Best v. Best, No. S–15–0051.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
Writing for the CourtFOX, Justice.
Citation2015 WY 133,357 P.3d 1149
Decision Date30 September 2015
Docket NumberNo. S–15–0051.
PartiesJean BEST, Petitioner, v. Brianna BEST, Respondent.

357 P.3d 1149
2015 WY 133

Jean BEST, Petitioner
v.
Brianna BEST, Respondent.

No. S–15–0051.

Supreme Court of Wyoming.

Sept. 30, 2015.


357 P.3d 1150

Representing Petitioner: Douglas W. Bailey of Bailey, Stock & Harmon, P.C., Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Representing Respondent: No appearance.

Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, KITE* , DAVIS, and FOX, JJ.

Opinion

FOX, Justice.

¶ 1] This case comes before the Court on a writ to review the district court's order dismissing a declaratory judgment granted by the circuit court. The district court held that the circuit court did not have jurisdiction to decide a declaratory judgment action. We hold that a cause of action seeking declaratory relief can be within the jurisdiction of the circuit court, so long as the circuit court has jurisdiction independent of the declaratory relief requested. In this case, the circuit court had jurisdiction independent of the declaratory relief sought; therefore, it had jurisdiction to decide the declaratory judgment claim. We reverse and remand.

ISSUE

[¶ 2] Did the circuit court have jurisdiction over claims for declaratory relief brought pursuant to the Wyoming Declaratory Judgments Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1–37–101, et seq., when the recovery sought was an amount not exceeding $50,000?

FACTS

[¶ 3] This case concerns a dispute regarding who is entitled to the proceeds of a retirement annuity contract. Kevin Best, the father of Brianna Best and ex-husband of Jean Best,1 made contributions to employer-sponsored retirement accounts administered by the Variable Annuity and Life Insurance Company (“VALIC”). Approximately three years after Kevin executed the beneficiary designation on his retirement accounts currently in dispute, Kevin and Jean divorced. Kevin died several years later. VALIC determined that Jean was the primary beneficiary on the accounts and sent her a claims package. Brianna disagreed and filed a complaint for declaratory judgment in circuit court against Jean2 and VALIC, claiming she was entitled to the proceeds under her deceased father's annuity contract.

[357 P.3d 1151

¶ 4] Brianna alleged that the circuit court “has jurisdiction pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 5–9–128(a)(i) because the amount in controversy does not exceed fifty thousand dollars ($50,000), exclusive of court costs.” Brianna asserted only one claim, for declaratory relief pursuant to the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1–37–101, et seq., and sought the following relief:
Plaintiff demands that judgment be entered in her favor, declaring that:
A. Defendant holds property belonging to the Estate of Kevin D. Best, deceased, consisting of Account (ending in) # 042 and Account (ending in) # 044;
B. Plaintiff is the sole heir of the Estate of Kevin D. Best, deceased;
C. No other person has a right to distribution of such accounts;
D. Plaintiff is entitled to payment of:
1. The remaining funds in Account (ending in) # 042 and Account (ending in) # 044, held by Defendant VALIC;
2. Pre and post-judgment interest;
3. Attorneys' fees and costs necessary to bring this action; and
4. Any other and further relief as the Court may deem just and appropriate.

Brianna filed two amended complaints, but these amendments did not change the assertion of jurisdiction, the nature of her claim, or the relief sought.

[¶ 5] After a hearing on Jean's Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment, the circuit court entered summary judgment in favor of Jean, declaring “Defendant [Jean] Best, as the designated primary beneficiary on the retirement Accounts ... is entitled to the proceeds of the Accounts” and ordering Defendant VALIC to “distribute the proceeds of the Accounts[.]” Brianna appealed to the district court. On appeal, the district court did not reach the merits of the case, instead holding that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction over the dispute because “[o]nly a district court has jurisdiction over matters brought under [the Declaratory Judgments Act], no matter the amount in controversy.”

[¶ 6] Jean's Petition for Writ of Review was granted on March 24, 2015, and the issue of the circuit court's jurisdiction is currently before this Court.3

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶ 7] “The existence of subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law that we review de novo. Harmon v. Star Valley Med. Ctr., 2014 WY 90, ¶ 14, 331 P.3d 1174, 1178 (Wyo.2014) (quoting Excel Constr., Inc. v. Town of Lovell, 2011 WY 166, ¶ 12, 268 P.3d 238, 241 (Wyo.2011) ). We review questions of law de novo without affording deference to the decision of the district court. Carlson v. Flocchini Invs., 2005 WY 19, ¶ 9, 106 P.3d 847, 852 (Wyo.2005) ; Hermreck v. UPS, 938 P.2d 863, 866 (Wyo.1997) ; Griess v. Office of the Atty. Gen., Div. of Criminal Investigation, 932 P.2d 734, 736 (Wyo.1997). Moreover, a court's subject matter jurisdiction may be challenged at any time. Harmon, 2014 WY 90, ¶ 14, 331 P.3d at 1178 ; N. Laramie Range Found. v. Converse Cty. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs, 2012 WY 158, ¶ 22, 290 P.3d 1063, 1073 (Wyo.2012).

[¶ 8] Statutory construction is also a question of law, and hence the standard of review is de novo. Harmon, 2014 WY 90, ¶ 15, 331 P.3d at 1178 ; Powder River Basin Res. Council v. Wyo. Oil & Gas Conservation Comm'n, 2014 WY 37, ¶ 19, 320 P.3d 222, 228 (Wyo.2014). As we have long held:

In interpreting statutes, this Court must endeavor to find the reasonable intent of the drafters. We begin by examining the ordinary and obvious meaning of the words employed according to their arrangement and connection. When a statute is sufficiently clear and unambiguous, we give effect to the plain and ordinary meaning of

[357 P.3d 1152

the words and need not invoke our longstanding rules of statutory construction.

Harmon, 2014 WY 90, ¶ 15, 331 P.3d at 1178 (citations omitted); see also Int'l Ass'n of Firefighters Local Union No. 279 v. City of Cheyenne, 2013 WY 157, ¶ 9, 316 P.3d 1162, 1166 (Wyo.2013) (“A statute is clear and unambiguous if its wording is such that reasonable persons are able to agree on its meaning with consistency and predictability.” (citation omitted)).

DISCUSSION

¶ 9] The sole question before us is whether the circuit court had jurisdiction over the Respondent's declaratory judgment complaint in which she invoked Wyoming's Declaratory Judgments Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1–37–101, et seq. (LexisNexis 2015), seeking a declaration that she is entitled to the proceeds contained in her deceased father's retirement annuity accounts.

[¶ 10] The notion that a court must have subject matter jurisdiction before it can act upon a matter is fundamental to the operation of our judicial system. It is well established that a “judgment may properly be rendered against a party only if the court has authority to adjudicate the type of controversy involved in the action.” Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 11, at 108 (1982) ; see also Granite Springs Retreat Ass'n v. Manning, 2006 WY 60, ¶ 5, 133 P.3d 1005, 1009 (Wyo.2006). As we have explained, “[s]ubject matter jurisdiction is essential to the exercise of judicial power. If a court does not have subject matter jurisdiction, ‘it lacks any authority to proceed, and any decision, judgment, or other order is, as a matter of law, utterly void and of no effect for any purpose.’ ” State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Kunz, 2008 WY 71, ¶ 6, 186 P.3d 378, 380 (Wyo.2008) (citations omitted); see also Mut.

of Omaha Ins. Co. v. Blury–Losolla, 952 P.2d 1117, 1119 (Wyo.1998) ; United Mine Workers of America Local 1972 v. Decker Coal Co., 774 P.2d 1274, 1283–84 (Wyo.1989).

[¶ 11] Wyoming courts derive their jurisdiction from the Wyoming Constitution and from the Wyoming legislature. Article 5, section 1 of the Wyoming Constitution entrusts judicial power to the “supreme court, district courts, and such subordinate courts as the legislature may, by general law, establish and ordain from time to time.” Wyo. Const. art. 5 § 1. The constitution further establishes district courts as courts of general original jurisdiction:

The district court shall have original jurisdiction of all causes both at law and in equity and in all criminal cases, of all matters of probate and insolvency and of such special cases and proceedings as are not otherwise provided for. The district court shall also have original jurisdiction in all cases and of all proceedings in which jurisdiction shall not have been by law vested exclusively in some other court [.]

Wyo. Const. art. 5, § 10 (emphasis added); see also Granite Springs Retreat, 2006 WY 60, ¶ 6, 133 P.3d at 1010 (District courts have jurisdiction in all cases “in which jurisdiction shall not have been by law vested exclusively in some other court.”).

[¶ 12] In contrast, circuit courts are courts of limited original civil subject matter jurisdiction over only those matters outlined in Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 5–9–128 (LexisNexis 2015), which include “[a]n action where the prayer for recovery is an amount not exceeding fifty thousand dollars[.]” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 5–9–128(a)(i).

[¶ 13] The district court looked to that statute and concluded that because the legislature did not specifically grant the power to the circuit courts to resolve cases brought under the Declaratory Judgments Act, only a district court could have jurisdiction over those cases. The court held: “An action brought...

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12 practice notes
  • Moses Inc. v. Moses, S-21-0170
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • May 5, 2022
    ...judgment, or other order is, as a matter of law, utterly void and of no effect for any purpose.") (cleaned up) (quoting Best v. Best , 2015 WY 133, ¶ 10, 357 P.3d 1149, 1152 (Wyo. 2015) ).3 Moses Inc. focuses its appellate argument solely on the dismissal of its claim for increased insuranc......
  • Moses Inc. v. Moses, S-21-0170
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • May 5, 2022
    ...judgment, or other order is, as a matter of law, utterly void and of no effect for any purpose.") (cleaned up) (quoting Best v. Best, 2015 WY 133, ¶ 10, 357 P.3d 1149, 1152 (Wyo. 2015)). [3] Moses Inc. focuses its appellate argument solely on the dismissal of its claim for increased insuran......
  • Mills v. State, S-19-0125
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • February 4, 2020
    ...L.Ed.2d 235 (1982). Under certain circumstances, however, judicial decisions are only given prospective effect. See, e.g., Best v. Best , 2015 WY 133, ¶ 34, 357 P.3d 1149, 1157 (Wyo. 2015) (applying holding prospectively only). For a decision to warrant only prospective application, the dec......
  • Brown v. State, S-16-0148
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • May 1, 2017
    ...in the juvenile courts. Circuit court jurisdiction is limited to that which has been granted by the legislature. See Best v. Best, 2015 WY 133, ¶ 12, 357 P.3d 1149, 1152 (Wyo. 2015). Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-10-101 (LexisNexis 2015) provides that "[c]rimes which may be punished by death or by im......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
12 cases
  • Moses Inc. v. Moses, S-21-0170
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • May 5, 2022
    ...judgment, or other order is, as a matter of law, utterly void and of no effect for any purpose.") (cleaned up) (quoting Best v. Best , 2015 WY 133, ¶ 10, 357 P.3d 1149, 1152 (Wyo. 2015) ).3 Moses Inc. focuses its appellate argument solely on the dismissal of its claim for increased insuranc......
  • Moses Inc. v. Moses, S-21-0170
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • May 5, 2022
    ...judgment, or other order is, as a matter of law, utterly void and of no effect for any purpose.") (cleaned up) (quoting Best v. Best, 2015 WY 133, ¶ 10, 357 P.3d 1149, 1152 (Wyo. 2015)). [3] Moses Inc. focuses its appellate argument solely on the dismissal of its claim for increased insuran......
  • Mills v. State, S-19-0125
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • February 4, 2020
    ...L.Ed.2d 235 (1982). Under certain circumstances, however, judicial decisions are only given prospective effect. See, e.g., Best v. Best , 2015 WY 133, ¶ 34, 357 P.3d 1149, 1157 (Wyo. 2015) (applying holding prospectively only). For a decision to warrant only prospective application, the dec......
  • Brown v. State, S-16-0148
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • May 1, 2017
    ...in the juvenile courts. Circuit court jurisdiction is limited to that which has been granted by the legislature. See Best v. Best, 2015 WY 133, ¶ 12, 357 P.3d 1149, 1152 (Wyo. 2015). Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-10-101 (LexisNexis 2015) provides that "[c]rimes which may be punished by death or by im......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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