Can Judges and Lawyers Be Facebook “Friends”? It Depends Where You Are.

An attorney can be friends with a judge IRL (in real life). Now they can be Facebook friends too–at least in the Third District.

The Third District Court of Appeal, recognizing the evolving influence and role of social media in our society, has held that a judge should not be disqualified from a case for merely being Facebook “friends” with counsel for a party.

In Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A., v. United Services Automobile Association, 3D17-1421 (Fla. 3d DCA Aug. 23, 2017), the petitioners filed a writ of prohibition, seeking to disqualify the trial court judge because a potential witness and a potential defendant was listed on the judge’s personal Facebook page as a “friend.”

This issue has nearly a decade of history in Florida law.  In 2009, a Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinion said that a judge may not add lawyers who may appear before him as “friends” on social networking sites, and vice versa.  In 2012, the Fourth District relied on the JEAC Opinion and granted a writ of prohibition, disqualifying a judge because he was Facebook “friends” with the prosecutor, Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).

Then, in 2014, the Fifth District granted a writ of prohibition because the trial judge “reached out” to a party in a dissolution case while litigation was pending and tried to “friend” her on Facebook.”  Chace v. Loisel, 170 So. 3d 802 (Fla. 5th DCA 2014).  While clearly what the trial court did was wrong, and factually different than the issue in Domville, the Chace court went on to express “serious reservations about the court’s rationale in Domville.”  The Fifth District said that “there is no difference between a Facebook ‘friend’ and any other friendship a judge might have,” and that “Domville’s logic would require disqualification in cases involving an acquaintance of a judge.”  The Fifth District also noted that “A Facebook friendship does not necessarily signify the existence of a close relationship.”

This is the legal landscape in which the Third District decided Herssein.  Preliminarily, the court recognized that merely being “friends” in the conventional sense has been historically insufficient to warrant disqualification of a judge.  It then latched onto the Fifth District’s statement regarding the closeness of Facebook “friends,” applying this rationale for three reasons:

  • “Some people have thousands of Facebook ‘friends,'”
  • “Facebook members often cannot recall every person they have accepted as ‘friends’ or who have accepted them as ‘friends,'” and
  • “many Facebook ‘friends’ are selected based upon Facebook’s data-mining technology rather than personal interactions.”

The Fifth District noted that Domville had been decided many years prior, in a quickly-evolving technological landscape–stated simply, times have changed.  It certified conflict with Domville, and denied the petition, holding that merely being Facebook “friends” with someone no longer demonstrates closeness of a relationship.

So where does that leave us practicing attorneys?

  • In the Third District, whether you are Facebook “friends” with a judge is irrelevant to whether your actual relationship is sufficiently close to warrant disqualification.  See Herssein.
  • In the Fourth District, being Facebook “friends” with a judge is sufficient on its own to warrant a disqualification.  See Domville.
  • The Fifth District’s dicta suggests it would side with the Third District, but it has issued nothing precedential upon which to rely.  See Chace.
  • Neither the First nor Second Districts have spoken on the issue.

How Are Deadlines Affected When the Courts Close Due to Weather?

Matthew DPW Legal Appeals Court Deadlines

Hurricane Matthew is looking pretty creepy in this NASA Earth Sciences image.
Don’t let Matthew ruin your appeal!

Three Florida Appellate Courts have announced closures so far due to Hurricane Matthew. The Third and Fourth Fourth District Courts of Appeal will be closed from 1 pm today through Friday October 7th, while the Fifth District will be closed Thursday and Friday. The Florida Supreme Court aggregates announcements about emergency closures for the entire state court system on its emergency page.

What is the effect of a court closure on deadlines and argument? Certainly, argument is cancelled and will have to be rescheduled. But what about regular deadlines? It appears an emergency closure does not count as a “Court Holiday” under Florida Rules of Judicial Administration Rule 2.514(4)(B) — the Courts are not calling it a “holiday,” and doing so probably has personnel implications that Court administration doesn’t want to deal with. However, the Florida Supreme Court generally issues administrative orders extending deadlines in the affected counties, and likely will do so in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. The orders generally state that the Supreme Court is intending to “equitably relieve parties in all pending cases by extending legal time limits that they otherwise would have been unable to meet due to the emergency.” See, e.g., AOSC16-23, In re EMERGENCY REQUEST TO EXTEND TIME PERIODS UNDER ALL FLORIDA RULES OF PROCEDURE FOR HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY IN THE THIRTEENTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT [.pdf]. And if the emergency further impedes the attorney or client, then the trial court is directed to resolve the claim “case-by-case basis when a party demonstrates that the lack of compliance with requisite time periods was directly attributable to this
emergency and that equitable remedy is required.” Id. I wouldn’t worry about a deadline for filing a brief — the extension will either be automatically granted by an administrative order, or the Court will be receptive to a motion for leave to accept a late-filed brief.

But what about deadlines that are not normally allowed to be extended? Rule 1.090 states that, even for good cause, a Court:

may not extend the time for making a motion for new trial, for rehearing, or
to alter or amend a judgment; making a motion for relief from a judgment under
rule 1.540(b); taking an appeal or filing a petition for certiorari; or making a
motion for a directed verdict.

There is some authority on this issue, but it is sparse and not directly on point. The Third District has held that the statute of limitations is not tolled by an administrative order closing the courts for weather-related issues. Ramirez v. McCravy, 4 So.3d 692 (Fla. 3d DCA 2009) [.pdf]. The Fourth District has held that hurricane-related closures and the resulting administrative order did toll a deadline, but it was a deadline to file for review of arbitration, which is not one of the types of deadlines excluded from enlargement by Rule 1.090. Rasabi v. Salomon, 51 So.3d 1284 (Fla. 4th DCA 2011) [.pdf]. And certainly, a court may by administrative order declare a date a Holiday, thus eliminating that day from being counted as the last day in any time calculation under Rule 2.514. See, e.g., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Kenyon, 826 So.2d 370 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002)[.pdf] (applying prior time calculation rule). Maybe since the Florida Supreme Court promulgated Rule 1.090, it’s administrative orders can supersede this issue. But I wouldn’t count on it, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be the guinea pig having to argue it to the Court in order to preserve my client’s right to appeal.

Here’s what I recommend: When it comes to a notice of appeal or a motion for rehearing, best not to mess around. Get it filed by the deadline, or early, rather than rely on a yet-to-be issued AO. Jurisdictional and hard deadlines are not to be messed with. And if your issue is the timeliness of a Rule 1.530 motion for rehearing or new trial, don’t wait for the timeliness issue to play out: file your notice of appeal no later than the 30th day after the original order was filed with the clerk, rather than counting on tolling. Since the 2015 rules change eliminated the trap caused by the old rules, and filing a notice of appeal no longer abandons a properly filed motion for rehearing, there’s no reason not to just get the notice of appeal on file, even if the fight over the timing of the 1.530 motion is still pending. See Fla. R. App. P. 9.020(i)(3)(stating that appeal shall be held in abeyance while tolling motion is decided).

What happens if you do get in a pinch? If you have to make the Hail Mary throw, perhaps a Rule 1.540(b) motion asking for the judgement to be re-issued due to excusable neglect could work. The appellate courts have very rarely ordered trial courts to grant such motions where the court found excusable neglect in determining the date final judgment was rendered, in order to allow for a timely appeal. See, e.g., Pompi v. City of Jacksonville, 872 So.2d 931 (Fla. 1st DCA 2004)[.pdf] (reversing denial of Rule 1.540(b) motion and ordering re-issuance of judgment). Those cases were all in the context of the date of rendition being unclear due to multiple filing stamps on the final judgment, not in the context of missed deadline due to weather. Loss of power might be considered excusable neglect, for example. But best not to go there. Get it filed! Even a one page, incomplete, or in-the-wrong-court Notice of Appeal will preserve the rights, even if you later have to amend it. See, e.g., Kaweblum v. Thornhill Estates Homeowners Association, Inc., 755 So.2d 85 (Fla. 2000) (notice of appeal filed in wrong court preserved right to appeal).

To my fellow Florida attorneys, and anyone else in Hurricane Matthew’s path, be safe.

Evidence Required When Seeking Defensive Summary Judgment

I love it when I get to report on my own victories. Today the Fifth District reversed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in a personal injury case, on two important grounds. From a procedural nerd standpoint, the Court correctly held that the defendants could not get summary judgment by simply quoting the plaintiff’s deposition and arguing “he doesn’t have evidence.” The Court reiterated that “[t]he lack of convincing evidence in favor of a party opposing summary judgment is not the same as conclusive evidence in favor of the party seeking summary judgment.” A defendant seeking summary judgment “cannot simply allege that the plaintiff’s evidence may not be sufficient, but must in fact present evidence “establishing a lack of liability on their part.” The Court therefore reversed the grant of summary judgment to the parties that simply argued “he doesn’t have any evidence.”

But just as important is the Court’s interpretation of the release signed by the Plaintiff. The injury arose when Plaintiff Owen Peterson attended a paintball competition and surrounding expo at Disney World. He was hit in the head at the expo, and went to the hospital for his injuries. He was cleared for paintball, and so came back and the next day signed a release so he could participate in the paintball competition, which he did. Once he got home, he realized his head injury was worse than he initially realized, and eventually sued Disney and the vendor whose item hit him in the head. Disney sought summary judgment based on the release, which stated that it applied to injuries sustained “before, during and after” participation in the Event. The court ruled:

Our analysis of this post-claim release must evaluate whether both parties knowingly gave clear and valid consideration in the Waiver. The Waiver specifically stated, “In consideration of my and/or my child or ward’s participation in the Sport Type(s) and Event referenced above and any related activities (collectively, the ‘Event’),
wherever the Event may occur, I agree to assume all risks incidental to such participation.” The Waiver further notified the “Participant” that by signing the Waiver he declared himself “physically fit” and possessing “the skill level required to participate in the Event and/or any such activities.” This language clearly focused the signatory on the paintball competition, not the vendor area. The parties further admitted that Disney did not require people accessing only the vendor area to sign the Waiver.

We reject Disney’s argument that the Waiver’s reference to injuries suffered “before, during or after such participation” included the November 8 incident. The Waiver failed to clarify that it included any incident that occurred before its signing, and thus failed to notify Peterson of a post-claim release.

The case is Peterson v. Flare Fittings, Inc., Case No. 5D13-2235 (5th DCA Oct. 9, 2015)[.pdf]. This was one of the first cases I took on when I opened the doors to DPW Legal back in 2013. As the opinion notes, Peterson opposed the case pro se, after his prior attorney withdrew on the eve of trial soon after the Defendants filed their motions for summary judgment. To turn a pro se loss into an appellate win is just sweet as can be. So pleased to have gotten such a great result for my client.