By: J. Nathan Cole

Significant backlogs and bottlenecks at the state court level, resulting in civil cases that can drag on for three or more years, have caused the Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court to increase the procedural amounts for cases filed in state District Courts and the Boston Municipal Court from $25,000 to $50,000. The expectation is that lawyers and litigants will use the District Courts to resolve “smaller” disputes, freeing up the Superior Court dockets for civil damages cases seeking more than $50,000. While this presents opportunities for citizens and businesses frustrated by the slow pace and expense of Superior Court litigation, it presents pitfalls and strategic considerations for lawyers and their clients alike.

Effective January 1, 2020, the maximum procedural amount (that is, the amount of money damages sought by a plaintiff) for damage cases brought in the District Courts (and Boston Municipal Court) will increase from $25,000 to $50,000. The minimum procedural amount for Superior Court cases will go from $25,000 to $50,000.

Starting this January, if the alleged damages in a new lawsuit exceed the revised District and Boston Municipal Courts amounts, or do not meet the new Superior Court minimum procedural amount, those claims can be dismissed. The new procedural amounts are designed to funnel “larger” damage cases toward the Superior Court and “smaller” cases to the District Court or BMC. What constitutes “large” and “small” has been unchanged since 1986, but going forward, cases between $25,000 to $50,000 must be brought in District Court or the BMC and new cases that do not credibly allege more than $50,000 in damages will be dismissed from Superior Court dockets throughout the Commonwealth.

Notable Differences Between Superior Court and District Court Litigation

Attorneys accustomed to practicing in the Superior Court for amounts under $50,000 must be prepared for numerous changes to how they practice before District Court or BMC judges and juries. One of the biggest changes between trials in District Court and Superior Court is the number of jurors who sit and deliberate for a trial. District Court juries consist of only six jurors; Superior Court jury trials have twelve jurors.

Unhappy litigants who want to appeal a judgment in District Court, unlike those in Superior Court, may not appeal directly to the Massachusetts Appeals Court. Appeals from final judgments in the District Court or BMC go to the Appellate Division of the District Court, where the District/Municipal Courts Rules of Appellate Division Appeal control. These rules are similar, but not identical, to the Massachusetts Rules of Appellate Procedure and lawyers should understand the differences between the two sets of appellate rules.

There are also differences in the discovery or tracking orders for the courts, and Superior Court Rule 9A does not apply to District Court motions. In the BMC and District Courts, motion practice is governed by Boston Municipal Court and District Court Joint Standing Order No. 1-04, Civil Case Management, VI, pursuant to which parties schedule hearings on motions and must follow the District Court’s unique “opposition procedure.”

Correctly Calculating Procedural Amounts to Avoid (or Seek) Dismissal of Claims

The Superior Court minimum procedural amount (soon to be $50,000) is the amount of damages “reasonably likely” to be recovered by the plaintiff. A plaintiff must list this amount in her Civil Action Cover Sheet or Statement of Damages form filed with the complaint. She can file a civil action if the amount of damages exceeds the procedural amount, but it must meet the minimum for the respective court, or risk dismissal. The respective form, filing fees, and the complaint are filed together with the civil clerk’s office to start a lawsuit.

The term “procedural amount” means the damages the plaintiff is suing for when it files its complaint—but these “single damages” do not include multiple damages, including, for example double or triple damages sought under Mass. G.L. c. 93A.

The question of whether to file in Superior Court or District Court comes down to what the “reasonable likelihood” of the damages recover will be. That is, you may only file in District Court “if there is no reasonable likelihood that recovery by the plaintiff will exceed $25,000 [$50,000 as of January 1, 2020].” G.L. c. 218, §19. Conversely, a plaintiff may only file her lawsuit in Superior Court if “there is no reasonable likelihood that recovery by the plaintiff will be less than or equal to $25,000 [$50,000 as of January 1, 2020].” G.L. c. 212, §3.

Courts evaluate the question of what constitutes a “reasonable likelihood” at the time the case is filed. If, after discovery, the facts ultimately show that the plaintiff’s claimed damages are more or less than what was “reasonably likely” at the time of filing, the case will remains in the court where plaintiff initiated the action. What constitutes “reasonable likelihood” for these purposes refers to the amount of the damages likely to be recovered and does not consider the strengths or weaknesses of the liability of the case.

If a defendant moves to dismiss the case on the basis that the alleged damages do not establish a reasonable likelihood of recovery that meets the statutory minimums, and the court agrees, the case must be dismissed. Although a transfer to the appropriate court is not automatic, the new rules allow for the plaintiff to re-file the action in the court based on the appropriate jurisdictional amount.

Defendants must raise the procedural amount defense in a pre-answer motion to dismiss or in its answer to the complaint (Mass. R. Civ. P.12(b)(10)) and must do so within 20 days after defendant has been served. Mass. R. Civ. P. 12(a)(2). Once raised by a defendant, the court may schedule a hearing and review written responses concerning the damages amounts. A defendant who fails to raise the insufficient procedural amount waives it as a defense.

Even if the defendant does not raise the procedural amount and moves to dismiss, however, courts can still inquire on its own and conduct a hearing, requiring the parties to provide written responses concerning the improper procedural amount.

The Interplay Between the Statute of Limitations and Dismissal for Lack of Jurisdictional Amount

In cases where a plaintiff’s claim is dismissed because it does not meet the reasonable likelihood standard above, what happens if an applicable statute of limitation runs during the period after suit was filed and before it is re-filed in the appropriate court? A statutory provision protects a plaintiff in such instances with a 30-day grace period within which plaintiff must re-file its suit to preserve its claims from the running of the statute of limitations. G.L.c. 212, §3(d) (Superior Court), and G.L.c. 218, §19A(d) (District Court). Additionally, after re-filing in the appropriate court, the plaintiff is credited the filing fee paid to the first court. A plaintiff may also appeal the dismiss for improper procedural amount to a single justice of the Appeals Court. G.L. c. 218, §19A(c).

The above concerns, while not insignificant, should give way to a more efficient civil damages framework where “smaller” cases can be effectively litigated and defended in District Court, allowing “larger” cases to proceed in Superior Court. Anyone familiar with litigating civil cases in Massachusetts understands, perhaps painfully so, that the current system is inefficient, expensive, and in need of an overhaul. Hopefully, the changes taking place on January 2, 2020, will be a step in the right direction.

J. Nathan Cole is a Director at Kenney & Sams and an experienced trial lawyer in Massachusetts Federal, Superior and District Courts. Nate has been representing businesses, construction contractors, and individuals in Massachusetts for over fifteen years.