Are Some District Courts Overcharging Plaintiffs?

Recently, our offices received a phone call from a District Court clerk’s office requesting an additional $360 for a complaint filed earlier that week. The complaint filed with the District Court was for breach of contract by 3 plaintiffs against 2 defendants.

Our offices submitted the usual filing fee for a district court complaint, which as of 2016 is $180.00 to file with $15.00 administrative fee (total filing fee of $195.00). This is confirmed pursuant to the District Court and BMC websites:

http://www.mass.gov/courts/court-info/filing-fees/dc-fees-gen.html

http://www.mass.gov/courts/court-info/filing-fees/bmc-fees-gen.html

However, the clerk’s office asserted that each plaintiff was required to pay a complaint filing fee of $180.00, and 1 $15.00 administrative fee. The total filing fee for the complaint would be $555.00. Despite attempts to explain that this was a breach of contract action by parties to a contract against other parties to a contract, involving a unified claim where each plaintiff was entitled to the same collectively recovery against any 1 or more of the defendants – the clerk’s office insisted the filing fee was $555.00.

So our offices began to investigate how filing fees are approved, imposed and calculated. We initially contacted the Administrative Office of the Trial Court for clarification, but it was apparently an issue that had not been previously raised. In conducting our own legal research into the issue, it appears that some district courts may be incorrectly imposing a blanket fee of $180.00 per plaintiff per complaint even though this method does not apply to multi-plaintiff, joint-recovery claims. Below is an analysis of the applicable statutes and rules.

Statutes and Rules Applicable to Calculating Filing Fees

Under MGL Chapter 262, Section 4B, The Administrative Office of the Trial Court has the authority to schedule court fees that have been approved by the Supreme Judicial Court. However, the Uniform Schedule of Fees provided by the Administrative Office of the Trial Court are silent on the $180.00 plus $15.00 administrative fee for filing complaints. The Superior Court website specifically states the filing fee is PER PLAINTIFF, where the District/BMC websites fail to address the issue.(www.mass.gov/courts/court-info/filling-fees/sc-fees-gen.html (accessed in April 2016).

Next, we looked to Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure. Mass. R. Civ. Pro. Rule 20 states:

In any action in which persons not asserting any right to recover jointly join as plaintiffs, and in which the relief sought is not wholly equitable, the entry fee shall be an amount equal to the aggregate of the entry fees which would have been required had separate actions been brought. (emphasis added).

www.mass.gov/courts/case-legal-res/rules-of-court/civil-procedure/mrcp20.html (accessed April 2016).

Attorneys Are Skilled at Reading Legal Jargon, Right?

The use of the negative is admittedly confusing. However, a careful reading of MRCP Rule 20 reveals that the filing fee for any action that DOES seek joint recovery or DOES seek wholly equitable relief by multiple plaintiffs is charged as a single action. Read in the negative, an action filed by multiple plaintiffs that does not seek joint recovery or does not seek wholly equitable relief is treated as if each plaintiff filed separately, for purposes of calculating the filing fee. Interestingly, this would suggest that each plaintiff in a personal injury action, for example, seeking separate non-wholly equitable relief, could be charged the filing fee and administrative fee.

The dénouement

In the district court complaint filed in our case, the 3 plaintiffs sought joint recovery for a breach of contract against the defendants. Therefore, each plaintiff sought the same recovery, and if one plaintiff recovered on the breach of contract, the other 2 plaintiffs could not recover additional amounts. In other words, if recovery in the case is won, it is a joint recovery by all plaintiffs, and would not be wholly equitable.

Based on the applicable statutes and rules of court, therefore, the district court filing fee should have been the same for 1 plaintiff or 3 or 5. After providing this information and these citations to the district clerk’s office, the clerk acknowledged the error and recalculated the filing fee – which resulted in a savings to our clients of $360.00.

If you would like more information on this issue, or would like to retain the diligent Boston Business Attorneys at The Jacobs Law LLC at 1-800-652-4783 or email ContactUs@TheJacobsLaw.com.

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