Late-Filed Civil Appeals a Nonstarter

What should a civil litigant do when he or she is made aware of the entry of a final judgment after the expiration of the appeal period?  The First District Court of Appeal reminds us in an opinion issued in Sharpe v. Stanley, Case No. 1D14-1190, 39 Fla. L. Weekly D928a (Fla. 1st DCA May 1, 2014) that the appellate court has no authority to grant relief from an untimely-filed appeal in a civil proceeding.  That does not mean, however, that all appellate avenues are foreclosed.  As the court reminds us, relief “may be sought in the trial court by motion under Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.540(b) to set aside the order where no notice of its entry was given to the parties, coupled with a requst that a new order be entered so that the right of appeal is preserved.” 

What Does an Appellate Lawyer Do?

Most people understand the primary function of an appellate attorney:  to research and write appellate briefs and present oral arguments to the appellate panel.  However, many people, including lawyers, are not aware of the many other ways an appellate attorney can “add value” to a litigation team.  An appellate attorney can be an invaluable trial team member from the outset of a case.  An experienced appellate practitioner often has significant litigation experience at the trial level, and is well equipped to assist in sophisticated legal analysis, strategy, and issue identification.  Appellate attorneys are also proficient writers and can assist in drafting bench briefs for the trial court.  

Because trials can be hectic and unpredictible, trial lawyers are primarily focused on presenting their case themes for the judge or jury.  In a complex trial, it is advisable to have an dedicated appellate practitioner on the trial team observing the proceedings objectively, and ensuring that all potential points of error have been properly preserved in the event an appeal is taken.  Additionally, having an appellate attorney involved from the commencement of the trial can signficantly reduce the costs of preparing an appeal. 

If you need assistance in any of the following areas, please contact jennifer.dixon@lowndes-law.com or (407) 843-4600:

  • Commercial litigation appeals
  • Family law appeals
  • Eminent domain/condemnation appeals
  • Administrative appeals
  • Original proceedings
  • Amicus briefs
  • Trial support
  • Appellate mediation

 

Delayed Discovery Doctrine Held Not to Apply to Negligence Actions Involving Child Sexual Abuse

BrainIn an opinion filed on September 4, 2013, the Third District Court of Appeal held that the delayed discovery doctrine does not apply to extend the statute of limitations in a negligence action arising out of allegations of child sexual abuse.  The delayed discovery doctrine generally provides that a cause of action does not accrue until the plaintiff either knows or reasonably should know of the tortious act giving rise to the cause of action.  The date a cause of action accrues is important because it is from the date of accrual that the statute of limitations is calculated.

The delayed discovery doctrine was first applied in a childhood sexual abuse case by the Florida Supreme Court in Hearndon v. Graham, 767 So. 2d 1179 (Fla. 2000), which held that the delayed discovery doctrine applied to the accrual of an intentional tort action brought by a sexual abuse victim against the perpetrator.  The victim had alleged traumatic amnesia made her unable to recall the events for more than a decade.  In Hearndon, the Florida Supreme Court acknowledged that, in 1992, the Florida legislature had effectively adopted the delayed discovery doctrine with respect to intentional tort actions concerning child sexual abuse.  However, the Heardon case pre-dated the enactment of that legislation.  In adopting the delayed discovery doctrine in that case, the court effectively found a way to apply the new legislation to the older case.

Fast forward 13 years to the case of Cisko v. Diocese of Steubenville, Case No. 09-35639, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D1902a (September 4, 2013), in which Appellants/Plaintiffs had sued the Diocese for negligence relating to physical and sexual abuse alleged to have been suffered between 1966 and 1967 at the hands of two priest under the Diocese’s supervision.  The Plaintiffs claimed traumatic amnesia had rendered them unable to recall the events of abuse until May 2005.  The Diocese prevailed at summary judgment based upon the expiration of the four-year statute of limitations on negligence actions.  Citing Hearndon v. Graham, Appellants contended that the delayed discovery doctrine deferred the accrual of the cause of action.  The Third District found, however, that the Hearndon holding is limited, not only to cases of traumatic amnesia, but to intentional tort causes of action.

While the Third District’s holding is consistent with the current § 95.11(7), Florida Statutes, which extends the statute of limitations for intentional tort cases based on abuse, and cases which have refused to expand the statute’s application to negligence cases, it does raise an interesting policy consideration.  If the State of Florida is committed to redressing child sexual abuse regardless of when it may be discovered, should it matter whether the defendant is the perpetrator or someone who enabled the perpetrator, or what the specific cause of action against the defendant may be?

The High Cost of Inexperience

This week, the Fifth District Court of Appeal issued an order imposing sanctions against an Orlando law firm for what the court determined were “negligent violations of rules of procedure” with respect to the law firm’s prosecution of an appeal.  Hagood v. Wells Fargo N.A., Case No. 5D12-2015 (Fla. 5th DCA June 28, 2013).  According to the Court, the attorneys demonstrated  “a lack of understanding of substantive law and rules of procedure” and “multiple acts of professional negligence that began in the trial court and continued through the oral argument.”  

The negligent acts included the filing of a frivolous “initial brief [that] was based entirely on a false assertion of fact,” and appeared to have stemmed from the fact that an inexperienced “part-time” lawyer for the firm was tasked with drafting the appellate brief despite having no access to the record.  Relying only upon the trial attorney’s notes to draft the initial brief, and without even reviewing the underlying motions, the brief was drafted and filed without revision by the supervising attorney.  The court admonished that “each attorney of record is responsible for the content of the entire document when his or her name appears on the document.”  

Ultimately, the sanction assessed was a $1,000.00 fine, but the costs to the appellant and attorneys’ reputations can’t be measured.   Professional negligence aside, this case demonstrates the reality of trial practice and the challenges that many trial lawyers face when they endeavor to handle their own appeals, rather than outsourcing to an experienced appellate attorney.  Because of the often frenetic pace of trail practice, trial lawyers may not have the time, man power, or inclination to focus on the complexities of appellate practice.  In lieu of delegating the task to an inexperienced junior lawyer with the goal of keeping the work “in house,” trial attorneys should reflect on the Hargood order, and give due consideration to consulting an experienced appellate practitioner.

Preservation of Error: Prejudicial or Argumenative Closing Arguments

ImageThe 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.

Alleged Fraudulent Indcument + Unambiguous Contract = Defense Summary Judgment

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.

Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals Adopts E-Filing

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.
  • Transcripts
  • Appendices

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.

What Do You Mean By “Fifty Miles”?

A recent case out of Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal sets forth an important practice tip for memorializing mediated settlement agreements.  In the case of Tucker v. Liebknecht, Case No. 5D11-681, 37 Fla. L. Weekly D1088a (Fla. 5th DCA, May 4, 2012), the parties, who had a child together but were not married, entered into a Mediated Paternity Agreement (“MPA”) that contained a provision concerning relocation.  The provision stated that “If the parent that the child lives with the majority of the time intends to relocate more than 50 miles from the present home, the parent must obtain permission in writing from the non-residential parent or obtain a prior Court Order of Approval.”  The court’s Final Judgment adopted and ratified the MPA.

Fast forward several years, and the mother, with whom the child is living, decides to relocate to a new home, which, by car, is more than 50 driving miles from her current home.  However, the new home is within a 50 radius of the old home.  The trial court used driving miles to determine that the new home exceeded the 50-mile restriction, and temporarily enjoined the mother from relocating.  The mother appealed contending that the trial court should have used a straight-line test, pursuant to which the new home was within the 50-mile restriction.

The Fifth District agreed with the mother, and determined that the unambiguous language of the MPA could not be rewritten.  “We believe that utilizing a method of measurement other than the straight line method would create uncertainly and generate needless debate.  In the absence of any statutory or contractual provision governing the manner of measurement of distances, the general rule is that distance should be measured along the shortest straight line, on a horizontal plane and not along the course of a highway or along the usual traveled way.”

Since the Fifth District has now taken a definitive position on the issue, Florida practitioners are cautioned to consider and be specific in defining how distances should be calculated in mediated agreements.