Caffrey v North Arrow Abstract & Settlement Servs., Inc., 2018 NY Slip Op 01043 [2nd Dept 2018]

We address two related issues concerning subject matter jurisdiction that have not previously been addressed by our Court. The first is whether a court with subject matter jurisdiction, which pursuant to CPLR 325(d) has erroneously transferred an action to a lower court lacking subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the matter, may retransfer the action to itself after the lower court has already tried the matter and rendered a judgment. The second question is whether, upon a retransfer of the action to a court with subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to CPLR 325(b), the court may adopt the findings of fact and conclusions of law of the lower court and thereupon substitute the lower court's judgment with its own judgment. We answer the first question in the affirmative and the second question in the negative.

* * *

We have considered, but reject, the notion that Judge Marrazzo had "in effect" self-transferred the action back to Supreme Court for trial, rendering the trial and judgment jurisdictionally valid. The decision rendered after the trial reflected the Civil Court's index number (300061-2011) rather than the original index number of the Supreme Court (102525/09). An "in effect" retransfer at the time of trial is inconsistent with the filing of a posttrial judgment in the Civil Court, and inconsistent with Caffrey's later motion to retransfer the action to Supreme Court, which was contested by the parties and decided by the Supreme Court on its merits.

We suspect, giving the Civil Court the credit and good faith it is due, that the instant matter may have been selectively assigned to Judge Marrazzo, recognizing that the plaintiff's complaint interposed equitable causes of action and further recognizing that Judge Marrazzo had been granted Acting Supreme Court status. Yet, given the limiting language of that designation in the Administrative Order, we cannot hold that the Administrative Order cured the subject matter jurisdictional infirmity afflicting the action as a result of its erroneous transfer to the Civil Court under CPLR 325(d). Subject matter jurisdiction is a concept that is absolute—it either exists in its entirety or it does not exist at all. A defect in subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time by any party or by the court itself, and subject matter jurisdiction cannot be created through waiver, estoppel, laches, or consent (see Financial Indus. Regulatory Auth., Inc. v Fiero, 10 NY3d 12, 17; Matter of Rougeron, 17 NY2d 264, 271; Strunk v New York State Bd. of Elections, 126 AD3d 777, 779; Matter of Hart Family, LLC v Town of Lake George, 110 AD3d 1278, 1280; Burke v Aspland, 56 AD3d 1001, 1003; Morrison v Budget Rent A Car Sys., 230 AD2d 253, 260; Matter of Anthony J., 143 AD2d 668, 668-669). Similarly, defects in subject jurisdiction may never be waived (see Nash v Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 22 NY3d 220, 229; Manhattan Telecom. Corp. v H & A Locksmith, Inc., 21 NY3d at 203; Editorial Photocolor Archives v Granger Collection, 61 NY2d 517, 523; Lacks v Lacks, 41 NY2d at 74-75). While Judge Marrazzo, by virtue of his designation as an Acting Justice of the Supreme Court, would have been authorized to preside over the trial of this matter had it been pending in the Supreme Court, the same cannot be said for the trial in the Civil Court where the Administrative Order had no administrative or substantive relevance.

Where subject matter jurisdiction is concerned, courts, including our own, may not cut corners. As a matter of both constitutional adherence and public policy, the Appellate Division must guard against courts acting outside of their subject matter jurisdiction, even if they do so unwittingly, in good faith, or in furtherance of judicial economy. Accordingly, we hold that the duties of an Acting Justice of the Supreme Court directed to matters pending in the Supreme Court [*7]operate only as to actions and proceedings pending in that particular court, and not for cases litigated elsewhere. In other words, a judge of the Civil Court with a limited Acting Supreme Court Justice designation has no authority in an action pending at the Civil Court to exceed the nonmonetary subject matter jurisdiction of that court, regardless of whatever more expansive authority he or she may possess for other assignments pending in the Supreme Court.

Further, since the Civil Court was without jurisdiction to try the instant matter, rendering the trial and judgment void, its findings of fact and conclusions of law cannot as a matter of comity, res judicata, law of the case, or otherwise, be recognized by the Supreme Court upon its CPLR 325(b) removal of the action, and cannot provide a basis for the Supreme Court judgment presently on appeal.

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