Andrew Engle, Esq. | January 19, 2014

I attended the Ohio Supreme Court oral argument in Kuchta, and found some of the arguments and comments disturbing. 


In particular, I noted Justice O’Donnell’s comments regarding the scope of Schwartzwald. But I can’t help but conclude that his comments miss the mark with respect to the role standing plays in a common pleas court’s subject matter jurisdiction.

I’ve never understood why some want to equate standing with subject matter jurisdiction. Although they are strongly related, they are not synonymous. Neither are “engine” and “automobile” synonymous. The former is but a requirement for the latter to be operable. However, an engine alone is not enough. To function, an automobile also needs gasoline to power that engine. You cannot drive a car with no engine even if its gas tank is full. And without fuel, even the most powerful of engines will remain cold. So it is with Ohio’s common pleas courts. 


To suggest that a common pleas court can exercise subject matter jurisdiction even though it lacks the constitutional jurisdiction to do so, is just plain silly.

The Ohio Supreme Court has repeatedly held that subject matter jurisdiction is the constitutional or legislative grant of judicial power to a particular court. In Ohio, a common pleas court’s jurisdiction is granted by Art. IV, sec. 4(B) of Ohio’s Constitution - “[t]he courts of common pleas shall have such original jurisdiction over all justiciable matters . . . as may be provided by law.” This provision identifies two distinct, but absolute, requirements for a common pleas court’s jurisdiction – (1) a justiciable matter and (2) a statutory grant of power. You could say the first is the engine that gives the court the means to function and the second is the fuel the powers that engine. 

The assertion that common pleas courts have subject matter jurisdiction over foreclosure cases is facially correct. The General Assembly has granted that power, and it did so based on the power granted to it through Art. IV, sec. 4(B). But ending the analysis there, completely ignores the more fundamental, constitutional requirement of a justiciable matter. 

This line of reasoning relegates the requirement of justiciability to something other than, and inferior to, subject matter jurisdiction. But there is nothing in either the constitution or in statute to support this notion. Art. IV, sec. 4(B) does not mention subject matter jurisdiction. In fact, the words “subject matter jurisdiction” do not appear in the Constitution at all. Neither do they appear in R.C. 2305.01 (“the court of common pleas has original jurisdiction in all civil cases”). So it is confusing how anyone can reasonably conclude that statutory jurisdiction is subject matter jurisdiction, but constitutional jurisdiction is something else entirely.

Also, although it should go without saying, if a court’s jurisdiction is not invoked, then it lacks jurisdiction. The bank’s counsel and Justice O’Donnell repeatedly stressed that the underlying holding in Schwartzwald was that a lack of standing means only that the trial court’s jurisdiction was not invoked. But it does not follow that a court can have subject matter jurisdiction over a particular case if the court’s jurisdiction was not invoked. Either the Court has jurisdiction or it doesn’t. To suggest that a common pleas court can exercise subject matter jurisdiction even though it lacks the constitutional jurisdiction to do so, is just plain silly.

The same analysis applies to appellate jurisdiction. Although Ohio’s courts of appeals have subject matter jurisdiction over all civil appeals, should a party fail to timely file a notice of appeal, its jurisdiction is not invoked, and it lacks both the constitutional and statutory power to decide the case. In other words, a party must invoke the jurisdiction of a court of appeals before the Court can exercise its jurisdiction. Neither can a common pleas court decide a liability and damages resulting from an auto accident if the injured party doesn’t commence a civil action by filing a complaint. Sure the court has subject matter jurisdiction over auto accident cases, but there is no justiciable matter until a plaintiff sues a defendant. 

But all of this misses the issue presented in the case. The issue relates to res judicata and its applicability to determinations of jurisdiction. And the simple fact is that the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment against the Kuchtas did not make any finding regarding the bank’s standing to bring the suit. As Justice O’Donnell stated, the facts of Kuchta are controlled by Schwartzwald. The issue is whether the Court will make some exception – a safe harbor of sorts – using the doctrine of res judicata for the bank to find shelter from attacks against judgments entered by a court without jurisdiction. I think doing so would be a grave error. It was the banks, after all, which decided to file foreclosure cases before they obtained a legally cognizable interest in the underlying note and mortgage. 

The citizens of the State of Ohio decided to limit the power of common pleas courts to those cases which present justiciable matters. Any decision which ignores that democratically enacted limitation exchanges the rule of law for one of convenience. I cannot believe that such a move is wise in any regard.

Attorney Andrew Engle, Centerville, Ohio.