You are here

Concurrent Jurisdiction

19 January, 2016 - 16:39

When a plaintiff takes a case to state court, it will be because state courts typically hear that kind of case (i.e., there is subject matter jurisdiction). If the plaintiff’s main cause of action comes from a certain state’s constitution, statutes, or court decisions, the state courts have subject matter jurisdiction over the case. If the plaintiff’s main cause of action is based on federal law (e.g., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), the federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over the case. But federal courts will also have subject matter jurisdiction over certain cases that have only a state-based cause of action; those cases are ones in which the plaintiff(s) and the defendant(s) are from different states and the amount in controversy is more than $75,000. State courts can have subject matter jurisdiction over certain cases that have only a federal-based cause of action. The Supreme Court has now made clear that state courts have concurrent jurisdiction of any federal cause of action unless Congress has given exclusive jurisdiction to federal courts.

In short, a case with a federal question can be often be heard in either state or federal court, and a case that has parties with a diversity of citizenship can be heard in state courts or in federal courts where the tests of complete diversity and amount in controversy are met. (See Concurrent Jurisdiction .)

Whether a case will be heard in a state court or moved to a federal court will depend on the parties. If a plaintiff files a case in state trial court where concurrent jurisdiction applies, a defendant may (or may not) ask that the case be removed to federal district court.

Summary of Rules on Subject Matter Jurisdiction

1. A court must always have subject matter jurisdiction, and personal jurisdiction over at least one defendant, to hear and decide a case.

2. A state court will have subject matter jurisdiction over any case that is not required to be brought in a federal court.

Some cases can only be brought in federal court, such as bankruptcy cases, cases involving federal crimes, patent cases, and Internal Revenue Service tax court claims. The list of cases for exclusive federal jurisdiction is fairly short. That means that almost any state court will have subject matter jurisdiction over almost any kind of case. If it’s a case based on state law, a state court will always have subject matter jurisdiction.

3. A federal court will have subject matter jurisdiction over any case that is either based on a federal law (statute, case, or US Constitution)


A federal court will have subject matter jurisdiction over any case based on state law where the parties are (1) from different states and (2) the amount in controversy is at least $75,000.

(1) The different states requirement means that no plaintiff can have permanent residence in a state where any defendant has permanent residence—there must be complete diversity of citizenship as between all plaintiffs and defendants.

(2) The amount in controversy requirement means that a good-faith estimate of the amount the plaintiff may recover is at least $75,000.

NOTE: For purposes of permanent residence, a corporation is considered a resident where it is incorporated AND where it has a principal place of business.

4. In diversity cases, the following rules apply.

(1) Federal civil procedure rules apply to how the case is conducted before and during trial and any appeals, but

(2) State law will be used as the basis for a determination of legal rights and responsibilities.

(a) This “choice of law” process is interesting but complicated. Basically, each state has its own set of judicial decisions that resolve conflict of laws. For example, just because A sues B in a Texas court, the Texas court will not necessarily apply Texas law. Anna and Bobby collide and suffer serious physical injuries while driving their cars in Roswell, New Mexico. Both live in Austin, and Bobby files a lawsuit in Austin. The court there could hear it (having subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction over Bobby) but would apply New Mexico law, which governs motor vehicle laws and accidents in New Mexico. Why would the Texas judge do that?

(b) The Texas judge knows that which state’s law is chosen to apply to the case can make a decisive difference in the case, as different states have different substantive law standards. For example, in a breach of contract case, one state’s version of the Uniform Commercial Code may be different from another’s, and which one the court decides to apply is often exceedingly good for one side and dismal for the other. In Anna v. Bobby, if Texas has one kind of comparative negligence statute and New Mexico has a different kind of comparative negligence statute, who wins or loses, or how much is awarded, could well depend on which law applies. Because both were under the jurisdiction of New Mexico’s laws at the time, it makes sense to apply New Mexico law.

(3) Why do some nonresident defendants prefer to be in federal court?

(a) In the state court, the judge is elected, and the jury may be familiar with or sympathetic to the “local” plaintiff.

(b) The federal court provides a more neutral forum, with an appointed, life-tenured judge and a wider pool of potential jurors (drawn from a wider geographical area).

(4) If a defendant does not want to be in state court and there is diversity, what is to be done?

(a) Make a motion for removal to the federal court.

(b) The federal court will not want to add to its caseload, or docket, but must take the case unless there is not complete diversity of citizenship or the amount in controversy is less than $75,000.

To better understand subject matter jurisdiction in action, let’s take an example. Wile E. Coyote wants a federal judge to hear his products-liability action against Acme, Inc., even though the action is based on state law. Mr. Coyote’s attorney wants to “make a federal case” out of it, thinking that the jurors in the federal district court’s jury pool will understand the case better and be more likely to deliver a “high value” verdict for Mr. Coyote. Mr. Coyote resides in Arizona, and Acme is incorporated in the state of Delaware and has its principal place of business in Chicago, Illinois. The federal court in Arizona can hear and decide Mr. Coyote’s case (i.e., it has subject matter jurisdiction over the case) because of diversity of citizenship. If Mr. Coyote was injured by one of Acme’s defective products while chasing a roadrunner in Arizona, the federal district court judge would hear his action—using federal procedural law—and decide the case based on the substantive law of Arizona on product liability.

But now change the facts only slightly: Acme is incorporated in Delaware but has its principal place of business in Phoenix, Arizona. Unless Mr. Coyote has a federal law he is using as a basis for his claims against Acme, his attempt to get a federal court to hear and decide the case will fail. It will fail because there is not complete diversity of citizenship between the plaintiff and the defendant.

Robinson v. Audi

Now consider Mr. and Mrs. Robinson and their products-liability claim against Seaway Volkswagen and the other three defendants. There is no federal products-liability law that could be used as a cause of action. They are most likely suing the defendants using products-liability law based on common-law negligence or common-law strict liability law, as found in state court cases. They were not yet Arizona residents at the time of the accident, and their accident does not establish them as Oklahoma residents, either. They bought the vehicle in New York from a New York–based retailer. None of the other defendants is from Oklahoma.

They file in an Oklahoma state court, but how will they (their attorney or the court) know if the state court has subject matter jurisdiction? Unless the case is required to be in a federal court (i.e., unless the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over this kind of case), any state court system will have subject matter jurisdiction, including Oklahoma’s state court system. But if their claim is for a significant amount of money, they cannot file in small claims court, probate court, or any court in Oklahoma that does not have statutory jurisdiction over their claim. They will need to file in a court of general jurisdiction. In short, even filing in the right court system (state versus federal), the plaintiff must be careful to find the court that has subject matter jurisdiction.

If they wish to go to federal court, can they? There is no federal question presented here (the claim is based on state common law), and the United States is not a party, so the only basis for federal court jurisdiction would be diversity jurisdiction. If enough time has elapsed since the accident and they have established themselves as Arizona residents, they could sue in federal court in Oklahoma (or elsewhere), but only if none of the defendants—the retailer, the regional Volkswagen company, Volkswagen of North America, or Audi (in Germany) are incorporated in or have a principal place of business in Arizona. The federal judge would decide the case using federal civil procedure but would have to make the appropriate choice of state law. In this case, the choice of conflicting laws would most likely be Oklahoma, where the accident happened, or New York, where the defective product was sold.

Table 3.1 Sample Conflict-of-Law Principles

Substantive Law Issue

Law to be Applied

Liability for injury caused by tortious conduct

State in which the injury was inflicted

Real property

State where the property is located

Personal Property: inheritance

Domicile of deceased (not location of property)

Contract: validity

State in which contract was made

Contract: breach

State in which contract was to be performed*

*Or, in many states, the state with the most significant contacts with the contractual activities

Note: Choice-of-law clauses in a contract will ordinarily be honored by judges in state and federal courts.