Original Proceeding Petition for Writ of Review District Court of Laramie County. The Honorable Thomas T.C. Campbell, Judge.
Representing Petitioner: Douglas W. Bailey of Bailey, Stock & Harmon, P.C., Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Representing Respondent: No appearance.
Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, KITE[*], DAVIS, and FOX, JJ.
[¶1] This case comes before the Court on a writ to review the district court's order dismissing a declaratory judgment granted by the circuit court. The district court held that the circuit court did not have jurisdiction to decide a declaratory judgment action. We hold that a cause of action seeking declaratory relief can be within the jurisdiction of the circuit court, so long as the circuit court has jurisdiction independent of the declaratory relief requested. In this case, the circuit court had jurisdiction independent of the declaratory relief sought; therefore, it had jurisdiction to decide the declaratory judgment claim. We reverse and remand.
[¶2] Did the circuit court have jurisdiction over claims for declaratory relief brought pursuant to the Wyoming Declaratory Judgments Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. § § 1-37-101, et seq., when the recovery sought was an amount not exceeding $50,000?
[¶3] This case concerns a dispute regarding who is entitled to the proceeds of a retirement annuity contract. Kevin Best, the father of Brianna Best and ex-husband of Jean Best, made contributions to employer-sponsored retirement accounts administered by the Variable Annuity and Life Insurance Company (" VALIC" ). Approximately three years after Kevin executed the beneficiary designation on his retirement accounts currently in dispute, Kevin and Jean divorced. Kevin died several years later. VALIC determined that Jean was the primary beneficiary on the accounts and sent her a claims package. Brianna disagreed and filed a complaint for declaratory judgment in circuit court against Jean and VALIC, claiming she was entitled to the proceeds under her deceased father's annuity contract.
[¶4] Brianna alleged that the circuit court " has jurisdiction pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 5-9-128(a)(i) because the amount in controversy does not exceed fifty thousand dollars ($50,000), exclusive of court costs." Brianna asserted only one claim, for declaratory relief pursuant to the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. § § 1-37-101, et seq., and sought the following relief:
Plaintiff demands that judgment be entered in her favor, declaring that:
A. Defendant holds property belonging to the Estate of Kevin D. Best, deceased, consisting of Account (ending in) #042 and Account (ending in) #044;
B. Plaintiff is the sole heir of the Estate of Kevin D. Best, deceased;
C. No other person has a right to distribution of such accounts;
D. Plaintiff is entitled to payment of:
1. The remaining funds in Account (ending in) #042 and Account (ending in) #044, held by Defendant VALIC;
2. Pre and post-judgment interest;
3. Attorneys' fees and costs necessary to bring this action; and
4. Any other and further relief as the Court may deem just and appropriate.
Brianna filed two amended complaints, but these amendments did not change the assertion of jurisdiction, the nature of her claim, or the relief sought.
[¶5] After a hearing on Jean's Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment, the circuit court entered summary judgment in favor of Jean, declaring " Defendant [Jean] Best, as the designated primary beneficiary on the retirement Accounts . . . is entitled to the proceeds of the Accounts" and ordering Defendant VALIC to " distribute the proceeds of the Accounts[.]" Brianna appealed to the district court. On appeal, the district court did not reach the merits of the case, instead holding that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction over the dispute because " [o]nly a district court has jurisdiction over matters brought under [the Declaratory Judgments Act], no matter the amount in controversy."
[¶6] Jean's Petition for Writ of Review was granted on March 24, 2015, and the issue of the circuit court's jurisdiction is currently before this Court.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
[¶7] " The existence of subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law that we review de novo." Harmon v. Star Valley Med. Ctr., 2014 WY 90, ¶ 14, 331 P.3d 1174, 1178 (Wyo. 2014) (quoting Excel Constr., Inc. v. Town of Lovell, 2011 WY 166, ¶ 12, 268 P.3d 238, 241 (Wyo. 2011)). We review questions of law de novo without affording deference to the decision of the district court. Carlson v. Flocchini Invs., 2005 WY 19, ¶ 9, 106 P.3d 847, 852 (Wyo. 2005); Hermreck v. UPS, 938 P.2d 863, 866 (Wyo. 1997); Griess v. Office of the Atty. Gen., Div. of Criminal Investigation, 932 P.2d 734, 736 (Wyo. 1997). Moreover, a court's subject matter jurisdiction may be challenged at any time. Harmon, 20 ...