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Winning $1.3 Million and Losing It All

I cringe when I come across stories like this one described by Michael Fox that involve a huge verdict eviscerated by jurisdictional error. But that's what happened in USAA v. Brite, where the Texas Supreme Court dismissed Brite's $1.3 million verdict against his former employer for want of jurisdiction. Brite had sued in a Texas county court, a court of limited jurisdiction that lacks authority to hear cases with a value in excess of $100,000, excluding interest, statutory or punitive damages and attorney fees, as alleged on the face of the petition. As Fox explains, the problem was not that Brite's award exceeded $100,000. Rather, it's that the amount that Brite sought at the time of his initial pleading as compensation for front and back pay exceeded $100,000, thereby depriving the county court of jurisdiction from the inception of the case.

On appeal, Brite desperately tried to salvage his verdict, arguing that the front pay amount should not have been counted because courts disfavor front pay awards. The court of appeals bought the argument, but not the Texas Supreme Court, finding that the relevant inquiry is not what the plaintiff realistically can recover but what he seeks to recover. 

Fox isn't sure of the potential fate of Brite's suit. He writes:

It may be that Brite can start again, taking advantage of a Texas law that allows you to bring a suit even after limitations has expired if the original suit was filed in the wrong court. But I am sure there will be questions about whether that statute applies in this situation, as it is not applicable if "the adverse party has shown in abatement that the first filing was made with intentional disregard of proper jurisdiction," or if it is applicable where a 60 day right to file notice under the TCHRA is involved.

Still, going through the suit twice isn't much consolation, nor is the possibility of Brite attempting to recover damages through a legal malpractice action. Just like April, jurisdiction can be unbearably cruel.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on February 5, 2007 at 05:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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