ON APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS (D.C. Civil Action Nos. 91-00364 and 93-00055)
Before: BECKER, NYGAARD and ROTH, Circuit Judges
These two appeals were combined for this opinion because the issue in both is whether the District Court of the Virgin Islands, when it lacks subject matter jurisdiction, may nonetheless transfer a cause to the Territorial Court of the Virgin Islands rather than dismiss it. Because we conclude that a district court must dismiss the suit where there is no colorable basis for exercising subject matter jurisdiction, we will reverse and remand both cases with instructions to dismiss.
Helen Rawlins filed a complaint with the Virgin Islands Department of Labor, alleging that she was wrongfully discharged from her employment as a teacher with the Moravian School. She alleged only claims based on territorial law. The hearing officer ruled that Rawlins had been wrongfully discharged and ordered that Moravian reinstate her with back pay. The Moravian School Advisory Board filed a writ of review in the District Court of the Virgin Islands. Rawlins then filed a motion to dismiss based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Moravian, which did not respond to the motion to dismiss, did not then and does not now argue that there is federal jurisdiction over the suit. Nevertheless, the district court, rather than granting the motion to dismiss, transferred the case to the territorial court.
One day before the statute of limitations expired, appellee Jane Rogers, on behalf of herself and the estate and heirs of decedent Ingrid Corena Rogers, filed a medical malpractice action in the District Court of the Virgin Islands against St. Thomas Hospital, Elena Aguas, M.D., and the Government of the Virgin Islands, which owns, operates and staffs the hospital. The suit arises from the allegedly negligent treatment given In-grid Corena Rogers at the hospital, which treatment is alleged to have resulted in her death.
The complaint alleged only medical malpractice and related negligence claims. The defendant-appellants responded with a motion to dismiss for, inter alia, lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The district court stated in the hearing transcript that it would grant the motion to dismiss and transfer the action to the territorial court. However, the court ultimately ordered transfer of the case without mentioning dismissal.
The U.S. Consititution, Article IV, Section 3 "empowers Congress to establish all necessary rules and regulations concerning the unincorporated territory of the Virgin Islands, including the power to designate the jurisdiction of the District Court and the Territorial Court." Brow v. Farrelly, 994 F.2d 1027, 1032 (3d Cir. 1993). Pursuant to this power, in 1954, Congress enacted the Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands, Act of July 22, 1954, ch. 558, Section(s) 22-23, 68 Stat. 497 (codified as amended at 48 U.S.C. Section(s) 1541 et seq.), which is "the Virgin Islands' equivalent of a constitution." Brow, 994 F.2d at 1032.
Section 1612 of the 1954 Revised Organic Act set forth the jurisdiction of the District Court of the Virgin Islands, which included jurisdiction over federal questions, regardless of the amount in controversy, and general original jurisdiction over questions of local law, subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the local courts over civil actions where the amount in controversy was less than $500. Act of July 22, 1954, ch. 558, Section(s) 22-23, 68 Stat. 506 (amended 1978, 1984); Brow, 994 F.2d at 1032. Section 1613 of the 1954 Act also provided that the local courts shared concurrent jurisdiction with the district court over all actions to the extent jurisdiction was conferred upon them by local law. Act of July 22, 1954, ch. 558, Section(s) 23, 68 Stat. 506 (amended 1984); Carty v. Beech Aircraft Corp., 679 F.2d 1051, 1056 n.6 (3d Cir. 1982).
In 1984, Congress amended the Revised Organic Act to impose new limits on the general original jurisdiction of the District Court of the Virgin Islands over cases involving local law. Brow, 994 F.2d at 1033. Specifically, Congress amended Section(s) 1612(b) of the Revised Organic Act to grant the district court, in addition to its federal question and diversity jurisdiction, general jurisdiction over "all causes in the Virgin Islands the jurisdiction over which is not then vested by local law in the local courts of the Virgin Islands." 48 U.S.C. Section(s) 1612(b). At the same time, Congress amended Section(s) 1611(b) of the 1954 Act, permitting the Virgin Islands legislature to
vest in the courts of the Virgin Islands established by local law jurisdiction over all causes in the Virgin Islands over which any court established by the Constitution and the laws of the United States does not have exclusive jurisdiction. Such jurisdiction shall be subject to the concurrent jurisdiction conferred on the District Court of the Virgin Islands by section 1612(a) [federal question and diversity jurisdiction] and (c) [criminal jurisdiction] of this title. 48 U.S.C. Section(s) 1611(b).
Thus, as pertaining to purely local matters, the 1984 amendment eliminated concurrent jurisdiction in the district court if jurisdiction became vested in the local courts of the Virgin Islands. See Estate Thomas Mall, Inc. v. Territorial Court of the Virgin Islands, 923 F.2d 258, 260 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 808, 112 S. Ct. 50 (1991). Later, under Section(s) 1611(b), the Virgin Islands legislature amended 4 V.I. Code Section(s) 76(a) to vest original jurisdiction over all civil actions in the territorial court as of October 1, 1991. The amended section 76(a) provides:
Subject to the original jurisdiction conferred on the District Court by section 22 [48 U.S.C. Section(s) 1612] of the Revised Organic Act of 1954, as amended, effective October 1, 1991, the Territorial Court shall have original jurisdiction in ...