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State ex rel. DeCourcy v. Dent

Supreme Court of West Virginia

November 17, 2017

State ex rel. Garland DeCourcy, Defendant Below, Petitioner
v.
The Honorable Jennifer P. Dent, Judge of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit, County of Pocahontas, and William W. Williams, Plaintiff Below, Respondents

          Submitted: October 4, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Pocahontas County The Honorable Jennifer P. Dent, Judge Civil Action No. 17-C-AP-03

          Kristopher Faerber, Esq. Faerber Law Lewisburg, West Virginia Counsel for the Petitioner.

          Laura Finch, Esq. Marlinton, West Virginia Counsel for the Respondent.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "In determining whether to entertain and issue the writ of prohibition for cases not involving an absence of jurisdiction but only where it is claimed that the lower tribunal exceeded its legitimate powers, this Court will examine five factors: (1) whether the party seeking the writ has no other adequate means, such as direct appeal, to obtain the desired relief; (2) whether the Respondent will be damaged or prejudiced in a way that is not correctable on appeal; (3) whether the lower tribunal's order is clearly erroneous as a matter of law; (4) whether the lower tribunal's order is an oft repeated error or manifests persistent disregard for either procedural or substantive law; and (5) whether the lower tribunal's order raises new and important problems or issues of law of first impression. These factors are general guidelines that serve as a useful starting point for determining whether a discretionary writ of prohibition should issue. Although all five factors need not be satisfied, it is clear that the third factor, the existence of clear error as a matter of law, should be given substantial weight." Syllabus Point 4, State ex rel. Hoover v. Berger, 199 W.Va. 12, 483 S.E.2d 12 (1996).

         2. "Where the language of a statute is free from ambiguity, its plain meaning is to be accepted and applied without resort to interpretation." Syllabus Point 2, Crockett v. Andrews, 153 W.Va. 714, 172 S.E.2d 384 (1970).

         3. An appeal of a civil action tried before a magistrate without a jury under West Virginia Code § 50-5-12(b)(2016) shall be a trial de novo, meaning a new trial in which the parties may present new evidence including witness testimony not presented in magistrate court.

          OPINION

          WALKER JUSTICE.

         William Williams sued Garland DeCourcy in magistrate court to recover a computer, a telephone system, and keys to a vehicle. Mr. Williams prevailed in a bench trial and Ms. DeCourcy was ordered to return certain property to him. On appeal to circuit court, Ms. DeCourcy sought to limit the evidence considered to the evidence presented to the magistrate court. The circuit court ruled that a trial de novo by definition authorizes it to consider additional evidence, including witness testimony not presented in magistrate court. Ms. DeCourcy invokes this Court's original jurisdiction to prohibit the circuit court from proceeding and contends that the applicable statute prohibits the circuit court from hearing witness testimony not offered below. We disagree and deny the writ.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Mr. Williams pursued his claim to recover a computer, telephone system, and keys to a vehicle from Ms. DeCourcy at a bench trial in magistrate court conducted on December 7, 2016. During the bench trial, Mr. Williams introduced three exhibits referenced in the record only as A, B, and C. The appendix record is unclear as to whether either party testified.[1] However, Mr. Williams contends that he offered proof of purchase of the computer and the telephone system but could not prove that he owned the vehicle. The magistrate court ruled in favor of Mr. Williams as to the computer and telephone system and ordered Ms. DeCourcy to return those two items within thirty days. The magistrate court further ordered that if the property was not returned, judgment would be awarded to Mr. Williams for the retail value of the items, which was $2, 139.88.

         Ms. DeCourcy appealed to the Circuit Court of Pocahontas County and filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that Mr. Williams could not meet his burden of proof. She claimed that because Mr. Williams did not call any witnesses in the magistrate court bench trial, he was precluded from calling any witnesses in the circuit court on appeal. By order entered June 12, 2017, the circuit court denied Ms. DeCourcy's motion on the basis that a trial de novo, by definition, authorizes the circuit court to hear new evidence, including "witness testimony not previously offered in the nonjury trial held by the Magistrate of Pocahontas County." Ms. DeCourcy then filed this petition for writ of prohibition.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Ms. DeCourcy seeks a writ of prohibition claiming the circuit court exceeded its legitimate powers by ruling that Mr. Williams could present testimony from witnesses who never testified at the magistrate court trial. To determine whether a circuit court has exceeded its legitimate powers, we consider the following factors:

In determining whether to entertain and issue the writ of prohibition for cases not involving an absence of jurisdiction but only where it is claimed that the lower tribunal exceeded its legitimate powers, this Court will examine five factors: (1) whether the party seeking the writ has no other adequate means, such as direct appeal, to obtain the desired relief; (2) whether the Respondent will be damaged or prejudiced in a way that is not correctable on appeal; (3) whether the lower tribunal's order is clearly erroneous as a matter of law; (4) whether the lower tribunal's order is an oft repeated error or manifests persistent disregard for either procedural or substantive law; and (5) whether the lower tribunal's order raises new and important problems or issues of law of first impression. These factors are general guidelines that serve as a useful starting point for determining whether a discretionary writ of prohibition should issue. Although all five factors need not be satisfied, it is clear that the third factor, the existence of clear error as a matter of law, should be given substantial weight.[2]
With this standard in mind, we turn to the parties' arguments.

         III. ...


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