Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Fourth District: Legislature Entitled To Limit Payment of Attorney's Fees In Claims Bill

In Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart& Shipley, P.A. v. State (4D13-3497), a divided panel of the Fourth District held that the "guardianship court’s decision to recognize the Legislature’s prerogative of limiting the payment of fees and costs [in this case] to $100,000." The opinion was written by Judge Forst.  Judge Conner joined the majority opinion and also wrote a concurring opinion. Chief Judge Ciklin wrote a 19-page dissenting opinion. The majority opinion described the facts as follows:
The law firm "represented the family in a five-week jury trial in 2007. The jury found that Lee Memorial Health System’s employees had been negligent and that their negligence had resulted in damages to Aaron and his parents. The jury awarded Aaron over $28.3 million. His mother was awarded $1,340,000 in damages, and his father was awarded $1,000,000. However, the trial court found that Lee Memorial was an independent special district of the State of Florida and, pursuant to the sovereign immunity damage limitations in section 768.28(5), Florida Statutes (2007), entered a judgment against the hospital in the amount of $200,000. The trial court rulings were affirmed by the Second District Court of Appeal. Lee Mem’l Health Sys. v. Edwards, 22 So. 3d 81 (Fla. 2d DCA 2009).
In an attempt to recover additional funds beyond the $200,000 limit, the law firm submitted a claims bill to the Florida legislature. 
In 2012, after a public campaign in support of the bill, the Legislature passed Claims Bill 2012-249, directing Lee Memorial to appropriate $10 million, with an additional $5 million payable in annual installments, “to the Guardianship of Aaron Edwards, to be placed in a special needs trust for the exclusive use and benefit of Aaron Edwards, a minor.” Ch. 2012-249, § 2, Laws of Fla. No monies were appropriated for the use and/or benefit of either parent for their damages. The claims bill also included a stipulation stating “[t]he total amount paid for attorney’s fees, lobbying fees, costs, and other similar expenses relating to this claim may not exceed $100,000.” Id. § 3. It is this provision that is the focus of the matter before us.
After the $10 million had been paid into a trust for Aaron Edwards's needs, the lawyers ("with support from the Edwards family"), asked the court to allocate $2.5 million for attorney's fees. "The petition premised this request on a 25% fee cap provision in section 768.28(8) and on the argument that the fees and costs limitation in the claims bill was unconstitutional." 

On the merits of the issue presented, the court began with an analysis of sovereign immunity. 
The doctrine of sovereign immunity stretches back to the foundations of Anglo-American common law. Espousing the maxim that “the King can do no wrong,” Blackstone explained that “no suit or action can be brought against the King, even in civil matters, because no court can have jurisdiction over him.” 1 WILLIAM BLACKSTONE, COMMENTARIES *235. However, should a subject of the Crown have “a just demand upon the King, he must petition him in his court of chancery, where his chancellor will administer right as a matter of grace, though not upon compulsion.” Id. at *236.  
When the common law was exported to the American continent, sovereign immunity came with it.  
***
Section 768.28, Florida Statutes, is the codification of the state’s limited waiver of sovereign immunity in tort actions. A plaintiff’s recovery against the state and its agencies or subdivisions is limited to no more than $200,000 per incident. § 768.28(5), Fla. Stat. (2007). Moreover, in cases where a judgment exceeds $200,000, “that portion of the judgment that exceeds these amounts may be reported to the Legislature, but may be paid in part or in whole only by further act of the Legislature.” Id.  
After an analysis of the legal opinions regarding the statute and its application when the legislature limited compensation to lawyers, the court turned to the case before it. The court stated that "in the instant case, as in Gamble and Noel, the Legislature passed a claims bill that provided a specific amount of attorneys’ fees that was significantly less than the amount contracted for between the Edwards family and their law firm, Searcy Denney." Addressing the ultimate conclusion, and the dissenting opinion, the court stated:
Notwithstanding Appellants’ (and the dissenting opinion’s) arguments to the contrary, Gamble and Noel, and the reasoning therein, support the guardianship court’s decision to recognize the Legislature’s prerogative of limiting the payment of fees and costs to $100,000. A claims bill, both before and after the enactment of section 768.28, is a “voluntary recognition of its moral obligation by the legislature” and, as such, is firmly entrenched in the sphere of legislative discretion. Noel, 984 So. 2d at 1267 (quoting Gamble, 450 So. 2d at 853). “Parties cannot enter into a contract to bind the state in the exercise of its sovereign power. . . . The legislature was in no way bound to pass legislation conforming with the provisions of the prior contingent fee contract.” Gamble, 450 So. 2d at 853. “That the claim[s] bill is separate and apart from the constraints of an earlier lawsuit is demonstrated by the supreme court’s recognition that [the] legislature has the power to limit attorney’s fees in a claims bill, no matter what the underlying fee contract provides[.]” Noel, 984 So. 2d at 1267. “A claim[s] bill is not obtainable by right upon the claimant’s proof of entitlement, but rather is granted strictly as a matter of legislative grace.” Wagner v. Orange Cnty., 960 So. 2d 785, 788 (Fla. 5th DCA 2007); see also United Servs.Auto Ass’n v. Phillips, 740 So.2d 1205, 1209 (Fla. 2d DCA 1999).
In conclusion, the court stated: "Appellants’ (and the dissenting opinion’s) dissatisfaction with the limitation on attorneys’ fees and costs imposed in Aaron’s claims bill is understandable, and the possibility of such a restriction in a claims bill posits an additional factor to be considered by counsel in deciding whether to take on representation in a case in this state involving a sovereign entity defendant. Appellants’ reply brief states, 'If there is no reasonable financial incentive for lawyers to take these type cases, the injured will go unrepresented.' To what extent this is true is beyond our focus. Therefore, we affirm the guardianship court’s ruling."

As noted above, there were three opinions in this appeal. Judge Forst wrote the opinion, and was joined by Judge Conner who also wrote a concurring opinion. Chief Judge Ciklin wrote a dissenting opinion.

Judge Conner's concurrence states:
Anytime legal analysis traces back to Blackstone and the foundations of Anglo-American law, one knows core legal values are being addressed. I write to further explain why I cannot agree with the reasoning of the dissent, although the dissent makes very cogent arguments as to why Gamble and Noel should not control the outcome of this case. 
The premise of the dissent is that by enacting section 768.28, Florida Statutes, the legislature altered the “legislative grace” attribute of its monetary awards by making a judicial or administrative award a precondition for initiating the claims bill process. The argument is that you can’t even try to pass through the doors of the legislature until you successfully pass through the doors of the courthouse. Thus, the two processes are welded; this means the “act of grace” analysis has been “transcended” because the weld now raises the specter of “a chilling effect upon the sacrosanct and fundamental constitutional right to access to our courts.” 
The fly in the ointment regarding the dissent’s argument is the failure to recognize that seeking redress from the legislature is fundamentally different from seeking redress from the court. Every citizen has a fundamental right to seek redress from the court because that is a core function of the judicial branch of government. There is no fundamental right to seek redress from the legislature because such is not a core function of that branch.
***
Therefore, I agree with the majority opinion that unless our supreme court changes course in its legal analysis regarding separation of powers, arguments regarding impairment of contract, unconstitutional taking, denial of due process and equal protection and all variations on those themes are unpersuasive. 
Finally, the 19-page dissenting opinion by Chief Judge Ciklin begins, in part, as follows:
I respectfully dissent and offer my overall assessment of the crucially important issues involved in this case, the ultimate resolution of which will have deep and profound ramifications for many Floridians—and for many years to come.
*** 
Because the claim bill’s limitation on attorneys’ fees and costs is an unconstitutional impairment on the Edwards family and firm’s right to contract, I would reverse. I have taken the liberty to also write to remind the readers of this dissent and all Florida lawyers, that contingency fee agreements are directly connected to every citizen’s right to access to our courts. I cite to the Florida Code of Professional Responsibility which contemplates the ethical and moral obligation of “us lawyers” licensed to practice in this state, to always consider the contingency fee agreement as the “poor man’s key to the courthouse.” Because of the enactment of section 768.28, which now requires that aggrieved individuals first invoke the civil process of law before even approaching the Legislature for sovereign immunity relief, the “key” should be easily accessible. The right to this key is rich and deeply rooted in American history and it is a judicial time-honored duty and responsibility to protect the inalienable rights of our people in this regard. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Fourth District: Legislative Cap On Non-Ecomomic Damages In Personal Injury Cases Violates the Florida Constitution

In North Broward Hospital District et al v. Kalitan (4D11-4806), a panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeal concluded that a 2014 decision of the Florida Supreme Court required it to conclude that the legislative caps on non-economic damages in personal injury cases violates the equal protection clause of the Florida Constitution. The Fourth District's decision began as follows:
In Estate of McCall v. United States, 134 So. 3d 894 (Fla. 2014), the Florida Supreme Court determined that the caps on noneconomic damages awards in wrongful death cases, imposed by section 766.118, Florida Statutes (2005), violated the equal protection clause of the Florida Constitution. Art. I, § 2, Fla. Const. The instant case consolidates three appeals from a single medical malpractice incident with a final judgment finding Appellants, defendants below (“Defendants”), liable for the injuries and damages suffered by Appellee Susan Kalitan (“Plaintiff”). Plaintiff’s jury-awarded damages were limited by the trial court’s application of section 766.118, and Plaintiff’s cross-appeal challenges the constitutionality of those caps.
Accordingly, this appeal presents an issue of first impression in the post-McCall legal environment—whether the opinion (or, more accurately, opinions) of the Florida Supreme Court in McCall dictates our holding that the caps on noneconomic damage awards in personal injury medical malpractice cases are similarly unconstitutional. Although Defendants attempt to distinguish the caps in wrongful death cases from those in personal injury cases, and there are clear distinctions, McCall mandates a finding that the caps in section 766.118 personal injury cases are similarly unconstitutional. To conclude otherwise would be disingenuous. Consequently, we reverse the trial court’s decision below insofar as it reduced the jury’s award of noneconomic damages based on the caps in section 766.118
Note that it is the 2014 version of section 766.118 linked throughout the quote above. Section 766.118, Florida Statutes (2005), cited in the quote above, can be viewed HERE. The 2005 version was apparently amended twice. See  s. 204, ch. 2007-230; and s. 28, ch. 2011-135.

Next, the opinion explained the multiple decisions that make up the Florida Supreme Court's decision in McCall, and why the panel determined that the supreme court's plurality opinion in McCall must be followed in this case. The court seems to make it clear that whether or not you agree with the conclusion regarding the constitutionality of the caps is an issue to be taken up with the Florida Supreme Court - and therefore an issue this appellate court need not independently address. In conclusion, the court stated:
CONCLUSION
Per McCall, Plaintiff’s noneconomic damages were improperly limited by the application of the caps in section 766.118 and, accordingly, we reverse the noneconomic damages award in the final judgment. Defendants have asked this court to distinguish single claimant personal injury cases from the multiple claimant wrongful death situation addressed in McCall. However, we have found no basis to do so that would not conflict with the reasoning of the Florida Supreme Court’s plurality and concurring opinions, which strike at the underpinning of the Legislature’s caps on noneconomic damages in general. So long as the caps discriminate between classes of medical malpractice victims, as they do in the personal injury context (where the claimants with little noneconomic damage can be awarded all of their damages, in contrast to those claimants whose noneconomic damages are deemed to exceed the level to which the caps apply), they are rendered unconstitutional by McCall, notwithstanding the Legislature’s intentions.
The trial court is directed to reinstate the total damages award as found by the jury, though these damages may still be limited by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Also, in the corrected final judgment, the University is not to be held liable for the damages attributable to the Nurse. As no challenge was raised as to liability in any other context, nor was a challenge raised regarding Plaintiff’s economic damages award, those portions of the final judgment are affirmed.
The 14-page opinion was written by Judge Forst, and the opinion was joined by Chief Judge Ciklin and Judge Stevenson. Some of the briefs filed in this appeal are available at the links below:

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Florida Statute That Taxed Cable And Satellite Service At Different Rate Violates Dormant Commerce Clause

In Directv Inc., et al v. Florida Department of Revenue, et al (1D13-5444 & 1D14-0292), a divided three judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal held that Florida's imposition of a higher tax on satellite customers than on cable customers violates the dormant Commerce Clause. The court began its opinion as follows:
This appeal arises from a final summary judgment finding that section 202.12(1), Florida Statutes, which imposes a higher tax rate on satellite services than on cable services, is constitutional. The Appellants, Directv, Inc. and Echostar, L.L.C. (“the satellite companies”), contend that the statute unconstitutionally discriminates against interstate commerce in both effect and purpose, which is in violation of the Commerce Clause. We agree and reverse.
Generally, the complaint arises from a legislative change, "the Communications Services Tax Simplification Law (“the CST”), which imposed a differential tax rate for cable and satellite services." When that law was enacted, codified at § 202.12(1), Fla. Stat. (2001), cable service began being taxed at 6.8 percent and satellite service at 10.8 percent. " (taxing cable service at 6.8 percent and satellite service at 10.8 percent). Currently, cable service is taxed at a rate of 6.65 percent, and satellite service is taxed at a rate of 10.8 percent."

"It is this difference in taxation rates that the satellite companies allege[d] violates the dormant Commerce Clause," and the court agreed.

The court first addressed the state's argument that "the satellite companies cannot seek a tax refund because they failed to exhaust the available administrative remedies." The court agreed that the satellite companies had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies but noted that "[i]f a taxpayer is seeking a refund pursuant to section 215.26, Florida Statutes, and the sole basis for the refund is that the statute imposing the tax is facially unconstitutional, the circuit court will have jurisdiction despite the taxpayer’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Sarnoff v. Fla. Dep’t of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles, 825 So. 2d 351, 357 (Fla. 2002). This exception is known as the direct-file exception. Id."

The state argued that the direct-file exception, discussed above, did not apply because "this is not a facial challenge to the statute." The court disagreed, concluding that "[a] party can pose a facial challenge to a statute by arguing that there is no set of circumstances where it could apply constitutionally because of its discriminatory purpose or its discriminatory effect on interstate commerce."

To the merits of the dispute, the court stated that the "The Commerce Clause states, 'The Congress shall have power to . . . regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several states.' Article I, § 8, cl. 3, U.S. Const. Attendant with this grant of authority to Congress, the United States Supreme Court has recognized a dormant Commerce Clause, which limits the states’ power to regulate interstate commerce. Simmons v. State, 944 So. 2d 317, 329 (Fla. 2006). A state or local regulation violates the dormant Commerce Clause if the regulation treats out-of-state commerce differently from in-state commerce. Reinish v. Clark, 765 So. 2d 197, 211 (Fla. 1st DCA 2000)."

"There are three ways in which a statute can discriminate against out-of-state interests: (1) it may be facially discriminatory; (2) it may discriminate in its practical effect; or (3) it may have a discriminatory intent." Citing Amerada Hess Corp. v. Dir., Div. of Taxation, N.J. Dep’t of Treasury, 490 U.S. 66, 75 (1989).

Applying this test, the court disagreed with the trial court and concluded that the cable and satellite providers, stating:
Here, cable and satellite companies provide multichannel television programming to Florida subscribers. As such, they operate in the same market and are direct competitors within that market. They differ in the deployment of technology, the need for local infrastructure, and the additional services offered. However, mere differences in how a service is provided is not enough to overcome the fact that the companies compete in the same market and sell virtually identical products at retail. 
Next, the court turned to whether there were "in-state interests," stating that "[i]n addition to a finding the companies at issue are similarly-situated entities, courts must also find in-state interests to be present in order for the Commerce Clause to be implicated." The court stated that the "Commerce Clause analysis focuses not on the domiciles of particular corporations, but on whether a law results in differential treatment of in-state and out-of-state economic interests." In this case, "[b]ecause the sales tax portion of the CST burdens interstate commerce by imposing a higher tax rate on those communication companies that do not invest in local economies, it violates the Commerce Clause."

The court then turned to "effect case law," arguments concerning the "aggregate tax rate," and the state's arguments regarding operational differences. All three arguments made by the state were rejected, and the court concluded that "[b]ecause the CST has a discriminatory effect on satellite companies, it violates the Commerce Clause, and the trial court erred in finding otherwise."

After concluding that the legislation had a discriminatory effect, the court next analyzed whether the statute had a discriminatory purpose. "To determine whether there is discriminatory purpose, courts look to the language and the legislative history of the statute in question." Concluding that the trial court correctly limited its review to information in the actual legislative history, the court affirmed the conclusion that the record did not support a finding of discriminatory intent.

Based upon the finding of discriminatory effect, the court reversed the judgment of the trial court. The court's opinion was written by Judge Roberts, and Judge Swanson concurred. A dissenting opinion was filed by Judge Marstiller.

Judge Marstiller's dissenting opinion stated, in part, as follows:
I do not agree the satellite and cable providers are similarly situated entities for purposes of dormant Commerce Clause analysis; in my view, the majority opinion fails to fully consider all the differences between the two.3 Mainly, however, I disagree with the majority’s characterizing the cable providers’ use of local infrastructure, reliance on local rights-of-way and employment of Florida workers as in-state economic interests giving rise to the proscriptions of the dormant Commerce Clause. As the trial court found based on the undisputed facts brought out below, “[t]he cable companies may have more of a presence in the state because of the nature of the technology they utilize in providing their services, but the satellite companies have a significant presence in the state as well.” Indeed, DirecTV and Echostar filed verified statements below averring that each has employees based in Florida—DirecTV has independent contractors here, as well—who are responsible for “sale of its services and installation, servicing, and/or maintenance of its property.” I do not believe we can properly ignore or discount these facts. Inasmuch as the cable providers and the satellite providers both have human and physical assets in Florida which they use to provide services to their customers, they both have significant in-state economic interests. I fail to see how, under these facts, the cable providers have local economic interests, but the satellite providers do not. And I find nothing in dormant Commerce Clause jurisprudence that would justify invalidating Florida’s CST based on one group’s comparatively greater economic investment in the state where both groups have economic investment here.
***
I also believe the majority opinion, in focusing solely on the extent of instate economic investment by cable providers and disregarding in-state investment by satellite providers, misapprehends the purpose of the dormant Commerce Clause. Relying primarily on the fact that the cable providers use local rights-of way, the majority opinion discounts the decisions of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Ohio Supreme Court and the North Carolina Court of Appeals holding that the pertinent distinction between satellite providers and cable providers is operational and not geographical. 
***
The bottom line is that the dormant Commerce Clause does not protect satellite TV providers from differential tax treatment simply because their technology is not land based. It does not protect “the particular structure or methods of operation in a retail market.” Exxon Corp., 437 U.S. at 127. The majority’s decision to invalidate Florida’s CST is inconsistent with this principle and contrary to dormant Commerce Clause jurisprudence. I understand the concern over a taxing scheme that appears to favor one group of industry competitors over another. But “‘applying the dormant Commerce Clause in cases that do not present the equivalent of a protective tariff’—i.e., where the tax does not draw geographic lines, favor local products, or promote local companies—[ ] ‘dramatically increase[s] the clause’s scope.’” Levin, 941 N.E.2d at 1194 (quoting Treesh, 487 F.3d at 481). The majority’s decision takes that dramatic step, and I  am not prepared to follow.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

2015 Amendments to the Federal Rules and Potential Changes in 2016

Last month, the Supreme Court sent to Congress amendments to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. These Amendments will become effective on December 1, 2015, absent Congressional action blocking the changes. The Bankruptcy Rule change only impacts Rule 1007. The Civil Rule changes relate to Rules 1, 4, 16, 26, 30, 31, 33, 34, 37, 55, and 84, and the Appendix of Forms.

Much more interesting, in my opinion, will be the rule changes submitted next year and that will be effective on December 1, 2016. The entirety of the changes proposed for December 1, 2016, may be viewed HERE. The proposed changes include a reduction in the length of appellate briefs and the elimination of the 3 mailing days provided by the rules. 

The comments period has closed for the changes proposed for 2016. There are 61 comments to the proposed appellate rule changes, and much has been written on the subject. With regard to the proposed civil rule changes, there are only 13 comments.  I link to two specific comments, one from the United States Department of Justice and the other from the Solicitor General of the United States, but all are available at the following links: CivilAppellateBankruptcy; and Criminal.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

After Merger, Claim May Be Continued As If Merger Did Not Occur

In Fiorentino v BAC Home Loans Servicing, LP (5D13-3250), the Fifth District reversed the foreclosure judgment. However, in a footnote the court cited to section 607.1106(d), Florida Statutes. That statutory section is titled "effect of merger or share exchange," and the cited provision states that "Any claim existing or action or proceeding pending by or against any corporation party to the merger may be continued as if the merger did not occur or the surviving corporation may be substituted in the proceeding for the corporation which ceased existence."

Applied to the case before the court, the court noted the following:
The record reflects that BAC merged into Bank of America effective July 1, 2011, and did not survive the merger. Pursuant to section 607.1106(1)(d), Florida Statutes, the claim may be continued as if the merger did not occur, or the surviving corporation, Bank of America, may be substituted in the proceeding.
While not a new law, it is a statutory provision that isn't referenced often.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Florida Ban on Judges Soliciting Campaign Contributions

Today, in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, the United States Supreme Court affirmed Florida Supreme Court's opinion upholding the Florida Bar's ban on judicial candidates soliciting campaign contribution. The opinion is broken into numerous parts, as described by the Court below:

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II. BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined that opinion in full, and GINSBURG, J., joined except as to Part II. BREYER, J., filed a concurring opinion. GINSBURG, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which BREYER, J., joined as to Part II. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS, J., joined. KENNEDY, J., and ALITO, J., filed dissenting opinions.

The majority opinion began as follows:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II.

Our Founders vested authority to appoint federal judges in the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and entrusted those judges to hold their offices during good behavior. The Constitution permits States to make a different choice, and most of them have done so. In 39 States, voters elect trial or appellate judges at the polls. In an effort to preserve public confidence in the integrity of their judiciaries, many of those States prohibit judges and judicial candidates from personally soliciting funds for their campaigns. We must decide whether the First Amendment permits such restrictions on speech.

 We hold that it does. Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot. And a State’s decision to elect its judiciary does not compel it to treat judicial candidates like campaigners for political office. A State may assure its people that judges will apply the law without fear or favor—and without having personally asked anyone for money. We affirm the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.

And, the majority opinion concluded:

The desirability of judicial elections is a question that has sparked disagreement for more than 200 years. Hamilton believed that appointing judges to positions with life tenure constituted “the best expedient which can be devised in any government to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws.” The Federalist No. 78, at 465. Jefferson thought that making judges “dependent on none but themselves” ran counter to the principle of “a government founded on the public will.” 12 The Works of Thomas Jefferson 5 (P. Ford ed. 1905). The federal courts reflect the view of Hamilton; most States have sided with Jefferson. Both methods have given our Nation jurists of wisdom and rectitude who have devoted themselves to maintaining “the public’s respect . . . and a reserve of public goodwill, without becoming subservient to public opinion.” Rehnquist, Judicial Independence, 38 U. Rich. L. Rev. 579, 596 (2004).

It is not our place to resolve this enduring debate. Our limited task is to apply the Constitution to the question presented in this case. Judicial candidates have a First Amendment right to speak in support of their campaigns. States have a compelling interest in preserving public confidence in their judiciaries. When the State adopts a narrowly tailored restriction like the one at issue here, those principles do not conflict. A State’s decision to elect judges does not compel it to compromise public confidence in their integrity.

The judgment of the Florida Supreme Court is Affirmed.

Justice Breyer’s concurrence is found on page 29. Justice Ginsburg’s opinion concurring in part and concurring in judgment, an opinion joined by Justice Breyer as to Part II, begins on page 28. Justice Scalia’s dissent, joined by Justice Thomas, begins on page 33. Justice Kennedy’s dissent begins on page 46. Finally, Justice Alito’s dissent begins on page 52.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

First District Explains New Mailbox Rule for Incarcerated Litigants

If you happen to be an incarcerated litigant, you should read the First District's opinion issued today in Roberto Rivera, M.D. v. Department of Health (1D15-0287). In that opinion, the First District states as follows:
We are concerned that incarcerated litigants may fail to understand the effect of the amendment and write to ensure that incarcerated litigants filing documents with the courts of this state are familiar with the recent amendment to rule 9.420(a)(2), and that they understand the burden the rule places on them to demonstrate timely filing. 
With regard to the amended rule, which is quoted in the opinion, the court stated:
As amended, the rule provides that when the institution has a system designed for legal mail that records the date a document is placed in the hands of an institution official for mailing and the inmate uses that system, then the date of filing will be presumed to be the date recorded by the institution’s legal mail system. If the inmate does not use the system designed for legal mail, the date of filing shall be presumed to be the date it is stamped for filing by the clerk of the court. If the institution does not have a legal mail system, or it has a legal mail system that does not record the date a document is placed in the hands of an institution official for mailing, then the date contained in the certificate of service is presumed to be the date of filing. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Florida Supreme Court: U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 Ban On Life Sentences To Juveniles Applies Retroactively

In Falcon v. Florida (SC13-865), the Florida Supreme Court unanimously answered a question that the state and federal courts have addressed with differing results. Justice Pariente wrote the unanimous opinion which began by stating the question presented to the court:
The issue in this case is whether the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2469 (2012)—which “forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders”—applies to juvenile offenders whose convictions and sentences were already final at the time Miller was decided. 
The Florida Supreme Court noted that it would reach the same result "[a]pplying this Court’s test for retroactivity, as articulated in Witt v. State, 387 So. 2d 922, 931 (Fla. 1980)," and applying "the test for retroactivity set forth in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 307 (1989)." 

The court held as follows:
we conclude that the rule set forth in Miller constitutes a 'development of fundamental significance' and therefore must be given retroactive effect....Accordingly, we answer the certified question in the affirmative and hold that the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller applies retroactively to juvenile offenders whose convictions and sentences were final at the time Miller was decided. Under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850(b)(2), any affected juvenile offender shall have two years from the time the mandate issues in this case to file a motion for postconviction relief in the trial court seeking to correct his or her sentence pursuant to Miller. 
Based on our decision in Horsley v. State, No. SC13-1938, slip op. at 3 (Fla. Mar. 19, 2015), we conclude that the appropriate remedy for any juvenile offender whose sentence is now unconstitutional under Miller is a resentencing pursuant to the framework established in legislation enacted by the Florida Legislature in 2014. See ch. 2014-220, Laws of Fla.  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Judgment Cannot Be Corrected To Clarify Status Of Parties Years After Entry

In Lorant v. Whitney National Bank (1D14-2757), the First District "consider[ed] whether Florida’s Rule of Civil Procedure allowing for corrections of 'clerical mistakes,' encompasses authorization to supplement a final deficiency judgment by clarifying the party defendants’ status in the litigation almost three years after the entry of the initial judgment."

After a foreclosure judgment was entered:
the court entered a final deficiency judgment as to Mr. Lorant and two other named defendants in favor of the bank. The bank then sought to domesticate the final deficiency judgment in Alabama against Mr. Lorant, but the Alabama courts did not allow it. Under Alabama law, the deficiency judgment had to reflect that Mr. Lorant was the sole remaining defendant and that all claims, rights, or liabilities of the other parties had been adjudicated. See Whitney Bank v. Lorant, 148 So. 3d 1077, 1078 n. 1 (Ala. 2014) (Moore, C.J., dissenting).
After the Alabama court's refused to domesticate the judgment, the lender "filed a motion to correct a final deficiency judgment pursuant to Rule 1.540(a)’s allowance for the correction of 'clerical mistakes.' The bank asked the court to modify its 2011 deficiency judgment to reflect that Mr. Lorant was the sole remaining defendant and that all claims, rights, or liabilities of the other parties had been adjudicated."

The court stated that:
Rule 1.540(a) specifically allows for the correction of “clerical mistakes” and “errors” in judgments “arising from oversight or omission” for an indefinite period of time. Rule 1.540(b), on the other hand, allows for the correction of other mistakes or inadvertence in a final judgment for “a reasonable time . . . not more than 1 year after the judgment[.]” The bank in this case filed its motion under Rule 1.540(a), requiring a “clerical mistake” as opposed to some other kind of mistake. Our court has recognized clerical mistakes include “only ‘errors or mistakes arising from an accidental slip or omission, and not errors or mistakes in the substance of what is decided by the judgment or order,’ the latter of which must be corrected pursuant to Rule 1.540(b).” .... A trial court “has no authority under Rule 1.540(a) to make substantive changes.” .... And relief under Rule 1.540(a) may not be appropriate where “[t]he proposed amendment of the judgment substantially change[s] its impact and effect.” 
Therefore, the court held that "[t]he mistake involved in this case resulted in the trial court 'supplementing' its initial final deficiency judgment in order to more definitively address the litigation status of the three party defendants. This correction and supplement to the previous final judgment represented a substantive change, not the sort of accidental slip or omission permitted to be corrected under Rule 1.540(a). In fact, nothing in the record indicates that a 'mistake' existed at all in the initial judgment; rather the bank’s issue was that Alabama required these matters to be addressed in a substantively different manner."