Maryland’s intermediate appellate court has confirmed that the amount claimed by a plaintiff is what triggers the right to a civil trial by jury, not the amount claimed by a defendant asserting a counterclaim

Under Article 23 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, “the right of trial by Jury of all issues of fact in civil proceedings in the several Courts of Law in this State, where the amount in controversy exceeds the sum of $15,000, shall be inviolably preserved.”  The Court of Special Appeals recently confirmed that the “amount in controversy” referred to is the amount prayed for in the plaintiff’s complaint.  If the amount prayed for in the complaint is less than $15,000, a defendant who files a counterclaim does not have a right to a jury trial, even if the amount prayed for in the counterclaim exceeds $15,000.

In McKlveen v. Monika Courts Condominium, the condominium filed a Complaint in the District Court for Prince George’s County against McKlveen, one of its unit owners, for unpaid assessments and damages of $3,219, plus interest of $127 and attorney’s fees of $724 for a total of $4,070.  Alleging violations of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, McKlveen filed a Counterclaim against Monika Courts, praying for a total of $26,000.

With her counterclaim, McKlveen filed a Jury Trial Demand.  Upon receipt of the Jury Trial Demand, the District Court transferred the action to the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County.  Monika Courts then filed a Motion to Strike, which was granted by the Circuit Court.  The Circuit Court remanded the case to the District Court.  McKlveen appealed to the Court of Special Appeals.  

In affirming the Circuit Court’s ruling, the Court of Special Appeals cited to its decision in McDermott v. BB&T Bankcard Corp., in which it stated “counterclaims should not be considered in determining whether the amount in controversy requirement is satisfied.”  The Court also looked to federal case law, and concluded that “...on whether a counterclaim counts towards the amount in controversy for jurisdictional purposes, the majority of federal courts have ruled that a counterclaim should not be considered.”

Secondarily, McKlveen argued that she has a fundamental right to a trial by jury even if the amount in controversy is less than $15,000.  Rejecting this argument, the Court relied to Article 5 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, for the proposition that “the right to trial by jury is not unlimited and is subject to modification by the legislature.”

In light of the Court of Specials Appeals’ decision, McKlveen has two options.  She can either 1) request a stay of the District Court action, and file a separate action in Circuit Court under Maryland Rule 3-331(f), or she can 2) pursue her counterclaim in the District Court before a judge.

While the right to a jury trial is a fundamental part of our legal system, the Court of Appeals explained its limitations in Houston v. Lloyd’s Consumer Acceptance Corp., a 1965 decision.  “It is well settled that the right to a jury trial may be subjected to reasonable regulation [and] it is generally acknowledged that it can, for all practical purposes, become meaningless to the individual and burdensome to the state unless the exercise of it is regulated to some extent."