Must Appellate Courts Really Consider Unfiled Briefs?

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.

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