This article covers one of the rare cases where we would, and have, represented a Plaintiff in a limited jurisdiction case.
As every lawyer knows, and most non-lawyers, the California Superior State Court system is divided largely into three level based on the “amount in controversy.” Amounts in controversy totaling $10,000 are directed to Small Claims Court, where the parties represent themselves without attorneys. Amounts in controversy greater than $25,000 are directed to the Superior Courts of “Unlimited Jurisdiction.” Amounts in controversy GREATER than $10,000 but less than $25,000 are directed to Superior Courts of “Limited Jurisdiction.”
In Unlimited Jurisdiction, there is no cap on jurisdiction, so there is no theoretical cap on attorneys’ fees submitted or awarded provided there is a legal basis for the attorneys’s fees, which are adequately supported and approved by the Court. That would seem obvious.
Less obvious though, is what happens in limited jurisdiction. For example: Plaintiff has a $10,000 breach of contract claim, and the contract has an attorneys’ fee provision. Defendant may believe that his worst outcome in this case is a $25,000 judgment against him plus his own attorneys’ fees (i.e. $10,000 plus $15,000 in plaintiff’s attorneys fees, thereby totaling the jurisdictional limit of $25,000). Defendant would be wrong, and it could be an expensive lesson.
California’s Code of Civil Procedure Section 85(a) provides that: “The amount in controversy does not exceed twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000). As used in this section, “amount in controversy” means the the amount of the demand, or the recovery sought, or the value of the property, or the amount of the lien, that is in controversy in the action, exclusive of attorneys’ fees, interest, and costs.
We’ve seen this arise in the context of commercial security deposits, where commercial leases almost always have attorneys fee provisions.
The lesson of course is to not only do the right thing, but also in assessing your cost-benefit of litigation, understand that on “either side” a $10,000 dispute in limited jurisdiction court, could result in a liability 5-20x the amount in controversy to the losing party if litigated through trial and attorneys fees are awarded.
Adishian Law Group is a California law firm with a statewide practice in the areas of Corporate law, Employment law, Real Estate law and Mediation Services. Adishianlaw.com is one of the oldest continually operating law firm websites on the Internet. The firm serves its clientele via three offices located in the major business hubs of El Segundo, Palo Alto and San Francisco. As of March 2013, Adishian Law Group, P.C. has represented individual and corporate clients located across 20 California counties, 4 States outside of California and 9 foreign countries — in over 340 legal matters.
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