jurisdictional line-jumping


The SJC decided an interesting jurisdictional case last week, Hill v. Kwan, 2009 ME 4:


The plaintiff filed a malpractice claim before the screening panel was done, so that the Superior Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction at the time she filed the complaint.  The defendant filed a motion to dismiss based on lack of jurisdiction.  Before the motion was heard, the panel finished and the plaintiff filed an amended complaint.  The Superior Court granted the motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds.  The SJC reversed.

First, the SJC deviated from the federal rule that subject matter jurisdiction based on diversity depends on the situation at the time of filing, with no opportunity to cure.  The SJC reasoned that the federal rule was premised on curtailing forum shopping, and that this problem didn't exist here.  Second, while the amended complaint was technically a supplemental complaint under Rule 15(d), not an amended complaint, the SJC said that labels aren't important.  The SJC remanded for the Superior Court to hear the case, holding that the Superior Court had jurisdiction.

This decision of course makes me muse upon its potential implications.  Off the top of my blogging head, I can think of at least three potential situations of curable jurisdiction:  (1) administrative appeals in which there's no final judgment at the time of filing; (2) when standing lapses due to a loss in right, title or interest in property or other factual change; and (3) actions requiring residency, like divorce.

In the first situation, jumping the gun seems unlikely, because you kind of need the decision before appealing it.  Still, if someone's in a hurry ….  Or there's the situation when the local board rules orally but it's another month before the written decision, and then the board wants to think about the draft  for another month, and so on.  This time lag between an oral vote and the written decision in the 80B context leads to complicated questions about whether you have to file your appeal within 30 days of the oral decision to meet the 80B deadline.  This decision could suggest that if you do so, you can simply supplement the complaint after you get the written decision.  That's probably a good thing.  (Otherwise to make sure you're not blowing a jurisdictional deadline, you have to file multiple suits – one after the oral decision, one after the written decision.)

In the second situation, the applicant might want to slip in and out of its option agreement, or the opposing neighbor living near the project, but it's hard for me to think of a lot of potential systematic abuse.  

Finally, the residency cases, like the first situation I noted, look like get-in-the-queue early opportunities – by the time any judge deals with anything, the six-month period has been met.

In sum, as budgets get cut, court delays get longer, and there might be a greater interest in getting into that queue asap.  But I doubt that the judicial system really wants a bunch of premature filings.  Going forward, could a Superior Court deny a motion to file a supplemental complaint, ruling that this sort of premature gamesmanship is wrong?  With amended complaints, there's a right to amend until a responsive pleading (so you can amend as of right when a motion to dismiss is pending).  But with supplemental pleadings, you need leave.  The motion must be "upon reasonable notice and upon such terms as are just."  Does this mean that the standards for amended and supplemental complaint are different, and it's not just a question of labels?  Wouldn't you want it to be, so the Superior Court could have some discretion to smack down line jumpers?  But the SJC didn't remand to consider this in this case - it told the Superior Court there was jurisdiction, period.  So the SJC must have concluded that it was just to allow the supplemental complaint and there was no discretionary issue to remand, at least in the particular facts of that case.

The facts do look pretty compelling in that instance – the panel was taking forever to get done, and the claim would be gone forever, statute of limitations blown, if the SJC hadn't allowed a reach-back pleading.  I saw the oral argument on this one, and Chuck Harvey, as always, did a great job for the party trying to keep the dismissal, but he was hard pressed to identify how the equities supported his position in that case, as opposed abstract principles.

In sum, I think that this decision, in the end, falls into the "don't try this at home" category of cases.  If someone files a complaint before establishing residency or before finality of the admininstrative prerequisites solely for the purpose of speeding things along, while that appears to have been the motive in this particular case, I still wouldn't want to risk a Superior Court telling me that's a no-no, with the SJC elaborating that this decision does not stand for the proposition that everyone can line-jump with impunity.