Friday, February 9, 2007

Piven v. Comcast Corp. (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed February 9, 2007 - Opinion by Judge Alan Wilner.

Issue: Venue - improper joinder. In an action for trespass to land located in the county where the action is brought, is it permissible to join an action for a separate trespass to land located entirely in a different county, when the two parcels are not contiguous or under common ownership and have no other connection with each other.

Held: No. A cause of action for trespass to land is a "local action" which must be brought in the county where the property lies.

The Plaintiffs, separate owners of two land parcels, one in Baltimore County and one in Baltimore City, filed a complaint in Baltimore County against Comcast for trespass. The plaintiffs complained that the defendant had run cable across their land without permission. The plaintiffs sought certification as a class. Before class certification was granted, the defendant moved to dismiss, challenging the plaintiffs' choice of venue. The defendant argued that, as a local action, a claim for trespass must be brought in the county where the property is located.

As no class had been certified, the circuit court treated the claim as involving only the named plaintiffs. The court concluded that a cause of action for trespass must be brought in the county in which the property lies, and that a claim for trespass to property in one county may not properly be joined with a proceeding in another county. Accordingly, the court dismissed without prejudice.

The circuit court warned the plaintiffs not to join the same actions in one case in Baltimore County a second time or the case would be dismissed. The plaintiffs did not follow this advice. Instead, they refiled a nearly identical complaint, which the circuit court then dismissed the complaint with prejudice. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed.

Relying upon CJP §§ 6-203, the Court held that venue in an action of trespass to land is in the county where all or any portion of “the subject matter of the action” is located. The Court held that the property was the subject matter.

To avoid this result, the plaintiffs made two arguments for an exception. First, they argued that the properties were not separate "subject matters," but part of an aggregate subject matter comprising all of the properties of the putative class members. Therefore, venue should lie in any county in which such land could be found. Second, they argued that their other causes of action, for unjust enrichment and to quiet title, arising from the trespass, were not local actions and may be brought in any county.

The Court rejected these arguments. In doing so, it explicated the historical difference between "local" actions, which must be brought where the subject matter is located, and "transitory" actions, which may be brought wherever the defendant works, lives, or has a principal office. Ultimately, it concluded that all of the claims arose out of the trespass and that courts will look to substance, rather than labels, in making determinations about venue.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the dismissal. The Court then noted that normally, transfer of the offending claim to the proper venue would be the normal remedy. The Court noted, however, that the plaintiffs had been given that option by the circuit court, but they had rejected it by refiling the claims together. Accordingly, the Court said that it found no abuse of discretion in the circuit court's dismissing the action with prejudice.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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