In a surprising opinion issued today, the Florida Supreme Court has held that the economic loss rule, which for decades has barred tort claims for damages arising out of a contractual relationship, applies only in the products liability context. Justice Canady’s dissent called this decision a “dramatic unsettling of Florida law.” However, business litigation practitioners who have struggled with the application of this doctrine when attempting to assert or defend breach of fiduciary and negligence claims against a party in contractual privity will likely welcome the Court’s rescission from the long line of cases that made the doctrine almost as easy to evade as to apply and the certainty that this decision brings. The Court’s opinion can be viewed at: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2013/sc10-1022.pdf.
The Second District Court of Appeal, last week, issued an opinion that reversed a trial court’s order granting new trial, Carnival Corporation v. Jimenez, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D455a, Case No. 2D11-5482 (2d DCA February 27, 2013). The order was predicated on the trial judge’s finding that “comments made [by defense] counsel during closing arguments are perceived to have been prejudicial and highly inflammatory in nature because of their cumulative effect and their accusatory undertones.” Id.
Jimenez was a personal injury case in which a large part of the defense strategy was to discredit the plaintiff’s expert/treating physician, because he had treated the plaintiff under a letter of protection. According to the order on appeal, defense counsel “argued in closing . . . that plaintiff’s counsel . . . had collaborated or conspired with [the doctor] to conjure a non-injury into this lawsuit.” While the trial court recognized that it had allowed evidence of the letter of protection, the introduction of such evidence “is to enable defense counsel to suggest that the doctor may have a financial bias, or stake in the outcome of the case. Not for the impermissible purpose of allowing Defendant’s attorney to suggest a ‘neighborly’ conspiracy between the doctor and Plaintiff’s attorney.” In sum, the trial court determined that the defense went so far in putting forth the conspiracy theory that the jury could not fairly assess the issues of causation and damages.
While the general rule is that improper comments made during closing argument may provide a basis for granting a new trial (see Mercury Ins. Co. of Fla. v. Moreta, 957 So. 2d 1242, 1250 (Fla. 2d DCA 2007)), the issue must be properly preserved by contemporaneous objection and a motion for mistrial. Engle v. Liggett Grp., Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246, 1271 (Fla. 2006). If the error has not been properly preserved, a new trial is only warranted when the improper behavior amounts to fundamental error. Companioni v. City of Tampa, 51 So. 3d 452, 456 (Fla. 2010).
The Jimenez court, noted that the plaintiff’s counsel only made two objections relative to the defense counsel’s references to the letter of protection. Both were sustained, but there was no motion for mistrial. The court, relying upon the 4-part test articulated in Murphy v. International Robotic Systems, Inc., 766 So. 2d 1010, 1027-31 (Fla. 2000) determined that while the plaintiff established the first prong of Murphy–that the challenged conduct was improper–she did not establish the remaining three prongs: that the challenged conduct was harmful, that the challenged conduct was incurable, and that public interest in our system of justice requires a new trial.
Because the application of the Murphy factors did not show that the challenged conduct was so highly prejudicial that it denied the plaintiff her right to a fair trial, the order granting new trial was reversed, and the final judgment was ordered to be reinstated.
Practice tip: when objecting to prejudicial or argumentative closing arguments: 1) object contemporaneously, 2) request a curative instruction (if appropriate), and 3) move for a mistrial, or be bound by the heightened standard for new trials articulated in Murphy.
Beginning March 1, 2013, a party seeking an extension of time to file an intial, answer, or reply brief and who has obtained the agreement of opposing counsel may file a “notice of extension of time” in lieu of a motion requesting an extension. Such a notice will be accepted for up to 90 days for an intial or answer brief and 60 days for a reply brief. Only the party seeking the extension need sign the notice, and no order will issue upon the Court’s receipt. Any extension beyond 90 days for initial or answer briefs or 60 days for reply briefs must be by motion. For additional details, including the approved form of the notice, see the Court’s administrative order at http://5dca.org/Clerk/Administrative%20Orders/AO5D13-02_RE_Agree_Ext_of_Time_for_Filing_Briefs.pdf
While this blog is largely devoted to Florida appellate cases, as an unabashed coffee junkie, I found the recent decision of the First District Court of Appeal to be particularly compelling, and ripe for mention in this blog. On November 9, 2012, the United States First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Massachusetts district court’s summary judgment granting the plaintiffs, comprised of a number of former Starbucks baristas, class status and found that Starbucks’ policy of pooling and sharing tips among shift supervisors and baristas violated Massachusetts’ Tips Act, Mass Gen. Laws ch. 149, s. 152A. After discovery was conducted on damages, the district court entered judgment in favor of the plaintiff class in the aggregate amount of $14.1 million.
At the crux of the appeal was whether Starbucks’ shift supervisors are “wait staff employees” under the Act since the Act states that wait staff employees are not required to share tips with anyone who is not a wait staff employee. The Tips Act defines “wait staff employee” as persons who serve beverages or prepared food to patrons, or who clear patrons’ tables, and who work in a place where prepared food or beverages are served. The definition also contains the requirement that the employee have “no managerial responsibility.”
The plaintiffs contended that the baristas were wait staff employees, but that shift supervisors were not, and therefore, shift supervisors should not have shared in tips with the baristas. Because the first two prongs of the statutory definition unquestionably applied to both classes of employees, the question for the court became whether the shift supervisors had “managerial responsibility,” as contemplated by the Tips Act.
Starbucks contended that the shift supervisors, who report to store managers and assistant managers, had supervisory duties over the baristas, but no managerial responsibility. The plaintiffs asserted that the job descriptions of shirt supervisors included managerial tasks, and that, under the Tips Act, any level of managerial responsibility, no matter how slight, was sufficient to exclude the shift supervisors from the definition of “wait staff employee.” It didn’t help Starbucks that, in 2004, upon the adoption of the current version of the Tips Act, the Massachusetts Attorney General issued an advisory opinion conspicuously stating that “shift supervisors . . . do not qualify as wait staff employees.” Advisory 2004/3, An Advisory from the Attorney General’s Fair Labor and Business Practices Division on an Act Protecting the Wages and Tips of Certain Employees.
Starbucks endeavored to raise numerous creative arguments, which the First Circuit rejected “out of hand.” Ultimately, the First Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs’ construction, and affirmed the district court’s judgment against Starbucks.
While Starbucks is the loser of this fight to the tune of $14 million, at the end of the day, the ultimate losers will likely be the very same hourly service employees who brought this suit in the first place. This case is likely to signal the demise of the “community tip jar,” which customers undoubtedly understand will be shared by those behind the counter regardless of their level of supervisory responsibility. Whether the Tips Act intentionally or unintentionally impacts the community tip scheme, because of this suit, a significant income supplement for these hourly workers will likely dry up as lawyers for establishments throughout Massachusetts (including Dunkin’ Donuts, which outnumbers Starbucks 10 to 1 in Massachusetts) advise their clients that the risk of the community tip jar is not worth the reward. Certainly, the workers behind the counter serving their coffee would disagree.
On October 4, 2012, the Florida Supreme Court issued an opinion holding that non-citizens, lawfully residing in the United States, are entitled to a homestead tax exemption on a residence they occupy with their dependent minor children who are U.S. citizens. Garcia vs. Andonie, Case No. SC11-554, 37 Fla. L. Weekly S613 (Fla. Oct. 4, 2012). Florida’s homestead tax exemption is provided for in article VII, section 6(a) of the Florida Constitution. Section 196.031, Florida Statutes, purports to implement the constitutional provision. However, the Third District held, and the Supreme Court affirmed, that the implementing statute impermissibly narrowed the class of persons who could claim the exemption by requiring that the owner of the property “reside thereon” and make the residence his/her permanent residence or the permanent resident of a dependent. As the Supreme Court pointed out, the Florida Constitution does not include the “reside thereon” requirement, and states only that the property be maintained as the permanent residence of the owner or a dependent of the owner.
The Court noted that, while the Legislature is permitted to enact laws regulating the manner of establishing the right to the constitutional homestead tax exception, “it cannot substantively alter or materially limit the class of individuals entitled to the exemption under the plain language of the constitution.” Id. (citing Sparkman v. State, 58 So. 2d 431 (Fla. 1952)).
The Court concluded that the legal elements required to demonstrate entitlement to the constitutional homestead exemption require a property owner to demonstrate that the owner is maintaining on Florida real property either (1) the permanent residence of the owner or (2) the permanent residence of another legally or naturally dependent on the owner. The requirement of section 196.031(1) that required property owners to demonstrate that they reside on the property was declared invalid an unenforceable.
Next, the Court discussed what constitutes a “permanent residence” and cited section 196.012, Florida Statutes, which defines the term for ad valorem taxation purposes. “‘Permanent residence’ means that place where a person has his or her true, fixed, and permanent home and principal establishment to which, whenever absent, he or she ahs the intention of returning. . . .” Id. The Court noted that the statutory definition was consistent with the constitutional context from which it emerged.
With respect to non-citizens, the Court has long held that those who do not posses the legal right to permanently reside in Florida cannot, as a matter of law, establish their permanent residence on Florida real property. Id. (citing Juarrero v. McNayr, 157 So. 2d 79 (Fla. 1963)). In the instant case, the appellees were Florida property owners who were citizens of Honduras residing in the U.S. on a temporary visa. They had three minor children, all of whom were U.S. citizens and Florida residents. Under the authority of article VII, section 6(a) of the Florida Constitution, the Court held that the appellees were entitled to the exemption. Where non-citizens are residing with dependent children, who are U.S. citizens, in a home they intent to be the permanent residence of those dependent, then the homestead exemption applies.
Every once in a while, an opinion comes along that reminds us that our courts routinely deal, not only with seasoned appellate practitioners, but also with inexperienced lawyers and pro se parties, whose conduct must truly tax the patience of the judiciary. A profound demonstration of an appellate court’s tolerance can be found in a recent opinion of the Second District Court of Appeals. In Nogales v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., No. 2D12-2916, 27 Fla. L. Weekly D2296b (Fla. 2d DCA Sept. 28, 2012), the court put aside what must have been frustration, if not sheer annoyance, with pro se appellant, Susann E. Nogales, and issued a disproportionately-thorough Order on Motion for Reconsideration of Order of Dismissal, affirming the dismissal of Ms. Noglaes’ appeal for failure to timely file a Notice of Appeal.
Florida courts are routinely sympathetic to pro se parties, who may not have the means to afford counsel to represent their interests. As Judge Gary Farmer on the Fourth District Court of Appeals once said, ”I am prepared (from time to time) to excuse noncompliance with technical, procedural rules, and sometimes disregard overly zealous litigation stratagems by pro se parties . . . .” McAliley v. McAliley, 704 So.2d 611, 613 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997)(Farmer, J. concurring). However, that sympathy is not boundless and can be exploited. See id. With the foreclosure crisis, the courts have seen more and more pro se parties with a lot to lose. The phrase “desperation litigation” comes to mind.
The Nogales case was just such a case involving a foreclosure of a residential property in Lee County. The lender obtained a final judgment of foreclosure on September 22, 2010. Several months later, Ms. Nogales filed a motion to vacate the final judgment and request to stay foreclosure sale–both of which were denied by the trial court. On January 25, 2012, the trial court issued an order directing issuance of a writ of possession. Ms. Nogales followed that with a ”verified motion to vacate the unlawful order issued in chambers on December 8, 2011″ and, after that, a “motion of demand for decision on verified motion to vacate the unlawful order issued in chambers on December 8, 2011.” The latter motion was denied by the trial court on April 2, 2012.
On May 11, 2012, Ms. Nogales filed a notice of appeal attempting to appeal all of the aforementioned orders dating back to September 2010. To excuse her untimeliness in filing, Ms. Nogales apparently stumbled across the case of Rinas v. Rinas, 847 Sp. 2d 555 (Fla. 5th DCA 2003), which contains, as dicta, the statement that “Therefore, when a final judgment is void from the outset, the requirement to file an appeal within 30 days of rendition of the final judgment does not apply.” The Rinas case dealt with an appeal of a final judgment that the trial court never had jurisdiction to enter (i.e. the trial court improperly determined issues of custody and child support for a non-party child in connection with a domestic violence injunction against father for the protection of another child).
Notwithstanding the lack of any proof or argument that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter the final judgment of foreclosure and the subsequent orders denying relief therefrom, Ms. Nogales made the creative, but unsupported argument that the trial court’s orders were void. The ever-patient court stated, “If there is some defect in jurisdiction . . . that might conceivably render an order ‘void’ or at least ‘voidable,’ that defect has not been disclosed to us.” Nevertheless, the court went on to state that, even if it were to assume one or more of the appealed orders was “void,” the time to file an appeal would not be extended.
In granting the appellant’s Motion for Reconsideration, the Second District demonstrated the profound patience the courts continue to show to pro se parties, even those whose conduct arguably arises to the level of vexatious or abusive.
A recent opinion by the Third District Court of Appeals adds another arrow to the quiver of those practitioners seeking support for a defense summary judgment in a contract action founded on fraud. In B & G Aventura, LLC vs. G-Site Limited Partnership, Case No. 3D-11-1562, 37 Fla. L. Weekly D2197a (Fla. 3d DCA Sept. 12, 2012), the plaintiff, a condo purchaser, initially asserted claims seeking return of its deposit and rescission of the contract. At the crux of the complaint was the developer’s alleged pre-construction/pre-contract statements that the completed condominium would have an unobstructed view of a neighboring marina. Upon completion of the condominium, the view of the marina was obstructed by an awning.
In opposition to the developer’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff advanced legal theories based upon fraudulent indcument and mutual mistake. Relying upon express contract language that disclaimed oral representations, confined its terms those set forth in the contract, condo documents and brochures, and disclaimed any “guarentee of view,” except as set forth in the contract or condo prospectus, the Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the developer. “The purchaser’s claim of fraudulent inducement fails as a matter of law becasue the alleged oral representations ‘are adequately covered or experssly contradicted in a later written contract.” Id. (citing Hillcrest Pac. Corp. v. Yamamura, 727 So. 2d 1053, 1056 (Fla. 4th DCa 1999)). The plaintiff’s claim of mutual mistake failed because the plaintiff’s own allegations negated that any such mistake was mutual.
The Fifth District Court of Appeals is in the process of transitioning to the eDCA electronic filing system currently in use by the First District.
Beginning on September 1, the Fifth District will begin offering email service of all acknowledgment letters, orders, opinions, and mandates through its eDCA system. Registered users will receive electronic notice of these filings, and will be able to retrieve the documents online. Until October 1, the court will issue both electronic and paper documents. After that, service of court documents will be exclusively through eDCA.
On September 1, the Court will also begin accepting electronic filings via the eDCA system. Documents currently required by Administrative Order 5DAO08-0 to be e-mailed to the court may be filed electronically through eDCA, in lieu of e-mailing. An electronically filed document should not be filed on paper. However, if a document is filed on paper, compliance with the existing email requirement is required. After October 1, electronic filing of such documents will be mandatory, and paper filings will no longer be accepted.
Until further notice, the only documents subject to the court’s electronic filing order are:
- Briefs filed under Rules 9.110, 9.130, 9.140, 9.145, 9.146 and 9.160;
- Petitions and responses under Rule 9.100.
- Responses to Orders of the Court.
- Motions for rehearing or relief under Rules 9.330 and 9.331.
To receive and file documents electronically, you must be registered with the court and must have received a confirmation email that the registration has been accepted. To register, visit https://edca.5dca.org/. A eDCA primer is available on the Court’s website at http://www.5dca.org/eDCA/edcaprimerforusers8-15-12.pdf.
While it may seem fundamental to the tenets of justice, the Fourth District Court of Appeal issued a written opinion last month holding that an appellate court’s failure to consider the appellee’s answer brief deprives the appellee of procedural due process. In Oakland Park MRI, Inc. v. USAA Casualty Insurance Co., Case No 4D11-3521, 37 Fla. L. Weekly D1277a (Fla. 4th DCA May 30, 2012), the Circuit Court of Broward County was asked to review, in its appellate capacity, a county court judgment. The circuit court’s opinion reversed the judgment indicating that the court reviewed a singular brief in the absence of an answer brief.
Interestingly, the Fourth District did not disclose why the circuit court disregarded the answer brief in the first place. Was it untimely filed? Was it improperly indexed? Or did the circuit court simply ignore it? The opinion arguably leads the reader to conclude the latter. However, a review of the circuit court docket reveals that the notice of appeal was filed on March 29, 2010. After several motions for extension, USAA filed its initial brief on October 18, 2010. On February 8, 2011, the circuit court entered an order to show cause within 10 days why the court should not decide the appeal without an answer brief. No response to the order to show cause was filed. The circuit court waited another five months before rendering an opinion on July 11, 2011. Four days later, on July 15, 2011, Oakland Park finally filed its answer brief along with an emergency motion to vacate opinion and to permit filing of an answer brief. The Fourth District quashed the opinion without discussing the merits of the emergency motion to vacate.
Interestingly, Oakland Park, the party that effectively prevailed in the Fourth District, has filed a Motion for Reconsideration, which is pending. Perhaps because the court refused to consider Oakland Park’s argument that the circuit court departed from the essential requirements of law in reversing the county court judgment.
Stay tuned for updates on this curious case to see whether an appellate court really must consider unfiled or untimely-filed briefs before it can render an opinion.
Update: Oakland Park’s Motion for Reconsideration was denied, and the court has issued its mandate.
Another practice tip emerges from a May 16, 2012 opinion out of Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals. In Lopez vs. United Capital Fund, LLC, 37 Fla. L. Weekly D1176b (Fla. 4th DCA May 16, 2012), the court affirmed a trial court’s refusal to enforce certain forum selection clauses based upon the conclusion that the clauses at issue were “totally unspecific” and did not “tie the selection of a forum to any mutable and identifiable fact.” The clauses at issue stated, in relevant part:
Each of the parties hereto agrees that any such claim or cause of action shall be tried by a court trial without a jury in Seller’s county and state of choice. . . Buyer agrees that a legal mediation shall take place in county and state of Seller’s choice before any court trial . . . .
United Capital Fund, LLC, filed suit against multiple defendants in Martin County, its home county. The defendants, who were “Sellers” under the contract, argued that the forum selection clause was valid and enforceable and sought to move the forum to Hillsborough County, their county of choice. The trial court refused to enforce the forum selection clause. The appellate court affirmed.
Acknowledging the judicial preference for forum selection clauses to “eliminate uncertainty as to the nature, location and outlook for the forum in which the parties might find themselves,” as quoted in Manrique v. Fabbri, 493 So. 2d 437, 440 (Fla. 1986), the appellate court found that the clauses at issue were founded in ”total uncertainty.” The court relied primarily on a Georgia Court of Appeals opinion interpreting a similar provision which set the forum in the “state of choice” of one of the parties. See Central Ohio Graphics v. Alco Capital Resource, Inc., 472 S.E.2d 2 (Ga. Ct. App. 1996).
The Fourth District distinguished indefinite clauses like the one at issue from enforceable “floating forum” selection clauses, which set forum in a specific, but unidentified location. The latter will “tie the selection of a forum to [a] mutable and identifiable fact” (i.e., the principal place of business, main office, or headquarters of a party). The former is based upon the whim of the selecting party, which cannot be determined by the other party and is subject to change at any time. Therefore, the court said, there can be no meeting of the minds at the time of contract.
Accordingly, it is incumbant upon practitioners to understand the subtle distinction between a floating forum clause and an indefinite (and unenforceable) forum selection clause. Where the location cannot be determined on the face of the contract or by the application of easily discernible facts, the clause will not pass muster.