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.

Rules Governing Electronic Appendices and Records Amended to Ease Readability

THE NEWS

Effective Sunday, October 1, 2017, the Florida Supreme Court’s amendments to the appellate rules go into effect.  The amendments are largely designed to update the rules to comport with the realities of producing and easily reading electronic appendices and records.

THE TRAP FOR THE UNWARY PRACTITIONER

Rule 9.220 is amended, adding new requirements for an appendix.  Now, an appendix must:

  • contain a coversheet that meets specific requirements for content;
  • contain a certificate of service;
  • generally be filed as a separate, single PDF file;
  • be properly indexed and consecutively paginated, with the cover sheet being page 1 and the page numbers matching the PDF reader display;
  • “be bookmarked, consistently with the index, such that each bookmark states the date, name of the document which it references, and directs to the first page of that document;”
  • have bookmarks “viewable in a separate window.”

Further, no condensed transcripts are permitted in an appendix without leave of court.  The rule also changes the format for paper appendices, when so authorized.

The Fourth District has warned that it will strike any appendix that does not comply with the amended rules when they go into effect on October 1, 2017.

The Fourth District has already issued an email to all 4th DCA eDCA Filers, stating “Effective October 1, 2017, electronic appendices which do not comply with the amended Rule 9.220 will be stricken.”  So be ready and be compliant!

THE SUBSTANTIVE AMENDMENTS SUMMARIZED

9.020 – Adds a definition for “E-Filing System Docket.”

9.120 – Details the format and contents of the documents to be transmitted from the district courts to the supreme court in situations where a party is seeking discretionary review

9.141 – Removes the clerk’s exception that allowed it to avoid having to repaginate or reindex a record from a previously prepared record into a record for a collateral or postconviction criminal case.

9.200 – The record shall now be submitted as a PDF document, uploaded to the e-filing system docket, and available for download to attorneys and parties who have registered for access to the system.  The appellate court may direct the lower clerk to submit a replacement record when an original record is found to be noncompliant with the technical requirements of rule 9.200(d).

9.220 – See above.

Rules 9.160 and  9.180 contain only minor changes in terms to reflect that their respective documents are “transmitted” rather than “sent” or “filed.”

BONUS TIP FOR TRIAL LAWYERS


The fact that the new rules forbid condensed transcripts in an Appendix should send a strong signal to trial lawyers not to file them with trial courts in general. Appellate judges do a lot of reading, and citing to a condensed transcript makes it that much harder for them to find what you are talking about. They just don’t track well or lend themselves to good notetaking on an iPad or other electronic screen. And since it is all being e-filed, there is much less of an issue with killing trees. If you are filing a transcript with the trial court, file the full transcript. The appellate judges will be a lot happier when reviewing your record. And that just makes it easier for everyone to focus on the merits rather than searching for the right record cite.

THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT

Florida State Courts have come a long way since the supreme court started this e-filing journey in 2013.  There have been a few hiccups, especially with the appellate courts, but the appellate rules are really starting to come into their own.

That said, with any new rule amendment comes new opportunities for errors to be made.  If you have a case pending or about to be pending before a Florida appellate court, give DPW Legal a call so we can help you avoid any of the pitfalls.

 

Eleventh Circuit Says No Benefits Under RESPA If You Address Your Mail Incorrectly

Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Atlanta

Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Atlanta

In Bivens v. Select Portfolio Servicing, Inc., No. 16-15119 (11th Cir. Aug. 17, 2017), the Eleventh Circuit upheld the rejection of the homeowner’s Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (“RESPA”) claim, all because he mailed a letter to the wrong address.

Bivens received a letter from Select Portfolio Servicing (“SPS”) indicating it would be his new loan servicer on his home loan.  Through his attorney, he wrote a letter to SPS–an attempt at a “qualified written request” (“QWR”) under RESPA–“demanding proof of its authority to service his loan.”  But he did not send the letter to the address SPS had designated for receiving QWRs–instead he used a “general correspondence” address.  SPS responded, but did not provide Bivens all the information he requested, so Bivens sued SPS for an alleged RESPA violation.

The district court granted summary judgment for SPS because Mr. Bivens had failed to mail his QWR to the designated address.  On appeal, the 11th Circuit agreed and affirmed.  The 11th Circuit recognized that the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s regulations “authorized servicers to ‘establish a separate and exclusive office and address for the receipt and handling of qualified written requests.'”  The Secretary of the Department, in a rulemaking notice, had also explained that if a servicer did establish such an office, the borrower was required to “deliver its request to that office in order for the inquiry to be a ‘qualified written request.'”  Bivens, undisputedly, did not.

The 11th Circuit concluded that SPS had properly designated an exclusive address for receiving QWRs.  It rejected Bivens’ arguments that he was not sufficiently notified of the specific address, and dismissed Bivens’ assertion that the common mail processing at that same address rendered it non-qualifying as a “separate and exclusive office” under the regulations.  In sum, the 11th Circuit held that Bivens’ failure to mail the QWR to the designated address relieved SPS of any duty under RESPA to respond to it.

Bivens’ claim failed not because of substantive merit but on a techncality, that probably could have been avoided through more careful reading of important notices or a better understanding and knowledge of applicable regulations.  Don’t let this happen to you!  “Technicalities” are one of many reasons to consult an appellate attorney early on–an extra set of eyes that can reduce cost, expedite proceedings, and potentially avoid a later call to a malpractice carrier.