According to Texas Property Code Sec. 24.004, the Justice of the Peace courts (commonly referred to as “JP courts” or “Justice Courts) have original jurisdiction to hear cases regarding forcible detainer and forcible entry and detainer suits, more commonly referred to as eviction suits. In the past, we have discussed how jurisdictional issues can appear in eviction suits when the amount of rent owed exceeds the jurisdictional limits of the Justice of the Peace Court. This article, however, will highlight subject matter jurisdiction issues one might run into especially upon appeal of an eviction case to the county courts at law.
Since eviction cases are typically brought in JP Court, eviction cases are governed by the rules of procedure that govern JP court matters. For instance, Tex. R. Civ. P. 500.3(e) states that “Eviction cases are governed by Rules 500-507 and 510 of Part V of the Rules of Civil Procedure.” These rules of procedure are specific to cases in front of JP Courts. Looking specifically at Rule 510.3(e), it states that the “court must adjudicate the right to actual possession and not title. Counterclaims and the joinder of suits against third parties are not permitted in eviction cases. A claim that is not asserted because of this rule can be brought in a separate suit in a court of proper jurisdiction.” So, simply put, eviction cases in JP Court are meant to be only about the eviction and right to possession of the premises and may include claims for damages but only up until the jurisdictional limits of the JP court. So, what happens when an eviction case is appealed? Which rules apply and can potential claims that were prohibited at the JP trial available on appeal?
Typically, new claims are not considered upon appeal. However, the JP Court rules strike again and Rule 506 states that upon appeal “The case must be tried de novo in the county court. A trial de novo is a new trial in which the entire case is presented as if there had been no previous trial.” This gives the impression that now other claims may be brought because county courts at law follow the general rules of civil procedure, not the JP Court specific ones.
A Texas Court of Appeals case addressed this supposed conflict In Tehuti v. Bank of New York Mellon Trust Company, National Association (App. 6 Dist. 2017) 517 S.W.3d 270. In that case, a bank purchased real property in a foreclosure sale and brought an action in the Justice Courts to evict the occupant. The Justice court ruled in favor of the bank, then the occupant appealed and the county court ruled for the bank before the occupant appealed yet again. During this process, the occupant attempted to argue various counterclaims including causes based on fraud, wrongful foreclosure, breach of contract, etc. which the county court did not consider when making its own judgment. In addressing whether or not the trial court erred in not considering these counterclaims, the appeals court said “because the counterclaims were not properly before the county court at law in this forcible detainer action, we cannot address them.” While citing to another related case involving the same occupant resulting from the same eviction, the appeals court went on further to clarify that “except for claims for damages incurred during the pendency of the appeal in county court, counterclaims are not permitted in suits for forcible detainer but must be brought in separate suits.”
So, it seems that the limitations on bringing counterclaims in eviction cases at the Justice Courts also apply to the county courts on appeal as well, with a limited exception for counterclaims brought in response to damages incurred during the appeal. This demonstrates another example of how complex it may be to navigate the rules of procedure or relevant case law and why it is important to consult competent counsel when you are considering an eviction lawsuit.
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