The Third District recently confirmed that a trial court loses jurisdiction over the substance of a case once a plaintiff voluntarily dismisses under Rule 1.420(a)(1), and that with only one rare exception a Court cannot set aside such a dismissal. U.S. Bank N.A. v. Rivera, Case No. 3D15-1415 (Fla. 3d Dist. April
27, 2016) [.pdf].
The case has a complicated procedural history: The Bank initiated foreclosure in 2009, and served the defendants by publication, obtaining a default judgment. In 2011, the Bank sought to vacate and set aside that judgment, citing “irregularities in the actions taken by its former counsel,” and the Riveras, too, sought to relief from the judgment pursuant to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.540. Id. at 2. In 2013, the trial court finally entered the Bank’s 1.540 motion to vacate the judgment, and shortly thereafter, the Bank voluntarily dismissed the foreclosure action. Id. at 3.
The Riveras, however, did not stop litigating. They moved to set aside the voluntary dismissal for fraud on the court, attempted to engage in discovery to uncover the fraud, and sought sanctions against the Bank for failing to comply with the discovery. The Bank eventually sought the instant writ of prohibition to stop the trial court from continuing to exercise jurisdiction over the dismissed case.
What is a Writ of Prohibition?
A writ of prohibition is not an appeal in the traditional sense. Rather, it is an action, on the original jurisdiction of the district court of appeal, “to prevent courts from acting when there is no jurisdiction to act.” Sutton v. State, 975 So. 2d 1073, 1076 (Fla. 2008); see also Fla. R. App. P. 9.030(b)(3). Here, seeking a writ of prohibition was the appropriate remedy, because the party contended that the trial court was continuing to act even though it lacked jurisdiction to do so.
Citing to the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Pino v. Bank of New York, 121 So. 3d 23 (Fla. 2013), the Court ruled that the Rivera’s attempts to secure a dismissal with prejudice were not authorized by Rule 1.540. Specifically, the Court explained that “a trial court has neither the authority under rule 1.540 nor the inherent authority to grant relief from a voluntary dismissal where fraud on the court is alleged but no affirmative relief has been granted to the dismissing plaintiff.” Id. at 4-5.
Interestingly, the appellate court stopped just shy of actually issuing the writ of prohibition. When initiating a writ of prohibition, the rules require that the petitioner name the judge or lower tribunal as a “formal party to the petition” in the body of the petition, but not add the judge’s name to the caption. Fla. R. App. P. 9.100(e). The opinion ruled in favor of the petitioner, but the court stated that it would “withhold issuance of this court’s writ confident that the court below will refrain from further action in this matter.” In other words, the Court did not want to embarrass the trial judge, but ordered him or her to stop taking action in the case.