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Summary proceedings (whether they be about a tenant's nonpayment of rent or an occupant's "holding over") are frequently riddled with technical objections relating to the notices that preceded the litigation and/or the content of the pleadings. And, in their earnest desire to mete justice, jurists will occasionally rule that these errors or omissions somehow divest the court of "subject matter jurisdiction" and dismiss a case. For the longest time, we have publicly advocated that while a dismissal may be the correct result--such as, when there is an utter failure to comply with a statutory or regulatory requirement or when the error is otherwise prejudicial or violative of law--the characterization of case-related irregularities as "subject matter jurisdiction" defects is just plain inartful.
In our text, Landlord and Tenant Practice in New York, we have noted as follows:

Subject matter jurisdiction, which is constitutionally or statutorily bestowed, relates to the types or categories of actions that a court is empowered to hear and the range of remedies it is authorized to confer...Since litigants lack the power to grant or deprive a court of subject matter jurisdiction, such defects may neither be waived nor conferred by stipulation or other agreement between the parties. When jurisdiction to grant a specific remedy is found to be lacking, that request must be denied and the proceeding may continue, provided that the court is empowered to award the remaining relief sought.
A recent appeal decided by the New York State Court of Appeals will hopefully put any confusion to rest once and for all. Although the decision involved the application of the State's Executive Law, and did not involve a landlord-tenant dispute, the Court's analysis clearly applies to all summary proceedings (which would include nonpayment and holdover cases).
In the Matter of Ballard v. HSBC Bank USA, Diane Ballard initiated a special proceeding in the Supreme Court seeking judicial review of an adverse determination rendered against her by Edward A. Friedland, the Acting Commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights. Although Ms. Ballard's Notice of Petition omitted the proceeding's return date, a letter which accompanied her papers indicated that once that date was assigned by the court, all litigants would be notified. While there were some preliminary exchanges about the scheduling (including a request by one of the respondents to adjourn to matter to another date), it appears that none of the parties initially objected to the return-date defect.
Several weeks later, one of the respondents moved to dismiss Ballard's case on the ground of "lack of jurisdiction" and that her claim was "barred by the statute of limitations" based on the notice of petition's return-date omission. Ballard countered the her filing was not defective, but even if had been, it only comprised a waivable "personal jurisdiction" objection. The Supreme Court concluded that the irregularity "implicate[d] subject matter jurisdiction, not jurisdiction of the parties" and transferred the matter to the Appellate Division. On motion practice, the appellate court concurred with the Supreme Court and dismissed Ballard's case. The Court of Appeals reversed, noting as follows:
"The question of subject matter jurisdiction is a question of judicial power: whether the court has the power, conferred by the Constitution or statute, to entertain the case before it"...We have routinely held that technical defects in filings do not fall under the umbrella of subject matter jurisdiction when they do not undermine the constitutional or statutory basis to hear a case....
The Court of Appeals characterized Ballard's error as a "defect on personal jurisdiction grounds" that had been waived by the respondents' participation in the proceeding without "timely" objection and concluded with wise words of caution to all litigants seeking to exploit an adversary's technical error:
As we [have previously] stated..."[the parties] are warned that if they want to capitalize on technicalities they must mind their own procedures"...As respondents failed to timely raise a challenge to personal jurisdiction, that claim was waived and the petition may go forward.
Think that's the final word?
For a copy of the Court of Appeals's decision in Matter of Ballard v. HSBC Bank USA, please click on the following link: