102 Cal.Rptr. 238.)   It approvingly quoted Barry v. Edmunds (1886) 116 U.S. 550, 565, 6 S.Ct. 501, 509, 29 L.Ed. 729:  “In no case is it permissible for the court to substitute itself for the jury, and compel a compliance on the part of the latter with its own view of the facts in evidence, as the standard and measure of that justice, which the jury itself is the appointed constitutional tribunal to award.”

Davis holds that the transfer authority granted by section 396 is not authority to resolve disputed facts.  “[A]lthough section 396 ․ gives the superior court power to transfer the cause to an inferior court in a proper case, it cannot arbitrarily disregard the prayer of the complaint.”  (Davis v. Superior Court, supra, 25 Cal.App.3d at pp. 600–601, 102 Cal.Rptr. 238.)   Davis makes clear that a judge at a setting or status or settlement conference may properly determine legal issues but not factual ones.   Thus, the trial judge erred because “[t]he showing made at the pretrial hearing did not show that an award of damages of more than $5,000 would be excessive as a matter of law.  (Id. at p. 601, 102 Cal.Rptr. 238.   Emphasis added.)

In fact, Davis suggests, that for a trier of fact to award special but deny general damages may be error as a matter of law.  (Ibid.)  Even nominal damages, in such circumstances, have been held inadequate as a matter of law.   (Ibid.)

Nine years later, in reliance upon Davis, Depretto v. Superior Court (1981) 116 Cal.App.3d 36, 171 Cal.Rptr. 810 set aside a similar transfer order to municipal court.   Again, apparently, a superior court judge had erroneously substituted his opinion of the worth of the case for the demand in the complaint.

Campbell v. Superior Court

In a departure from all authority Campbell v. Superior Court (1989) 213 Cal.App.3d 147, 261 Cal.Rptr. 509 upheld a transfer order to municipal court, despite a demand far in excess of the $25,000 jurisdictional minimum.

In his complaint Campbell alleged he was wrongfully detained for shoplifting by employees of a Cala Foods store and by an Empire Security guard.   When police arrived they searched him, found nothing, and released him.   A few days later, Campbell alleged, he returned to the store and was verbally assaulted by the same guard who shouted obscenities and threatened him with physical violence.   Campbell's complaint prayed for general and special damages according to proof and punitive damages of $1 million.

Before arbitration Campbell made a settlement demand of $60,000, later reduced to $35,000.   The defendants, Cala Foods and Empire Security Patrol Service, Inc., counteroffered $3,500.   Four months later an arbitrator awarded Campbell $1,400 against Empire Security and nothing against Cala Foods.   Campbell requested a trial de novo.   There then ensued a series of settlement conferences.

At the first, conducted by Judge Pollak, the defendants increased their offers to $5,000 (Empire Security) and $500 (Cala Foods).   At the second, conducted by Judge Dossee, Empire Security doubled its offer to $10,000 and Campbell reduced his offer to $25,000.

Then, as described by Campbell v. Superior Court, “[t]he matter was again set for trial, and the parties appeared before Judge Ollie Marie–Victoire as acting presiding judge.   After a discussion in chambers, the court indicated on the record a thorough knowledge of the facts and circumstances of the case, as evidenced by references to the $10,000 settlement offer, the $1,400 arbitration award, and the nature of petitioner's damage claims.   The court also stated, ‘I have previously been involved in this, trying to settle the case.’   The court then concluded, ‘I find there is no possible way an award over twenty-five thousand dollar[s] could be had by petitioner, and accordingly transferred the cause to municipal court.”  (Campbell v. Superior Court, supra, at p. 150, 261 Cal.Rptr. 509.)

Campbell upheld the transfer order, holding “that a superior court may transfer a case to the municipal court when it appears that the case will not result in a verdict within the superior court's jurisdiction.  (Code Civ.Proc., § 396.)   We further hold that the standard of review is that for abuse of discretion.”  (Id. at p. 148, 261 Cal.Rptr. 509.)

Campbell arrives at its holding by first acknowledging “the general rule that the amount of the prayer controls jurisdiction, unless the the prayer is fraudulent or fictitious on its face” (id. at p. 151, 261 Cal.Rptr. 509) but then states that “[t]his oft-cited general rule, however must be read in tandem with the specific language of section 396, which provides for transfer to a court of competent jurisdiction when, subsequent to the filing of the complaint, it ‘appears' from the pleading or at a ‘trial’ or ‘hearing’ that the host court lacks jurisdiction over the cause.”  (Ibid.)  Campbell then concludes that “[t]he statutory language obviously provides for some form of a comparative evaluation of the actual facts of the case and the allegations of the complaint and the damages claimed in the prayer.”   (Ibid.)

Thus, as Campbell construes section 396, the determinative word is “appears.”  Campbell interprets section 396 as providing no modifier to “appears.”   Therefore, as Campbell reads section 396, a judge has transfer power once it “appears” to him, once he has an impression, once it seems like “the host court lacks jurisdiction over the cause.”

We find no such abracadabra in section 396.   In pertinent part it provides:

“If an action ․ is commenced in ․ a court which has jurisdiction of the subject matter thereof as determined by the complaint ․ and it thereafter appears ․ at the ․ hearing, that the determination of the action ․ will necessarily involve the determination of questions not within the jurisdiction of the court, ․ the court ․ must suspend all further proceedings therein and transfer the action ․ to a court having jurisdiction thereof․”  (§ 396.   Emphasis added.)   See fn. 2.

Thus, contrary to the Campbell interpretation, the threshold for transfer is not slight nor superficial.   It does not occur unless a court concludes that the action “will necessarily involve the determination of questions not within” its jurisdiction.   We do not believe it can fairly be said that a good faith demand in excess of $25,000 “necessarily ” involves a question of less than $25,000 in damages.

We also note that although this portion of section 396 was part of the 1933 statute, no court prior to Campbell 3 found it to provide “for some form of comparative evaluation.”

Our conclusion is in harmony with the Rules of the Los Angeles County Superior Court.   Rule 1106.4.3.2 provides:  “Where the Court determines that it is reasonably probable that plaintiff will not obtain a judgment in excess of $25,000, the court should consider with counsel a stipulation for an amendment to the complaint and transfer of the case to the Municipal Court.”  (Emphasis added.)   It is also consistent with section 86, subdivision (a)(1).4

Our decision avoids the risk, inherent in Campbell, of depleting judicial resources and frustrating litigants by inviting courts to play jurisdictional ping pong.  (See, e.g., Stratton v. Superior Court, supra, 2 Cal.2d 693, 43 P.2d 539;  Cook v. Winklepleck, supra, 16 Cal.App.2d Supp. 759, 59 P.2d 463;  St. James Church v. Superior Court (1955) 135 Cal.App.2d 352, 287 P.2d 387;  Cochrane v. Superior Court, supra, 261 Cal.App.2d 201, 67 Cal.Rptr. 675.)   It also furthers the purpose of section 396 by contributing to jurisdictional certainty.

We hold that when a complaint contains a good faith demand for more than $25,000, a superior court judge, who may think the case is “worth” less than that, does not have discretion to transfer the case to municipal court.

DISPOSITION

In each case let a peremptory writ of mandate issue commanding respondent court to set aside the order of transfer and to proceed to set the case for trial in accordance with applicable rules of court.

FOOTNOTES

FN1. Unless otherwise noted all statutory references are to the Code of Civil Procedure..  FN1. Unless otherwise noted all statutory references are to the Code of Civil Procedure.

2.   Section 396 provides:  “If an action or proceeding is commenced in a court which lacks jurisdiction of the subject matter thereof, as determined by the complaint or petition, if there is a court of this state which has such jurisdiction, the action or proceeding shall not be dismissed (except as provided in Section 399, and subdivision 1 of Section 581) but shall, on the application of either party, or on the court's own motion, be transferred to a court having jurisdiction of the subject matter which may be agreed upon by the parties, or, if they do not agree, to a court having such jurisdiction which is designated by law as a proper court for the trial or determination thereof, and it shall thereupon be entered and prosecuted in the court to which it is transferred as if it had been commenced therein, all prior proceedings being saved.   In any such case, if summons is served prior to the filing of the action or proceeding in the court to which it is transferred, as to any defendant, so served, who has not appeared in the action or proceeding, the time to answer or otherwise plead shall date from service upon such defendant of written notice of filing of such action or proceeding in the court to which it is transferred.“If an action or proceeding is commenced in or transferred to a court which has jurisdiction of the subject matter thereof as determined by the complaint or petition, and it thereafter appears from the verified pleadings, or at the trial, or hearing, that the determination of the action or proceeding, or of a cross-complaint, will necessarily involve the determination of questions not within the jurisdiction of the court, in which the action or proceeding is pending, the court, whenever such lack of jurisdiction appears, must suspend all further proceedings therein and transfer the action or proceeding and certify the pleadings (or if the pleadings be oral, a transcript of the same), and all papers and proceedings therein to a court having jurisdiction thereof which may be agreed upon by the parties, or, if they do not agree, to a court having such jurisdiction which is designated by law as a proper court for the trial or determination thereof.“An action or proceeding which is transferred under the provisions of this section shall be deemed to have been commenced at the time the complaint or petition was filed in the court from which it was originally transferred.“Nothing herein shall be construed to preclude or affect the right to amend the pleadings as provided in this code.“Nothing herein shall be construed to require the superior court to transfer any action or proceeding because the judgment to be rendered, as determined at the trial or hearing, is one which might have been rendered by a municipal or justice court in the same county or city and county.“In any case where the lack of jurisdiction is due solely to an excess in the amount of the demand, the excess may be remitted and the action may continue in the court where it is pending.“Upon the making of an order for such transfer, proceedings shall be had as provided in Section 399 of this code, the costs and fees thereof, and of filing the case in the court to which transferred, to be paid by the party filing the pleading in which the question outside the jurisdiction of the court appears unless the court ordering the transfer shall otherwise direct.”

3.   Williams v. Superior Court (1989) 216 Cal.App.3d 378, 264 Cal.Rptr. 677 follows Campbell.

4.   “(a) Each municipal and justice court has original jurisdiction of civil cases and proceedings as follows:  [¶] In all cases at law in which the demand ․ amounts to twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) or less․”  (Emphasis added.)

FRED WOODS, Associate Justice.

LILLIE, P.J., and JOHNSON, J., concur.