In Texas, if you ask for too much in your eviction suit, then you could end up with nothing. Landlords typically ask the Court to evict the tenant and award money damages to the landlord for all amounts owed by the tenant. In addition to delinquent rent, landlords often ask the Court to award penalties, late fees, parking fees, unauthorized pet fees, fines for community rule violations, and even monetary damages for unrelated causes of action. The landlord typically feels entitled to all of this money and does not understand that, by pleading for too much, the landlord could lose all of it.1
In Texas, your local Justice of the Peace Court (“JP court” or “justice court”) has exclusive jurisdiction over forcible entry and detainer suits. In layman’s terms, this means that Texans must file their eviction suits at the local JP court. Usually, the district and county courts will all be located downtown at the largest city in your county, while there will be several justice court subcourthouses spread throughout the county, often sharing office space with your local city hall or the local branch of the tax collector’s office. In 2013, the Texas legislature abolished small claims courts and gave jurisdiction over small claims cases to the JP courts. So, the JP courts also function as small claims courts.
Even if you wanted to file your eviction suit in county or district court, you cannot do so. There are, however, other causes of action that are possessory in nature, which can be filed in a county or district court (usually district court for jurisdictional reasons).2 Trespass to try title, for example, is a possessory cause of action that must be brought in district court rather than justice court. It’s the Berrys, LLC v. Edom Corner, LLC, 271 S.W.3d 765, 770 (Tex. App. Amarillo 2008).
Because the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and the Texas Rules of Evidence do not apply in justice court,3 Texans are supposed to be capable of adequately representing themselves without the help of a licensed attorney in justice court and they frequently do so. Consequently, many, if not most, eviction suits are filed at the local JP court subcourthouse without the help of an attorney.
Most landlords filing these cases do not know two critical rules: (1) if you ask for more than $10,000.00 in back rent, or if the Court thinks that more than $10,000.00 in back rent is actually owed, then the JP court will refuse to award anything at all for back rent, and (2) the landlord can only ask for back rent, nothing else—no late fees, no penalties, no fines for unauthorized pets or parking in the wrong spot, etcetera, just back rent, except that, in some instances, amounts owed that are not quite rent may be recoverable if they are “within the nature of rent.”4 Courts differ on what constitutes “within the nature of rent,” and so, in some JP courts, late fees or unauthorized pet fines may be recoverable, but for the most part, those types of monetary obligations are probably not recoverable. Now, on appeal, the rules change and you can amend your pleadings to ask the Court for any damages relating to possession of the property during the pendency of the appeal, and those damages may exceed $10,000.00, but the damages must arise between the date of the JP court judgment and the county court trial date in order to be recoverable in excess of $10,000.00.
Under Tex. R. Civ. P. 510.3(d), an eviction suit can include a claim for back rent, but only if the claim is “within the justice court’s jurisdiction.” Because justice courts have small claims jurisdiction, the justice court has no jurisdiction over suits where the amount in controversy is over $10,000.00. Tex. Gov’t Code § 26.042(a). Hence, back rent claims can be no more than $10,000.00. Also, Tex. R. Civ. P. 500.3(d) makes clear that “A claim for rent may be joined with an eviction case if the amount of rent due and unpaid is not more than $10,000.00, excluding statutory interest and court costs, but including attorney’s fees, if any.”
Whoever loses the JP court eviction suit can appeal to the county court. Because JP courts do not employ court reporters to keep a record of their proceedings and because the Texas rules of procedure and evidence do not apply, no record exists for the county court to review on appeal. Consequently, the county court conducts a trial de novo, which means a brand new trial. Whatever evidence the landlord or tenant offered in the JP court case is gone and irrelevant. The judge of the county court, in fact, will know nothing about what happened in the JP court other than the outcome as expressed in the final order signed by the JP court judge, but the county court judge must decide the new case based solely on the new trial, and so most, if not all, county court judges could not care less about what happened in the JP court.
Now, the county courts normally have jurisdiction up to $200,000.00,5 unless the Texas Government Code provides something different for that particular county. Under Tex. R. Civ. P. 510.11, the landlord can seek damages in a county court eviction appeal for anything “suffered for withholding or defending possession of the premises during the pendency of the appeal.” Courts have construed this broadly to allow damages that are in any way related to maintaining and obtaining possession of the subject property during the pendency of the appeal. See Serrano v. Ramos, 2015 Tex. App. LEXIS 6139, *7-9 (Tex. App. Corpus Christi June 18, 2015); Hanks v. Lake Towne Apartments, 812 S.W.2d 625, 626 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1991, writ denied); Krull v. Somoza, 879 S.W.2d 320, 322 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1994, writ denied).
At the end of the day, the rule for monetary damages in an eviction suit in Texas is that the landlord can get back rent from the justice court as long as less than $10,000.00 is owed at the time of the filing of the petition. If additional rent coming due before trial brings the total rent owed to more than $10,000.00, then the justice court does not lose jurisdiction because the damages for additional rent accrued “because of the passage of time.”6 For liquidated claims, the plaintiff cannot arbitrarily reduce the amount of the claim to bring it within the jurisdictional limits of the court.7 For unliquidated claims, the plaintiff can reduce the damages to an amount within the court’s jurisdictional limit if the plaintiff pleads in good faith.8 Rent is most likely going to be considered a “liquidated” claim, and consequently, the landlord probably cannot arbitrarily lower the amount of rent due in order to avoid filing a separate suit in county or district court for the rent owed.
If the Judge finds the amount in controversy to be in excess of $10,000.00, then the proper remedy is to sever the forcible detainer cause of action and dismiss the cause of action for rent. It’s the Berrys, LLC v. Edom Corner, LLC, 271 S.W.3d 765, 772 (Tex. App. Amarillo 2008). In other words, if more than $10,000.00 in back rent is owed when the eviction suit is filed, then the landlord gets zero monetary damages. But, pursuant to Tex. R. Civ. P. 510.3(e), any claims not asserted because they cannot be brought “can be brought in a separate suit in a court of proper jurisdiction.” In other words, rent arises out of the same transaction, or subject matter, as possession of the premises and so, normally, a landlord who sued for possession only would be barred by res judicata from bringing a separate suit for the unpaid rent.9 However, if back rent owed is more than $10,000.00 at the time of the filing of the eviction suit or if the court finds that it lacks jurisdiction over the rent, then the landlord must bring a separate suit for the rent. So, the landlord would have one suit in justice court for possession of the property and another, separate suit in county or district court for rent.
No one in their right mind who is not a lawyer would guess that the law requires two separate lawsuits for a simple eviction suit when back rent exceeds $10,000.00, making this a stupid and counter-intuitive law. The two separate suits are highly impractical because the results can differ, the legal work must be duplicated and, at the end of day, the issues are far too simple to justify two separate lawsuits, even if one of them is in JP court, particularly given that the JP side of the suit will eventually wind up in county court on appeal. At least in 2007, the amount in controversy was raised from $5,000.00 to $10,000.00 to provide some alleviation for this problem, but it is still a ridiculous situation.
To sum up, the back rent owed at the time of the eviction suit filing in justice court cannot be more than $10,000.00, excluding statutory interest and court costs, but including attorney’s fees. Attorney’s fees and any damages accruing after the justice court suit is appealed; like property taxes, unauthorized pet fees, parking fees, damages done to the property by the tenant, etcetera; can be recovered in the county court on appeal, even if they cause the amount in controversy to exceed $10,000.00, but only if the damages accrued while the appeal was pending.
Frankly, the rules governing evictions are unbelievably complex, considering that the Texas legislature enacted the rules “to provide a speedy and inexpensive remedy for the determination of who is entitled to possession of property.” Johnson v. Fellowship Baptist Church, 627 S.W.2d 203, 204 (Tex. App. Corpus Christi 1981). In Texas, evictions can be fairly expedient and can be fairly simple, on occasion, but the rules governing evictions are not simple at all,10 and a lot can get in the way of simplicity and expediency.
1Technically, the landlord who asks for too much does not lose his or her entitlement to monetary damages altogether, but rather is forced to accept zero monetary damages in the eviction suit, and then must bring a separate lawsuit in district or county court for all monetary damages owed. See Bybee v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 160 Tex. 429, 331 S.W.2d 910, 913 (1960) (If the petition shows that part of the damages, such as a claim for attorney’s fees, is not allowed by law, that part of the claim is disregarded for jurisdictional purposes); It’s the Berrys, LLC v. Edom Corner, LLC, 271 S.W.3d 765, 772 (Tex. App. Amarillo 2008) (If the Judge finds the amount in controversy to be in excess of $10,000.00, then the proper remedy is to sever the forcible detainer cause of action and dismiss the cause of action for rent). Most landlords are so frustrated by the eviction process that they have no interest in prosecuting an entirely separate lawsuit against their tenant for the sole purpose of recovering a monetary judgment against the tenant. So, the landlord who fails to obtain a money judgment against his or her tenant in the eviction suit typically fails to obtain a money judgment at all.
2 Escobar v. Garcia, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 5157, *9 (Tex. App. Corpus Christi—May 15, 2014) (county courts generally have no subject matter jurisdiction over title disputes); but see Tex. Gov’t Code § 25.0592 (county courts in Dallas County have concurrent jurisdiction with the district court in civil cases regardless of the amount in controversy and subject matter jurisdictional problems can be cured by retroactive assignment to district court).
3 Tex. R. Civ. P. 500.3(e).
4 Carlson’s Hill Country Bev., L.C. v. Westinghouse Rd. Joint Venture, 957 S.W.2d 951, 955 (Tex. App. Austin 1997).
5 Tex. Gov’t Code § 25.0003.
6 Continental Coffee Prods. Co. v. Cazarez, 937 S.W.2d 444, 449 (Tex. 1996).
7 Failing v. Equity Management Corp., 674 S.W.2d 906, 909 (Tex. App. Houston 1st Dist. 1984).
8 French v. Moore, 169 S.W.3d 1, 8 (Tex. App. Houston 1st Dist. 2004).
9 See Barr v. Resolution Trust Corp., 837 S.W.2d 627, 631 (Tex. 1992) (claims arising out of the same transaction or subject matter as claims previously litigated are barred by res judicata; Texas has adopted the “transactional” approach to res judicata law).
10 For example, the eviction rules are found in a strange combination of Chapter 24 of the Texas Property Code and Rule 510 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. There are a few important eviction rules that everyone should learn and that are fairly well developed by the caselaw, many of which are explained by this blog post. However, there are many more eviction rules that rarely, if ever, come up and are hardly understood at all by the litigants, including the attorneys and judges.
Copyright 2017, Ian Ghrist, All Rights Reserved.
Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. Do not rely on any part of this blog as legal advice. Instead, seek out the advice of a licensed attorney. Also, this information may be out-of-date.