Professional Liability

Into the Void: The Defense of Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

Into the Void: The Defense of Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

Subject matter jurisdiction describes the power and author­ity to adjudicate a case, and to enter a valid, binding judg­ment. This power is derived from Alabama’s constitution and its statutes.[1]The Supreme Court of Alabama has stated that ” [s]ubject-matter jurisdiction is a simple concept,” which it described with this quote from Corpus Juris Secondum:

Jurisdiction of the subject matter is the power to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong. The principle of subject matter jurisdiction relates to a court’s inherent authority to deal with the case or matter before it. The term means not simply jurisdiction of the particular case then occupying the attention of the court but jurisdiction of the class of cases to which the particular case belongs.[2]

The impact of the absence of subject-matter jurisdiction is profound. The filing of a civil action that does not invoke the court’s subject-matter jurisdiction is a nullity, and the only authority the court has is to order that it be dismissed. No amendment attempting to cure the problem can be effective. Any counterclaims, crossclaims, third-party claims and claims in intervention also must be dismissed. A defense of lack of subject-matter jurisdiction is never waived, even if it is not asserted before the entry of a final judgment, or by a post-judgment motion, or on appeal. Indeed, the Supreme Court of Alabama will dismiss an appeal ex meru motu if the court spots a subject matter jurisdiction problem. The court has made clear that it is the duty of an appellate court to consider lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and it is also clear that the court looks for possible subject matter jurisdiction problems in appeals in civil cases that are taken to the court.[3]

This article reviews a good, but hardly exhaustive, number of the Alabama appellate court decisions on subject-matter jurisdiction in civil cases. First, though, a synopsis of the procedural rules is appropriate.

Rule 12(b)(1) of the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure provides, of course, for a motion to dismiss on the ground that the court lacks jurisdiction over the subject matter of the civil action. Rule 12(h)(1), in setting out the defenses that are waived if omitted from a Rule 12 motion to dismiss or in a responsive pleading, conspicuously does not include the defense of the absence of subject matter jurisdiction. More conspicuously, Rule 12(h)(3) states that “Whenever it appears by suggestion of the parties or otherwise that the court lacks jurisdiction of the subject matter, the court shall dismiss the action.”

Rule 60(b) provides for the granting of a post-judgment motion on the grounds that the judgment is void, and a judgment is void if the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction. Further, Rule 60(b) does not provide a specific time requirement for filing a Rule 60 post-judgment motion on the ground that the judgment is void, and the “reasonable time” period for post-judgment motions in Rule 60(b) does not apply to motions asserting that the judgment is void.

Subject-matter jurisdiction issues in civil cases arise in a wide variety of situations, most of which fall into these four categories: (1) a problem with a party; (2) a problem with a claim; (3) a problem with the court, and (4) a problem with a procedural requirement for initiating the civil action.

Party Problems.

A civil action filed against a deceased person, as the sole defendant, does not invoke the subject-matter jurisdiction of the court. Kelton v. Caldwell, 280 So.3d 1062 (Ala Civ. App. 2019). In this ejectment action, the plaintiff amended the complaint to add the widow as a defendant, but because the civil action was a nullity, the amendment did not cure the absence of subject-matter jurisdiction. The court instructed the trial court to vacate the judgment for the plaintiff.

A wrongful death action filed by the executrix of the deceased’s estate, acting pro se, is a nullity. Ex parte Ghafary, 738 So.2d 778 (Ala.1998). In its opinion, the Supreme Court emphasized that Section 34-3-6(a), Ala. Code 1975, regarding the unauthorized practice of law, prohibits a non-attor­ney executor or personal representative from filing a civil action for the estate. Id. at 781.[4]

A plaintiff’s lack of standing to assert a claim also presents a sub­ject-matter jurisdiction problem, but the vitality of this issue is of less consequence since the Supreme Court of Alabama held, in a 2013 case, that the concept of standing should be confined to public law cases, where the concept of standing to sue was first recognized as a prereq­uisite to the pursuit of the asserted claim. Ex parte BAC Home Loans Ser­vicing, LP,159 So.3d 31 (Ala. 2013). Instead, the problem in this ejectment action was whether the plaintiff, a home loan servicing company, was the real party in interest to sue for the ejectment of a defaulting mortgagor.

Claim Problems

The Supreme Court of Alabama has held that a claim that it not ripe for adjudication does not invoke the subject-matter jurisdiction of the court. See, e.g., Ex parte Safeway Ins. Co. of Alabama, Inc., 990 So.2d 344 (Ala. 2008). In this case, which arose from a motor vehicle accident, the plaintiff sued her uninsured motorist carrier and an uninsured driver. Her claim against the carrier was for a bad-faith denial of her claim for UIM benefits. The court concluded that liability of the insurer to pay UIM benefits had not yet been established, therefore, that claim was ripe for adjudication and, consequently, did not invoke the subject-matter jurisdiction of the court.

While the basic principle of ripeness as a subject-matter jurisdiction problem has not been discarded since this decision, the court subse­quently has taken the view that what might be presented as a ripeness problem could be more accurately view as a simple inability of the plaintiff to prove the elements of a case. See, e.g., Ex parte Safeway Ins. Co. of Alabama, Inc., 148 So.3d 39 (Ala. 2013).

A claim that is moot is non-justiciable and consequently does not invoke the subject-matter jurisdiction of the court. Gaines v. Smith, _So.3d__, 2022 WL 17073033, (Ala. Nov.18, 2022). If there ceases to be an actual controversy between the parties, a case becomes moot and the court at that point lacks the authority to further adjudicate the matter. South Alabama Gas District v. Knight, 138 So.3d 971 (Ala. 2013). In this case, the court stated succinctly: “A case lacking ripeness has yet to come into existence; a moot case has died [and] [b]etween the two lies the realm of justiciability.” Id. at 975.

Disputes over ecclesiastical matters fall outside the subject-matter jurisdiction of an Alabama court. In Taylor v. Paradise Missionary Baptist Church, 242 So.3d 979 (Ala. 2017), a pastor complained of his removal by the church. The court held that, in the absence of a contract between the parties, a court “must decline to assume any jurisdiction as regards the purely ecclesiastical or spiritual feature of the church.” Id. at 987.[5]

A third example of a claim-based subject-matter jurisdiction problem is a claim against the State of Alabama, as well as its officers and against in their official capacity, as to which the State is immune. See, e.g., Butler v Parks, 337 So.3d 1178 (Ala. 2021).

Court Problems.

There are various circumstances in which a particular court will not have jurisdiction over the subject-matter of a civil action.

Where “two or more courts have concurrent jurisdiction, the one which first takes cognizance of a cause has the exclusive right to entertain and exercise such jurisdiction.” Attenta, Inc. v. Calhoun, 97 So.3d 140,146 (Ala. 2012). (quoting Grimes v. Liberty Nat’l Life Ins. Co., 726 So.2d 615, 617 (Ala. 1998)). In this case, a claim for outrage was filed in one county after a claim for workers’ compensation benefits had been filed, and settled, in another county. The outrage claim was directed to an alleged misperformance by the employer’s third-party administrator of the terms of the settlement agreement. Importantly, the civil action involving the workers’ compensation claim was still pending when the outrage claim was filed. The result: The court vacated a $3,695,298.19 judgment entered on a jury verdict against the third-party administrator on the outrage claim.[6]

Another example involves the removal to a circuit court of a will contest. Failure of a probate court to follow the statutory requirements for removal, with respect to the certification of that court’s papers and documents pertaining to the will contest, prevents the invocation of the circuit court’s subject-matter jurisdiction. In Harper v. Taylor, 343 So.3d 1 (Ala. 2021) an award by the circuit court on the will contest, including an award of attorneys’ fees, was vacated for this reason.

The Supreme Court also recently vacated an award in an unlawful detainer action for the landlord because that action was filed in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County when original jurisdiction for such actions was, by statute, laid in the district courts of the State. The tenant’s appeal was dismissed with an instruction to the circuit court to vacate its award to the landlord. Murry v. Porter,__So.3d__, 2023 WL 5158094 (Ala. August 11, 2023).

Also, the Supreme Court of Alabama recently affirmed the circuit court’s dismissal of a suspended plaintiff attorney’s claim that the circuit court erred in dismissing his action against the Disciplinary Board of the Alabama State Bar for lack of jurisdiction. Walden v. Disciplinary Bd. of the Ala. State Bar, No. SC-2023-0507, 2023 Ala. LEXIS 139, at *2 (Dec. 8, 2023). The rationale was simple: decisions in attorney discipline matters lie within the exclusive jurisdiction of the State Bar and are reviewable only by the Supreme Court of Alabama. Id. at *3-*4.[7]

The cases discussed in this article are a healthy sampling, but only a sam­pling, of the various situations and circumstances in which a court may lack subject-matter jurisdiction of a court over a civil action. Given the drastic consequences of an absence of subject-matter jurisdiction, it is important for attorneys having such cases to be aware of the possibility that a question­able state of affairs in a particular case may involve a valid subject-matter jurisdiction. The author’s advice is this: When in doubt, check it out!

This article was originally published in the Spring 2024 issue of the Alabama Defense Lawyers Association (ADLA) Journal. It is republished here with permission from the publication.

[1] See, e.g., Ex parte Butler, 207 So.2d 821 (Ala. 2007) and Ex parte Board of Water and Sewer Commissioners of City of Mobile, 272 So.3d 635 (Ala. 2018).

[2] 21 C.J.S. Courts § 11 (2006).

[3] See e g., Ex parte Full Circle Distribution, LLC, 838 So.2d 638 (Ala. 2003).

[4] See also Ex parte Williams, 89 So.3d 135 (Ala. Civ. App.), involving the filing of a wrongful detainer action by the non-lawyer executive director of and for a city’s housing authority.

[5] See also Ex parte Bole, 103 So.3d 40 (Ala. 2012), involving a defamation claim by pastor against a law member of the congregation.

[6] See also Ex parte Huntingdon College, 309 So.3d 606 (Ala. 2020), involving an impermissible collateral attack, in a probate court proceeding, on a prior circuit court judgment approving a settlement agreement between trustees and beneficiaries of a charitable trust.

[7] See Ala. R. of Disciplinary P. Rule 1(a)(1) (“Lawyers… are subject to the exclusive disciplinary jurisdiction of the disciplinary commission and the disciplinary board of the Alabama state bar, with review by the Supreme Court of Alabama.)).