Taylor v. Beckas

Decision Date22 January 1970
Docket NumberNo. 21954.,21954.
Citation424 F.2d 905,137 US App. DC 417
PartiesPhyllis TAYLOR, Appellant, v. Peter BECKAS, Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit

Mr. T. Emmett McKenzie, Washington, D. C., submitted on the brief for appellant.

Mr. Ralph Stein, Washington, D. C., submitted on the brief for appellee.

Before McGOWAN, ROBINSON and ROBB, Circuit Judges.

ROBB, Circuit Judge:

The District of Columbia Court of General Sessions dismissed the appellant's complaint for lack of jurisdiction. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion, citing Fox v. Shannon & Luchs Co., 236 A.2d 60 (D.C.App.1967). We reverse.

The appellant's complaint was based on an alleged assault and demanded actual damages in the sum of $10,000 and punitive damages in a like amount. This aggregate claim for $20,000 put the cause of action beyond the reach of the Court of General Sessions, since by statute its jurisdiction is limited to cases "in which the claimed value of personal property or the debt or damages claimed does not exceed the sum of $10,000, exclusive of interest and costs." D.C.Code § 11-961 (1967). As one defense the answer to the complaint denied that the court had jurisdiction, "the amount claimed being beyond the jurisdictional limits of this Court". At a pretrial hearing eighteen months after the answer was filed the trial judge dismissed the complaint for lack of jurisdiction and denied plaintiff's oral motion for leave to amend her complaint by reducing the ad damnum. Although the record is not entirely clear it appears that the trial judge denied the motion upon the theory that he had no discretion to permit the amendment.1

In Fox v. Shannon & Luchs Co., 236 A.2d 60 (D.C.App.1967), cited by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals as the basis for its ruling, that court affirmed the dismissal of a complaint and the denial of leave to amend where the damages alleged were in excess of $10,000. The majority opinion rejected the argument that General Sessions Rule 15,2 providing that leave to amend will be freely given, should be applied. The court held that this rule was inapplicable when the trial court had no jurisdiction over the subject matter, and that "since the total amount sought exceeded the court's jurisdictional limit, the case was properly dismissed on that ground." (236 A.2d 61). The rationale of the decision may be expressed in a syllogism: a court without jurisdiction cannot act; the complaint did not give the court jurisdiction; therefore the court was without power to allow the amendment. One judge dissented, citing Christensson v. Hogdal, 91 U.S.App.D.C. 251, 199 F. 2d 402 (1952).

Christensson v. Hogdal was a patent interference case. The plaintiff sought a remedy under a statute (35 U.S.C.A. § 72(a)) which limited the court's jurisdiction to complaints brought under a specific statutory provision (R.S. 4915) "without seeking other remedy". Of the four counts in the complaint, two sought a remedy under R.S. 4915 and two sought an alternative remedy; therefore the court lacked jurisdiction. The question on appeal was whether the District Court erred in denying plaintiff's motion to amend the complaint by eliminating the alternative counts. We held that the court erred. Assuming that the defect in the complaint was jurisdictional we said (91 U.S.App.D.C. 254, 199 F.2d 406):

"The modern rule is liberal in permitting the amendment of pleadings to show that the court has jurisdiction. See 3 Moore\'s Federal Practice 836-38 (2d Ed. 1948). The same is true of amendments which work a change in the relief prayed, at least where the scope of relief is diminished and where the defendant suffers no prejudice.
U. S. Casualty Co. v. District of Columbia, 1939, 71 App.D.C. 92, 103-104, 107 F.2d 652, 663-664. In the case before us we fail to see how the striking of prayers 3 and 4 could have prejudiced the defendant."

Finn v. American Fire & Casualty Co., 207 F.2d 113 (5th Cir. 1953) also deals with a court's power to act, although because of defects in the complaint it has no jurisdiction over the cause of action alleged. In that case there had been a trial and a verdict for the plaintiff. When it appeared that the diversity of citizenship necessary to confer jurisdiction had not been present, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the District Court which then allowed dismissal of the suit against the one resident defendant. The District Court then granted a new trial, reasoning that the earlier trial and verdict were void because the presence of the resident party had completely deprived the court of jurisdiction. On appeal from the order granting a new trial the Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the trial judge had misconceived the law. The Circuit Court of Appeals said (207 F.2d 115):

"Prior to the amendment, federal jurisdiction was imperfect or defective, but it was not wholly lacking. The district court had jurisdiction to determine its own jurisdiction, to order the pleadings recast and the parties realigned according to their real interests * * *. After the judgment was vacated and federal jurisdiction was perfected by amendment of the pleadings, we think that the plaintiff was fairly and justly entitled to a new judgment on the old verdict."

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure "reject the approach that pleading is a game of skill in which one misstep by counsel may be decisive to the outcome and accept the principle that the purpose of pleading is to facilitate a proper decision on the merits." United States v. Hougham, 364 U.S. 310, 317, 81 S.Ct. 13, 18, 5 L.Ed.2d 8 (1960), quoting from Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 48, 78 S. Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957). The rules of the Court of General Sessions reflect the same philosophy. Applying these principles and the reasoning of the Christensson case we must reject the strict analytical approach of Fox v. Shannon & Luchs Co. and hold that it was within the discretion of the Court of General Sessions to permit the amendment of the appellant's complaint. As the Supreme Court said...

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  • Lee v. Habib
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit
    • January 22, 1970
  • Belizan v. Hershon
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit
    • January 17, 2006
    ...view of the instruction in Rule 15(a) that "leave shall be freely given when justice so requires." She also relies upon Taylor v. Beckas, 424 F.2d 905, 908 (D.C.Cir.1970), in which we implied the now defunct District of Columbia Court of General Sessions could grant an oral motion for leave......
  • United Steelworkers of Amer. v. Mesker Bros. Indus., Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit
    • March 7, 1972
    ...Rules of Civil Procedure, leave to amend should be freely granted when necessary to establish jurisdiction. See, Taylor v. Beckas, 137 U.S.App.D.C. 417, 424 F.2d 905 (1970); International Ladies' Garment W.U. v. Donnelly Garment Co., 121 F.2d 561 (8th Cir. 1941); 3 J. Moore, Federal Practic......
  • District of Columbia v. Diener's Linoleum and Tile Co.
    • United States
    • D.C. Court of Appeals
    • June 22, 1971
    ...jurisdictional defect in No. 5431 on motion to amend the complaint by striking out the liquidated damages item. Taylor v. Beckas, 137 U.S.App.D.C. 417, 424 F.2d 905 (1970).6 Therefore this case is remanded to permit appellant to present such a motion within ten days from date of this opinio......
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