Pacher v. Sandhill Acres MHC, CIVIL ACTION NO: JP17-19-004722

CourtCourt of Justice of Peace Court of Delaware
Writing for the CourtChief Magistrate Davis for the Court
Decision Date23 October 2020
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO: JP17-19-004722


CIVIL ACTION NO: JP17-19-004722


October 23, 2020


SYSTEM ID: @3267587
PO BOX 8456

C.M. Davis for the Court
Plaintiff represented by Curtis Crowther, Esq.
Defendant represented by Nicole Faries, Esq.

The Court wishes to begin by apologizing to the parties for the delay in the issuance of this opinion. This case has been caught in turmoil of the unfortunate turn of events that our world has seen in the past several months. While more pressing matters may have intervened, this is still a matter of importance to these parties and the Court is sensitive to the time it has taken to getting this decision issued, even in light of the fact that counsel has made it clear that no prejudice would come to either party.

Procedural Posture

Plaintiff, Michael and Koreen Pacher (hereinafter "Pachers"), brought this action against their landlord, Sandhill Acres MHC LLC (hereinafter "Sandhill") seeking a declaratory judgment that a new park rule promulgated by Sandhill regarding the feeding of free-roaming cats was unenforceable and void as a matter of public policy and law. At the trial level, the Court heard legal argument on the question of whether this Court has jurisdiction over declaratory judgments. The single judge ruled that we do not have such jurisdiction; Plaintiffs brought a timely appeal.

Rather than hear the matter as a trial on the merits, the parties agreed to bifurcate the matter and have an initial hearing on the legal question. The specific question is whether this Court has jurisdiction under 10 Del. C. §6501 et. seq. to issue a declaratory judgment in a case construing the contractual language - and rules resulting therefrom - of a residential land lease. Treating this as a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the Court reserved trial for if it determined it had subject matter jurisdiction. The Court held a hearing on the motion to dismiss for lack of subject

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matter jurisdiction on January 30, 2020 and then ordered post-hearing briefing on specific questions. That briefing was concluded on March 4, 2020. This is the Court's decision on the motion. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that the provisions of 10 Del. C. §6501 grant this Court the authority to issue declaratory judgments within its limited jurisdiction.


The facts related to, and necessary for the consideration of, this motion are limited. The Pachers are the owners of their manufactured home. It sits on a lot in Sandhill Acres, owned by the defendant. The plaintiffs have a lot lease for the placement of the home and therefore are subject to the provisions of that lease. The lease permits the landlord to promulgate certain rules pertaining to the health, safety and welfare of all tenants. In this instance the landlord issued a rule limiting park residents from caring for and feeding free-roaming cats that have become something of a fixture in the park. The Pachers claim not to own the cats, but are caring for them in a fashion in accord with Delaware law. In furtherance of the rule, Sandhill has given the Pachers written notice of their intent to enforce the rule, though they never followed through with an action for eviction. Despite the landlord not seeking to enforce the rule or the notice by subsequently bringing action, Plaintiffs have brought this action to pre-empt any such action by the landlord.

Positions of the Parties

The Pachers claim that this Court has jurisdiction under the express language of the statute to adjudicate this matter and issue a declaratory judgment. They claim that two elements must be met - first, that the Justice of the Peace Court is a "court of record" and second, that the Court must have jurisdiction over the underlying subject matter of the case. In support, they claim that the very fact that the Court now records its proceedings is sufficient to make it a court of record. Further, they claim that this Court is the only one with jurisdiction over the underlying subject matter, the adjudication of issues dealing with the possession of rentals.

Sandhill counters that this Court does not have jurisdiction to issue a declaratory action, as it is not a court of record. It further claims that the underlying question before the Court is not one of possession, but one of contractual construction and reformation, not within the jurisdiction of the Court.

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Preliminary Considerations

This Court has approached its position on this matter reluctantly. Were the litigants to have polled the members of this panel prior to hearing the argument, there would have been full agreement that the Court was not one where the relief sought was available. While we realize this may seem like pre-judgment, the fact is that the combined legal experience of the panel totals nearly 80 years. In that time, not one member of the panel had ever been presented with this question, and it had been essentially a matter of "common knowledge" that the Justice of the Peace Court did not have the authority to hear an action seeking declaratory judgment. In support of this position, the Court rules specifically omit Rule 57, which is the rule that governs such actions for the sister Courts of this state. In short, we believed the judge below had properly considered the matter. After the motion hearing, however, it became clear to the Court that the argument may have some merit and required careful consideration. The Court is cognizant of and sensitive to the potential legal and administrative disruption a finding of jurisdiction could have.

In order to understand how the Court has arrived at this decision, it is important to understand the manner by which this Court can gain jurisdiction. The Justice of the Peace Court is a Court of limited jurisdiction. Aside from the inherent powers of any Court, the Justice of the Peace Court obtains its authority only through constitutional or statutory grant. Predominantly, the civil jurisdiction of the Court is confined to Chapter 93 of Title 10 of the Delaware Code for general jurisdiction issues and Chapters 57 and 63 of Title 25 for matters related to leasehold possession and distress. While those are the primary locations for jurisdictional questions, some stand-alone statutes - for example the Wage Claim Act, the Auto Repair Fraud Prevention Act and the Timber Trespass Act - bestow jurisdiction over matters where the claim does not exceed the Court's jurisdictional amount under 10 Del C. §9301.

Some of those stand-alone statutes grant the power to hear a case to the Justice of the Peace Court as "a court of competent jurisdiction." In these cases, the jurisdictional language contained in 10 Del C. §9301(2) may apply, as an "action for any penalty or forfeiture incurred under the provisions of any statute" when the monetary limit is not exceeded. Others of those stand-alone statutes directly state that the Justice of the Peace Court has jurisdiction. Still others, by the terms and operation of the statute in question, include the Court as one with jurisdiction. The jurisdiction of the Court is ascribed in these last two circumstances under subsection (6) of §9301, which invokes a catch-all for "any other civil jurisdiction provided by law."

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If this Court is to have jurisdiction in this case, it is under this last circumstance, as declaratory judgments under 10 Del. C. §6501 are not part of the Court's explicit grant of jurisdiction. Because of this, we need to look to the operation and language of the declaratory judgment statute itself to determine if such jurisdiction is "provided by law." That statute states, in pertinent part:

Except where the Constitution of this State provides otherwise, courts of record within their respective jurisdictions shall have the power to declare rights, status and other legal relations whether or not further relief is or could be claimed.

There is no specific provision in the Constitution of Delaware of 1897 prohibiting Justices of the Peace from making a declaratory judgment. That leaves only the two remaining questions presented by the parties: Is the Justice of the Peace Court a "court of record" for purposes of this statute? Does this Court have jurisdiction over the underlying subject...

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