Circuit courts with plenary jurisdiction and administrative agencies with exclusive jurisdiction: can they peacefully coexist in Missouri?

Author:Spinden, Paul M.

    For Missouri courts, 2009 was the year of jurisdiction. The year began with the Supreme Court of Missouri's momentous pronouncement that the state's circuit courts have broad subject matter jurisdiction--jurisdiction that is plenary in scope. (1) Its breadth is so expansive that successful motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction seem to be a relic of the past. (2) As momentous as that revelation was, another at the end of the year was even more epochal: the circuit courts' subject matter jurisdiction is so broad that it engulfs even matters that the General Assembly delegates to the exclusive jurisdiction of administrative agencies, such as workers' compensation. (3)

    The reason for these revelations was a change to the Missouri Constitution--one that occurred more than three decades before. In 1976, Missourians amended their constitution to give circuit courts "original jurisdiction over all cases and matters, civil and criminal." (4) The amendment took away the General Assembly's authority to put statutory restrictions on circuit courts' subject matter jurisdiction. As significant as the amendment was, surprisingly there is little evidence that anyone took much notice of it before the Supreme Court of Missouri shined the spotlight on it in 2009 in J.C.W. ex rel. Webb v. Wyciskalla. (5) It seems odd that it took thirty-three years for Missouri courts to perceive the significance of the constitution's grant of all-encompassing power to trial courts. This begs two questions: what precipitated the change and what was the change all about?

    When the Supreme Court finally took notice of the amendment in J.C.W., the court asserted that the change solved the perplexities of subject matter jurisdiction for Missouri judges. (6) In fact, the court assured, the constitutional amendment simplified analysis of jurisdictional issues in Missouri by allowing judges to determine their courts' subject matter jurisdiction simply by asking whether a lawsuit is a civil case or matter. (7) If it is, judges can be certain that their courts have subject matter jurisdiction, and that any issue arising in a case speaking in jurisdictional terms--such as a statute requiring posting of a bond to file a petition--is not jurisdictional. (8)

    As simple as J.C.W.'s analysis seems to be, it apparently was rather unsettling for Missouri judges. It was a huge change in their analysis of jurisdictional issues, requiring them to jettison longstanding, entrenched concepts and traditions--and traditions tend to be tenacious. (9) Moreover, judges, like most individuals, intrinsically distrust anything new. (10) Thus Missouri judges struggled to apply J.C.W.'s simple approach at the outset, most notably in cases involving administrative agency jurisdiction. In a case questioning the jurisdiction of the Missouri Division of Workers' Compensation, an apparently exasperated appellate judge commented that, after J.C.W., "confusion ... seems to permeate any use of the word 'jurisdiction.'" (11)

    Adding to judges' confusion was the Supreme Court's failure to lay down clear rules in J.C.W. In explaining how judges should handle statutes that make jurisdictional-sounding requirements, J.C.W. instructed only that they should "read [them] as merely setting statutory limits on remedies or elements of claims for relief that courts may grant." (12) In other words, judges are to treat such restrictions as non-jurisdictional rules. But J.C.W. did not say whether all statutory restrictions are non-jurisdictional--even those setting time deadlines or those giving an administrative agency exclusive jurisdiction over a particular subject matter. Judges trying to apply J.C.W. spent much time debating these matters. (13) As former United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart observed, "The art of being a judge, if there is such an art, is in announcing clear rules ...," (14)

    But the most notable consequence of J.C.W.'s simplified approach is its effect on adjudication by Missouri administrative agencies. The General Assembly granted these agencies exclusive jurisdiction in special areas, such as on-the-job accidents, based on the perception that these subjects require expertise and specialized knowledge. (15) In McCracken v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., (16) the court relied heavily on J.C.W. to conclude that a statute making workers' compensation the exclusive remedy for on-the-job accidents (17) was merely a non-jurisdictional statutory restriction. (18) McCracken over turned a long line of cases holding that the Division of Workers' Compensation has jurisdiction exclusive of the circuit courts to determine workers' compensation cases. (19) The court said those cases "confused the concept of a circuit court's jurisdiction ... with the separate issue of the circuit court's statutory or common law authority to grant relief in a particular case." (20) It decided that the division's exclusive jurisdiction over workplace accidents was not jurisdictional at all, but was merely a waivable affirmative defense. (21)

    McCracken portends significant modifications to how the state courts perceive the interrelation between Missouri administrative agency adjudications and circuit courts' jurisdictional power. The courts' treatment of exclusive administrative remedies as non-jurisdictional issues has the potential to undermine administrative agencies' effectiveness in addressing society's manifold problems. (22) McCracken compels trial judges to proceed with adjudicating workers' compensation cases masquerading as tort actions--even when the facts clearly demonstrate that the claims arose out of an on-the-job accident--unless the parties assert workers' compensation as an affirmative defense, and only then if they properly assert it. (23) One of the key consequences of McCracken is that the judiciary's enforcement of an exclusive administrative remedy depends entirely on the parties' requesting it. (24)

    Moreover, the decision's analysis raises the highly undesirable prospect of unwieldy dual lines of cases: one adjudicated by administrative agencies, and another potentially conflicting line adjudicated in the circuit courts. Not only does the likelihood of unacceptable forum shopping emerge, but the court's decision also threatens to undercut administrative agencies' policies and ability to deal with the problems that motivated the General Assembly to establish them in the first place. (25)

    McCracken's conclusions seem to rest on a faulty and weak foundation. In deducing that workers' compensation exclusivity is a non-jurisdictional affirmative defense, (26) the court misperceived workers' compensation precedent. The primary reason for rethinking McCracken's analysis is that the court apparently failed to appreciate that the circuit courts' jurisdiction is not an all-or-nothing matter. Recognition of workers' compensation as an exclusive remedy is not mutually exclusive to the circuit courts' plenary subject matter jurisdiction. Sound analysis was available to the McCracken court that would have permitted exclusive agency remedies and plenary circuit court jurisdiction to peacefully coexist. (27)

    Because the centerpiece of both J.C.W.'s and McCracken's analyses was the wording of Missouri's constitutional provision granting jurisdiction to the circuit courts, Part II examines this provision, including its impetus. Part III considers J.C.W.'s exposition of jurisdiction and focuses on its contention that the Missouri Constitution necessarily excludes statutory restrictions on the judiciary's exercise of subject matter jurisdiction. Part IV closely examines McCracken's application of J.C.W.'s analysis to the issue of exclusive administrative remedies and agency jurisdiction. Finally, Part V suggests alternative analyses that maintain exclusive remedies for workers' compensation and other administrative agencies while preserving the circuit courts' plenary subject matter jurisdiction.


    A. Significance of the Scope of the Circuit Courts' Subject Matter Jurisdiction

    In J.C.W., the Supreme Court held that a statute prohibiting a circuit court from considering a child custody dispute because one of the parties had not posted a bond was not jurisdictional. (28) The court held that the Missouri Constitution forbids the statute from affecting the court's subject matter jurisdiction over the lawsuit. (29) Instead, the statutory restriction must be treated as a non-jurisdictional issue. If an issue does not involve jurisdiction, it necessarily must be a non-jurisdictional matter--either a matter of procedure, or of the substantive merits on which a lawsuit will be determined. (30)

    The court's analysis rested almost entirely on its interpretation of Article V, section 14(a) of the Missouri Constitution, which states, "The circuit courts shall have original jurisdiction over all cases and matters, civil and criminal." (31) The J.C.W. Court emphasized the provision's "plenary terms" (32) and apparently interpreted its reference to "all cases and matters" as encompassing the universe of civil and criminal cases. (33) By giving the circuit court authority to hear any civil or criminal case, the J.C.W. court reasoned, the constitution necessarily prohibits any restriction that would decrease the circuit court's jurisdictional power and render it less than all-encompassing. (34)

    The statutory restriction at issue in J.C.W. prohibited the circuit court from considering a petition for modification of a child custody decree under certain conditions, including a petitioner's failure to post of a bond. (35) On the grounds that the Missouri Constitution forbade treating the statute as jurisdictional, the J.C.W. court concluded that the circuit court could heed the statute only by deeming it non-jurisdictional. (36) "When a statute speaks in jurisdictional terms or can be read in such terms," the...

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