Case Caption: KEATING-SMITH v. MUSTAFACase Number: SCT-CIV-2023-0021Date: 03/06/2024Author: Hodge, Rhys S. Citation: 2024 VI 12Summary: Concerning the appellant landlord’s appeal from an order of the Superior Court reversing a judgment entered by the Magistrate Division in a forcible entry and detainer action that ordered (1) immediate restitution to the landlord of a commercial premises occupied by the appellee as a month-to-month holdover tenant, and (2) the release to the landlord of all rental monies held in escrow, the appellee vacated the leased premises a couple of weeks after filing his notice of appeal from the Magistrate Division’s judgment, thus rendering moot the portion of his appeal relating to the restitution of the premises. However, given the importance of the issue of the Magistrate Division’s subject matter jurisdiction in forcible entry and detainer actions and the likelihood of it evading review and arising again in future cases, the Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands, exercising its discretion to resolve that issue, concludes that the limitation set forth in 28 V.I.C. § 793 is not jurisdictional and also extends only to inquiries as to title, i.e. ownership, rather than possession generally or the existence or terms of a lease agreement. With respect to the merits of the only portion of the Magistrate Division’s judgment that has not become moot, the Magistrate Division erred when it provided the landlord with a monetary recovery as part of the forcible entry and detainer action. Such an action is a suit in equity where the remedy is restitution of property, and thus may be tried without a jury; however, an action for debt based on rent due and owing is a quintessential suit at common law where the remedy is monetary damages, and the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which has been expressly extended to the Virgin Islands by virtue of the Revised Organic Act of 1954, 48 U.S.C. § 1561, requires that a jury serve as the factfinder in suits at common law where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars. Thus, monetary damages—even if the evidence is overwhelming that the plaintiff would be entitled to such funds—cannot be awarded as part of a forcible entry and detainer action, but must instead be sought in a separate civil action, where both the plaintiff and defendant would be entitled to a jury trial if they so desire. Accordingly, the Superior Court’s order directing the dismissal of the forcible entry and detainer action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is reversed, and the portion of the Magistrate Division’s judgment ordering distribution of the escrowed rent is vacated.Attachment: Open Document or Opinion