Jurisdiction to Venue – Examining RCW 4.12.010 in a Post-Ralph World

Benjamin Byers & Daniel Keum[1] | August 5, 2019

In 2014, the Washington State Supreme Court upended a century of precedent when it issued Ralph v. Department of Natural Resources, 182 Wn.2d 242, 343 P.3d 342 (Wash. 2014) (“Ralph I”). In Ralph I, the Court considered “the distinction between venue and jurisdiction.” Specifically, the Court looked to whether RCW 4.12.010(1),[2] which required actions regarding injuries to real property to be commenced in the county in which the property is located, required the dismissal of a case filed outside of the local county. Despite decades of precedent finding RCW 4.12.010 to be jurisdictional, in a 5-4 decision the Court followed emerging trends to conclude the statute concerned venue, not jurisdiction.

Ralph I arose from 2007 flooding in Lewis County caused by the Chehalis River overflowing its banks. Among other affected properties were those of William Ralph and William Forth. Ralph and Forth filed separate suits in King County against Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”), alleging claims including negligence, trespass, and violations of various state acts, arguing DNR’s forestry practices were the underlying cause of the flooding. The King County Superior Court dismissed both complaints, finding it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because RCW 4.12.010(1) required actions for any injuries to real property to be commenced in the county in which the subject of the action is situated—in this case, Lewis County. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing the statute related only to injury to title, not money damages, or in the alternative, the trial court should have transferred rather than dismissed their actions because RCW 4.12.010(1) is a venue statute, not jurisdictional.

The Ralph I majority quickly rejected the first argument, finding the broad language of the statute encompassed all injuries to real property, including monetary damages. Having determined the statute applied to Ralph and Forth’s claims, the Court turned to consider whether the statute related to venue or jurisdiction. Noting the statute had been found to be jurisdictional “long ago,” the Court immediately turned to dismantling its prior holdings. Balancing the statutory language and prior holdings[3] against Article IV, section 6[4] of the Washington State Constitution,[5] other analogous cases,[6] the Court’s perception of legislative intent,[7] and “common sense,”[8] the Court determined it was appropriate to overrule its precedent and establish RCW 4.12.010(1) as relating to venue, rather than jurisdiction.

A strong dissent, penned by Justice Wiggins, argued the statute was plainly jurisdictional, and finding it did not conflict with the Washington State Constitution. The dissent questioned whether prior holdings finding 4.12.010(1) jurisdictional could be shown to be “incorrect and harmful,” as without such a finding overruling the prior holdings was precluded. The dissent further raised concerns about the public policy ramifications of such an approach, arguing it would drastically complicate the title examination process for potential purchasers.

Upon remand, defendant/respondents Department of Natural Resources, Weyerhaeuser Company, and Green Diamond Resource Company moved to transfer venue to Lewis County, which the trial court granted over plaintiffs’ objections. Plaintiffs filed for discretionary review, and the case again came before the Washington State Supreme Court as Ralph v. Weyerhaeuser Company, 187 Wn.2d 326, 386 P.3d 721 (Wash. 2016) (“Ralph II”). The Court first considered whether respondents had waived their right to object to venue, then considered whether a change of venue should be granted. In answering these questions, they recognized and confirmed the recodification of RCW 4.12.010(1) from a jurisdictional to a venue statute.

The Court first rejected the argument that respondents waived their right to seek a venue transfer, concluding that because it was not possible prior to Ralph I to object to venue under RCW 4.12.010(1), such an argument was not waived. The Court then turned to deliberate proper venue.

It first addressed whether the statute determined Lewis County as the exclusive venue or if other proper venues existed. Petitioners argued that while venue in Lewis County was an acceptable forum, respondents’ motion to transfer to Lewis County as a matter of right was improper since King County was also appropriate. Ralph, 187 Wn.2d at 326. The Court recognized that mandatory venue statutes must be followed over permissive ones, but noted that when faced with “two equally applicable venue statutes . . . they may be interpreted as ‘complementary,’ giving plaintiffs the option of which statute to proceed under.” Id. at 338. Moreover, determining the appropriate venue was a matter of law, not a matter of discretion. The Court concluded that transfer of venue as a matter of right pursuant to RCW 4.12.030(1) was improper. Id. at 342.

In this vein, the Court found multiple statutes provided proper venue, but these were not necessarily limited to the same venue. Importantly, the statutes did not provide venue to the exclusion of other statutes. For example, RCW 4.12.010(1), 4.12.020(3), and 4.12.025(3), among others, prescribed venue determinations that could result in differing or multiple proper venues. Petitioners pointed to RCW 4.12.020(3), which designated venue based on the respondent’s residency, in this case King County. However, the Court rejected King County as the exclusive venue, arguing that both RCW 4.12.010(1) and RCW 4.12.020(3) used the words “shall” without excluding one venue over the other. Id. at 339–40. Thus, the Ralph II Court concluded each of the venue statutes was “equally mandatory and specific, without any indication that one should apply to the exclusion of the others.” Id. at 342.

Having so determined, the Court concluded the trial court could, in its discretion, consider the various arguments for transfer. However, transfer would not be required as a matter of right if the proceedings were already in a different, but still proper, venue. In the event an improper filing was made, it would not “result in dismissal” but transfer to “where the real property is located.” Id. at 336.

Even Justice Wiggins accepted the new order, noting that the Court “now treat[s] RCW 4.12.010 as a venue statute, rather than a jurisdictional statute.” Id. at 344. Acknowledging his disagreement, he nevertheless “concurr[ed] in the majority’s result.” Id.

While few cases, if any, thus far have applied Ralph I or II in the real property injury setting, the takeaway is that relying on RCW 4.12.010(1) to dismiss an improperly filed property dispute is not a winning strategy. Rather, current guidance from Ralph I and II suggests a trial court will transfer, not dismiss, the contested suit.

 


 

[1] Daniel Keum is summer associate at Corr Cronin and a rising 3L at Northwestern Law School. At Northwestern, Daniel most enjoys being the head coach for the law school’s Moot Court Society, helping students sharpen their oral and written advocacy, and representing indigent South Chicago tenants in trial against abusive housing practices at the Northwestern Bluhm Legal Clinic. An Eastside native and a proud Husky, Daniel looks forward to returning to the Pacific Northwest after graduation as a general commercial litigator.

[2] RCW 4.12.010 provides, in relevant part: “Actions for the following causes shall be commenced in the county in which the subject of the action, or some part thereof, is situated: (1) For the recovery of, for the possession of, for the partition of, for the foreclosure of a mortgage on, or for the determination of all questions affecting the title, or for any injuries to real property.”

[3] 182 Wn.2d at 251-52

[4] Id. at 252-53.

[5] Art. IV, § 6 provides, in relevant part: “The superior court shall also have original jurisdiction in all cases and of all proceedings in which jurisdiction shall not have been by law vested exclusively in some other court.”

[6] 182 Wn.2d at 253-54.

[7] Id. at 254-57.

[8] Id. at 257-58.

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