Amount in controversy

Amount in controversy

Amount in controversy (sometimes called jurisdictional amount) is a term used in United States civil procedure to denote a requirement that persons seeking to bring a lawsuit in a particular court must be suing for a certain minimum amount before that court may hear the case.

In federal courts

Diversity jurisdiction

In United States federal courts, the term currently only applies to cases brought under diversity jurisdiction, meaning that the court is able to hear the case only because it is between citizens of different states. In such cases, the U.S. Congress has decreed in Title 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) that the court may hear such suits only where "the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75,000." This amount representes a significant increase from earlier years.

Congress first established the amount in controversy requirement when it created diversity jurisdiction in the Judiciary Act of 1789, pursuant to its powers under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. In that Act, the amount was $500. It was raised to $2,000 in 1887; to $3,000 in 1911; to $10,000 in 1958; to $50,000 in 1988; and finally to the current $75,000 in 1996.

Federal question jurisdiction

Congress did not create a consistent federal question jurisdiction, which allows federal courts to hear any case alleging a violation of the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States, until 1875. At that time, such cases had the same amount in controversy requirement as the diversity cases. Congress eliminated this requirement in actions against the United States in 1976, and in all federal question cases in 1980.

Aggregation of claims

Where a single plaintiff has multiple unrelated claims against a single defendant, that plaintiff can "aggregate" those claims - that is, add the amounts together - to satisfy the amount in controversy requirement. In cases involving more than one defendant, a plaintiff may aggregate the amount claimed against multiple defendants “only if the defendants are jointly liable.” "Middle Tennessee News Co., Inc. v. Charnel of Cincinnati, Inc.", 250 F.3d 1077, 1081 (7th Cir. 2001). However, “if the defendants are severally liable, plaintiff must satisfy the amount in controversy requirement against each individual defendant.” The recent 5-4 decision in "Exxon v. Allapattah", 545 U.S. 546 (2005), held that a federal court has supplemental jurisdiction over claims of other plaintiffs who do not meet the jurisdictional amount for a diversity action, when at least one plaintiff in the action does satisfy the jurisdictional amount.

Legal certainty test

The standard for dismissing a complaint for lack of meeting the amount in controversy is a rather high one in federal court. In 1938, Justice Owen Roberts set forth the "legal-certainty test", [Subrin, Stephen N.; Minow, Martha L.; Brodin, Mark S.; and Main, Thomas O. "Civil Procedure: Doctrine, Practice, and Context, Second Edition". p. 698. Aspen Publishers, 2004. ISBN 0-7355-4086-1] which is still used today:

It must appear to a legal certainty that the claim is really for less than the jurisdictional amount to justify dismissal. The inability of plaintiff to recover an amount adequate to give the court jurisdiction does not show his bad faith or oust the jurisdiction. Nor does the fact that the complaint discloses the existence of a valid defense to the claim. But if, from the face of the pleadings, it is apparent to a legal certainty that the plaintiff cannot recover the amount claimed or if, from the proofs, the court is satisfied to a like certainty that the plaintiff never was entitled to recover that amount, and that his claim was therefore colorable for the purpose of conferring jurisdiction, the suit will be dismissed. [ [ "St. Paul Mercury Indemnity Co. v. Red Cab Co.", 303 U.S. 283, 289 (1938)] ("emphasis added")]

The validity of the amount of damages claimed is considered a threshold issue of law for a judge to decide at the commencement of the case. [ [ Thomson-Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, courtesy of Jrank] ]

In state courts

Each state has the power to set its own amount in controversy requirements for its own courts, but every state must offer some outlet for citizens to sue for violations of their rights, even if they are seeking no money.


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