Magistrate Law in Civil Actions
In South Carolina, jurisdiction, or the basic authority of a judge to hear and exercise judgment of a matter, is based upon three considerations: territorial jurisdiction, subject matter jurisdiction, and the amount in controversy.
Territorial jurisdiction for each magistrate extends throughout the county in which he is appointed in both civil or criminal matters. Before the opinion of the S.C. Supreme Court in Ex re Daniel R. McLeod v. Roger A. Crowe, 272 S.C. 41, 249 S.E.2d 772 (1978), district jurisdiction between magistrates was allowed, but as of McLeod v. Crowe, supra., all magistrates now constitutionally possess "uniform county wide jurisdiction."
To understand the latter two determinations of jurisdiction, subject matter jurisdiction and amount in controversy, one must look to S.C. Code Ann. §§ 22-3-10, and 22-3-20. Section 22-3-10, as limited by § 22-3-20, sets out magisterial jurisdiction over twelve areas of civil subject matter as follows:
1. Actions on contracts for the recovery of money, where the claim does not exceed $7,500.00;
2. Actions for damages for injury to rights pertaining to the person, or personal or real property, where the damages do not exceed $7,500.00;
3. Actions for a penalty, fine or forfeiture, not to exceed $7,500.00;
4. Actions commenced by attachment of property, as provided by statute, where debt or damages do not exceed $7,500.00;
5. Actions upon a bond conditioned for the payment of money, not exceeding $7,500.00, whether the money is due in sum total or in installments;
6. Actions upon a surety bond taken by the magistrate, when penalty or amount claimed does not exceed $7,500.00;
7. Actions upon a judgment rendered in magistrate's court when it is not prohibited by the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure;
8. Taking and entering judgment on the confession of a defendant in the manner prescribed by law when the amount confessed does not exceed $7,500.00.
9. Actions for damages or for fraud in the sale, purchase, or exchange of personal property, not to exceed $7,500.00;
10. All landlord and tenant matters, as well as those included in Chapter 33 through 41 of Title 27, encompassing matters of leasehold estates, rent, ejectment of tenants and undertenants of life tenants;
11. Actions to recover the possession of personal property, whose stated value does not exceed $7,500.00;
12. In all actions provided for in this section when a filed counterclaim involves a sum not exceeding $7,500.00.
13. In interpleader actions arising from real estate contracts for the recovery of earnest money, only if the sum claimed does not exceed $7,500.00.
14. In actions for damages arising from a person’s failure to return leased or rented personal property within 72 hours after the expiration of the lease or rental agreement, such damages to be based on the loss of revenue or replacement value of the property, whichever is less, if the damages claimed do not exceed $7,500.00; however, the lease or rental agreement must set forth the manner in which the amount of the loss of revenue or replacement value of the item leased or rented is calculated.
It should additionally be noted that magistrates have limited jurisdiction over mechanics' liens (§ 29-5-130), agricultural liens (§§ 29-13-80 and 29-13-90), repair or storage liens (§ 29-15-10), and animal owner's liens (§ 29-15-50).
In most of the above matters, for the magistrate to have jurisdiction over the amount of the contract, bond or judgment, the extent of damages, or the value of the property or dispute must not exceed the $7,500.00 limitation imposed by § 22-3-10. In cases involving liens, the magistrate's jurisdictional dollar amount may be further restricted by the lien statute itself. Section 22-3-20 further limits a magistrate's jurisdiction by prohibiting his hearing civil cases in which the State is a party, except actions for penalties not exceeding $100, and for disputes as to title in real property matters except as provided in §§ 22-3-1110 - 22-3-1180. Jurisdiction may not be waived or conferred upon the magistrate by consent of the parties or by order of a higher court.
As a rule, magistrates need not make a determination themselves of the amount in controversy for the purpose of determining their jurisdiction, since jurisdiction is determined by the amount claimed by the plaintiff and not the amount actually due. It should also be understood that if a defendant makes a counterclaim against the plaintiff in an amount in excess of $7,500.00, then the initial claim and counterclaim must be transferred to the Court of Common Pleas for that judicial circuit as required by § 22-3-30.
Venue and jurisdiction are easily confused, but are in reality terms of quite different meaning. "Jurisdiction" of the court refers to the inherent power of the court to hear a case, whereas "venue" describes the particular county in which a court with jurisdiction may hear and determine an action. Once the propriety of jurisdiction, as discussed previously, has been determined, the magistrate must turn his attention to venue. Generally, for venue to be proper, the action must have been brought before the magistrate with territorial jurisdiction over the area of the residence of at least one defendant. (Rule 4, SCRMC). Remembering that a magistrate's territorial jurisdiction may only be county-wide, the residence of the defendant must fall within that magistrate's territorial responsibility for the action to be properly begun. The defendant's place of residence, and not the occurrence of the matters in controversy, is generally the key to venue in civil cases. (See also §§ 15-7-10 and 15-7-20). However, §15-7-30 and Rule 4(a), SCRMC, provides that a case may not only be filed in the defendant's place of residence, but also in the county where the most substantial part of the alleged act or omission giving rise to the cause of action occurred. While a civil filing in a county where the defendant does not reside may be problematic in terms of service and summoning witnesses, such filings should be accepted.
Rule 4(b), SCRMC, provides that a civil action may be filed in any magistrate court in the County in which the plaintiff resides or where the cause of action arose when the defendant does not reside in this State and jurisdiction is based upon §36-2-803, the long arm statute. Courts employ a due process analysis to determine whether specific jurisdiction and venue over a non-resident defendant pursuant to the long arm statute is proper. Courts apply a two-pronged analysis when determining whether a defendant possesses due process minimum contacts with the forum state such that maintenance over the suit specific to a courts specific jurisdiction does not offend traditional notions of fair play and justice. The court must (1) find that the defendant has the requisite minimum contacts with the forum, without which, the court does not have the power to adjudicate the action, and (2) find the exercise of jurisdiction is reasonable or fair. §36-2-803 provides a criterion to make a minimum contacts determination. Pursuant to the long arm statute, a court may exercise personal jurisdiction over a person who acts directly or by an agent as to a cause of action arising from the person's: (1) transacting any business in this State; (2) contracting to supply services or things in the State; (3) commission of a tortious act in whole or in part in this State; (4) causing tortious injury or death in this State by an act or omission outside this State if he regularly does or solicits business, or engages in any other persistent course of conduct, or derives substantial revenue from goods used or consumed or services rendered in this State; (5) having an interest in, using, or possessing real property in this State; (6) contracting to insure any person, property, or risk located within this State at the time of contracting; (7) entry into a contract to be performed in whole or in part by either party in this State; or (8) production, manufacture, or distribution of goods with the reasonable expectation that those goods are to be used or consumed in this State and are so used or consumed.
When jurisdiction over a person is based solely upon §36-2-803, the long arm statute, only a cause of action arising from acts enumerated in 1 through 8 above may be asserted against the non-resident defendant. For further information on the application of the long arm statute, see Power Products and Services Co., Inc. v. Cozmo, 379 S.C. 423, 665 S.E.2d. 660 (Ct. App. 2008) and Aviation Associates and Consultants, Inc. v. Jet Time, Inc., 303 S.C. 502, 402 S.E.2d. 177 (1991).
Rule 4(a), SCRMC, also provides that a civil action against a domestic corporation may be filed in the County where such corporation shall have its principal place of business.
The change of venue statute, § 22-3-920, provides the means by which either party in a civil action, believing for a substantial reason that he would be unable to secure a fair trial from the magistrate before whom the matter is to be heard, may have his case moved to another magistrate nearby, but within the same County. Currently, no authority exists to transfer a civil case to another County. This section requires that the party seeking the change of venue give the opposing party two days notice of his intention to apply for change, except where the moving party can show that facts to warrant the change were discovered too late to permit such notice.
The party seeking the change must next file an affidavit with the magistrate before whom the case was to be heard stating the applicant's belief that he cannot get a fair trial before that magistrate, and setting forth sufficient reasons for such a belief. To satisfy this requirement, the reasons must be set forth with definiteness and certainty - a mere opinion is not sufficient.
Once the sufficiency of the affidavit is determined, such that belief that a fair trial cannot be obtained is justified, a change of venue is mandatory, (Browning Manufacturing Co. v. Brunson, 187 S.C. 278, 197 S.E. 311 (1938)), and all the papers relating to the action should be turned over to the nearest magistrate in the county who is not disqualified from hearing the case, so that he may proceed as if the action had been originally filed with him. Section 22-3-920 points out specifically that only "one such transfer shall be allowed each party in any case." Changes of venue may be sought for a variety of reasons, from emotional causes of action preventing the drawing of an impartial jury to the personal knowledge or involvement of the magistrate before whom the action was brought, but in every case, the change should only be granted where reasons sufficient to justify a belief that a fair trial is not possible are alleged in the affidavit.
3. Statute of Limitation
Statutes of Limitations are legislative enactments which prescribe the time period within which actions must be brought in certain causes of action, or the right to maintain that action is lost. (§ 15-3-20). The legislative intention behind such enactments is to insure that certain causes of action are litigated within reasonable periods of time as dictated by the statutes. Beginning with § 15-3-20 and encompassing the entire Chapter 3, of Title 15, are found the statutes pertaining to Limitation of Civil Actions, which are made applicable to magisterial civil procedure by § 22-3-110, as previously mentioned. It is most important to note that the claiming of a statute of limitation is generally an affirmative defense, which the defendant must plead, and prove, in response to the plaintiff's complaint; and should the defendant so fail to claim the statute of limitations in his answer, no cognizance of it may be taken. Gattis v. Chavez, 413 F.Supp. 33 (S.C. 1976). (See also, S.C. Rules of Civil Procedure).
A determination of when the statute of limitation period begins to run, and by what actions of the plaintiff the running of the period is tolled or frozen so that the plaintiff preserves his right to maintain the action, is essential to the consideration of a statute of limitation. Sections 15-3-20 through 15-3-150 pertain to these questions. The statutory period of the statute of limitation begins to run on the day after the cause of action arose. Magistrates should examine critically any action in which a long period of time intervenes between the arising of the cause of action and the commencement of the action by the plaintiff.
Rule 3, SCRCP and Rule 5(a), SCRMC, states that a civil action is commenced by filing and service of a summons and complaint. Rule 3(b), SCRCP, provides “[for] the purpose of tolling any statute of limitations, an attempt to commence an action is equivalent to the commencement thereof when the summons and complaint are filed with the clerk of court and (1) delivered for service to the sheriff of the county in which the defendant usually resides. Delivery to a constable does not toll the statute. It must be delivered to the sheriff of the county in which the defendant usually or last resided, or if a corporation be the defendant, to the sheriff of the county in which any person designated by statute to accept service usually or last resided; provided that actual service must be accomplished within a reasonable time thereafter, or (2) actually served with 120 days after filing with the clerk of court.” Rule 6(k), SCRMC, provides that subject to the provisions of any statute, rule, or order, a magistrate may dismiss a summons and complaint against any and all defendants without prejudice to the plaintiff if service of process cannot be obtained within 120 days of the filing of the complaint.
The sections concerning the statute of limitation time periods as to specific actions are in § 15-3-310 through 15-3-680. Some specific sections are:
1. Actions for trespass upon or damage to real property, actions for the specific recovery of personal property or for the taking, detaining, or injuring of any goods arising on contract must be commenced within three years, (§ 15-3-530).
2. Actions for libel, slander, assault, battery, or false imprisonment must be commenced within two years, (§ 15-3-550).
In all civil actions in magistrates' courts, the party beginning a case is known as the plaintiff and the party defending against the plaintiff's claim is the defendant. The SCRMC and Rule 17 SCRCP, sets out the body of rules applicable to all such matters.
Of special note is the ability of the magistrate to appoint a guardian ad litem pursuant to Rule 17(d)(1), SCRCP, in cases brought in the magistrate's court where such appointment is necessary. The appointment of a guardian is necessary, for example, where an infant or a person in prison is a party to an action. There are other instances, however, and if the question arises, the Rules of Civil Procedure should be examined.
5. Representation of Parties
Many of the parties who file civil actions in magistrate’s court and those defending those actions appear pro se, which means representing oneself without an attorney. §40-5-80 authorizes such an action by providing that a citizen may prosecute or defend his own cause, if he so desires. However, a non-lawyer may not represent another individual in any court action unless there is some exception allowing such representation. In fact, §40-5-310 provides that no person may either practice law or solicit the legal cause of another person or entity in this State unless he is enrolled as a member of the South Carolina Bar, or otherwise authorized to perform prescribed legal activities by action of the Supreme Court of South Carolina. Rule 21, SCRMC, Business Representation, provides such an exception to the unauthorized practice of law. That Rule provides that a business, as defined by §33-1-103, may be represented in a civil magistrate court proceeding by a non-lawyer officer, agent, or employee, including attorneys licensed in other jurisdictions ad those possessing Limited Certificates of Admission pursuant to Rule 405, SCACR. The representation may be compensated and shall be undertaken at the business’s option and with the understanding that the business assumed the risk of any problems incurred as a result of the representation. §33-1-103. Prior to allowing such representation, the Rule requires that the court obtain a written authorization from the entity’s president, chairperson, general partner, owner, or chief executive officer, or in the case of a person possessing a Limited Certificate. Form SCCA/761, Authorization for Non-Lawyer Representation, is available for magistrates use for a single trial. Form SCCA/762, Authorization for Non-Lawyer Representation, is available for representation of multiple cases.
5. Rules of Evidence
The South Carolina Supreme Court has adopted the South Carolina Rules of Evidence. The Rules of Evidence are those rules by which matters of fact or allegation are established in all legal proceedings. The Rules of Evidence for courts in South Carolina are supplemented by the provisions found in Title 19 beginning with § 19-1-10. These rules and sections designate the accepted types of evidence, such as oral testimony, evidence in the form of documents, public or private records or writings, and certain types of exhibits. The rules control the development of evidence from the various possible sources, including pretrial statements or admissions, oral or written testimony or other admissible evidence, as well as any inferences or presumptions permitted to be drawn from that developed at trial.
The S.C. Supreme Court has adopted the South Carolina Rules of Magistrates Court (SCRMC) and the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure (SCRCP) which are made applicable to magistrate courts pursuant to Rule 81, SCRCP. These sections and rules, as supplemented by South Carolina case law as well as traditional notions of evidence law provide all our Courts with guidance in evidentiary matters.