Small Claims, Big Procedural Concerns

Does filing a mis-labeled motion for new trial in small claims court toll rendition of a final small claims order? The Fourth DCA in Arafat v. U–Haul Center Margate, No. 4D10–1179,— So.3d —- (Fla. 4th DCA June 22, 2011) [.pdf] has said yes.

Which Rule Applies?

The Arafat decision packs in a lot of procedural analysis of the intersection of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, the Florida Rules of Appellate Procedure, and the Florida Small Claims Rules. After plaintiff Arafat lost her small claims case, she filed what the court described as a “rambling” motion for rehearing — erroneously titled as being served pursuant to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.530 — “clearly authored by someone with little or no legal training.” The Court nonetheless concluded “there is no doubt that the relief she is seeking is a new trial.”

Whether the motion was filed pursuant to Civil Rule 1.530 or Small Claims Rule 7.180 makes the difference between a timely motion for rehearing and an untimely one, because while Rule 1.530 requires that a motion be served within 10 days of the judgment, Rule 7.180 requires that a motion for new trial be filed within 10 days. And Arafat, acting pro se, filed her motion within ten days but didn’t mail it until two days later. The Court held that Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.530 does not apply to small claims actions — after all, it is not one of the rules of civil procedure expressly adopted by the small claims rules. Rather, Florida Small Claims Rule 7.180 is the operative rule for requesting that a small claims judgment be reviewed by the small claims judge, and it only allows that a party may file a motion for new trial within ten days.

The Court held that Arafat’s motion was a motion for new trial under Small Claims Rule 7.180. Then it did a full-on cascading rules analysis. Looking first to Florida Small Claims Rule 7.230, which provides that appeals from Small Claims court shall be governed by the Florida Rules of Appellate Procedure, the court then applied Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.010 to hold that the appellate procedure rules apply to appeals raised in circuit court. Taking the final procedural step, the Court applied the rendition rule of Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.020(h) and held that rendition had been successfully tolled by Arafat’s motion.

Certiorari Review

The Court took jurisdiction over this procedural morass, by the way, by exerting certiorari jurisdiction, explaining “a petition for certiorari is the proper vehicle to challenge an order of the circuit court dismissing an appeal as untimely.” Thus, the Court granted the petition and directed that the circuit court consider Arafat’s appeal on the merits.

Timeliness of Notice of Appeal

Practice tip:  If you are appealing a final order rendered in Palm Beach, Broward, Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee or St. Lucie counties, hand deliver your notice of appeal, and don’t go until you have a file-stamped copy of the notice in your hands.

Carlos Soledispa’s lawyer learned this lesson the hard way.  He sent the Notice of Appeal by courier, and had proof of delivery on February 11, which should have been timely for filing a notice of appeal of a January 13, 2010 order.  But the trial court clerk didn’t stamp the Notice as received until February 23, 2010 — too late.  The Fourth DCA certified conflict with the Third and Fifth DCAs, but refused to accept the evidence of timely filing, insisting that the “filing stamp date governs the filing date.” 

The case is Soledispa v. LaSalle Nat’l Bank Ass’n, No. 4D10-998 (April 28, 2010).

The trial-level clerks are quite backlogged, and I am not all that shocked that it took ten days to process a notice of appeal. I am, however, chagrined that the court would not allow the appellant to rebut the presumption of the correctness of the file stamp.

An untimely notice of appeal is doom for even the best appeal. File early, and don’t rest until you have proof of timely filing in hand.