Appeals 101:  When Can you Seek Rehearing in a State Court Appeal?

Needle in a Haystack

Determining whether there is an issue that warrants rehearing when you aren’t the lawyer who wrote the appeal briefs is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

We often get calls from litigants who have just found out they’ve lost their appeal and want to seek rehearing from the appellate court. Either they handled their appeal on their own, pro se (which we never recommend, but if you plan to do so, the Florida Bar Appellate Section has some great resources here), or else they utilized counsel but now that they’ve lost, they would like a second opinion.

And our answer is the same:  without even looking at your case, I can tell you that the chance of a motion for rehearing being granted is very low, and the likely result of my analysis of your case will be that you do not have a basis for rehearing.  How can I say that without even looking at your case, you ask? Well, it comes down to the rules.  Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.330 governs appellate rehearing, and sets very strict rules about when you can even bring a rehearing motion. The rules even require any lawyer filing such a motion to swear on their bar license that the motion is justified.  So while we are happy to take on a “peace of mind” review of your case to determine whether rehearing is even available, you have to understand that it rarely is.

You have to act quickly

. A motion for rehearing may be filed within 15 days of the District Court’s decision.  Fla. R. App. P. 9.330(a).  Fifteen days is not a lot of time to analyze the entire case file (opinion, all three briefs, and record) and determine whether there are grounds for rehearing, so if your goal is to hire a new lawyer to take a look at the issues, you have to move quickly.  I recommend hiring someone certainly within a week of the decision, if not sooner, so that person has the chance.  Anyone who says they can do a motion for rehearing without thoroughly analyzing all of the prior briefing does not understand motions for rehearing.

You have to meet a high standard

  There are two flavors of Rule 9.330 motion:  Rehearing and Clarification.  As the rule states, a motion for rehearing “shall state with particularity the points of law or fact that, in the opinion of the movant, the court has overlooked or misapprehended in its decision, and shall not present issues not previously raised in the proceeding.”  So basically, you have to walk a tightrope:  You can’t raise a new issue, but you also can’t just reargue what you said before.  Instead, you have to really find a place where the appellate court in its review truly overlooked or misunderstood something.  If you do just re-argue what you said before, you can be sanctioned.  As one court has explained, a motion for rehearing is not “a last resort to persuade th[e] court to change its mind, or to express …displeasure with th[e] court’s conclusion.”  Lawyers Title Ins Group v. Reitzes, 631 So.2d 1100, 1101 (Fla. 4th DCA 1993) (issuing order to show cause why lawyer should not be sanctioned for merely re-arguing the same things in a motion for rehearing).  Such motions should very rarely be filed.

Similarly, a motion for clarification “shall state with particularity the points of law or fact in the court’s decision that, in the opinion of the movant, are in need of clarification”. Fla. R. App. P. 9.330.  But clarification is only useful if something is unclear or confusing in the written opinion, which is rare.  I’ve filed exactly one motion for clarification in my career, and it was, in fact, granted.  I have never been more proud to have 2 words deleted from an opinion that I still lost.  But that just goes to show how rarely these motions should be filed and how even rarer it is to grant them.

In my entire career, I’ve filed only a handful of rehearing motions, and only a few of those were granted. That I’ve had any granted is a great track record, but all it shows is that I don’t file motions for rehearing that break the rule and re-argue what was said before or raise entirely new issues.

Should you bother with a Motion for Rehearing?

  Rehearing is rarely appropriate to request, and even more rarely granted.  It is perfectly reasonable to get an unfavorable decision from the District Court of Appeal, and decide there is nothing more to be done, without further analysis: the odds are stacked against you.  When we represent a client throughout the appeal, we include in our services an analysis of rehearing issues, and make a recommendation as to whether rehearing is appropriate (spoiler alert: the answer is usually no).  When we were not the appellate counsel all along, it’s much harder: to decide whether rehearing is appropriate, one has to read not just the opinion, but the briefs showing what was argued, the cases cited in the briefs, and even the record to understand what happened in the trial court.  That takes time!  We are always happy to analyze a file and look for the tiny nugget of gold that would allow us to file a supported motion for rehearing—for us it’s a fun challenge.  But we charge a fee to do so, because to do it right generally takes several hours of time. And we want to be very upfront that the process is like looking for a needle in a haystack, and the answer will more likely than not be “sorry, we don’t advise seeking rehearing.”

Still not deterred?  If you have gotten a decision from the appellate court and want to hire us to determine whether rehearing is appropriate, feel free to schedule an intake consult.  Be sure to give us your case number and full contact information so we can run a conflicts check.

Photo courtesy of Flickr User Michael Gil Used under a CC 2.0 license

Motions Postponing Rendition

Now that we no longer have to worry about abandoning an authorized motion for rehearing by filing a notice of appeal, the appellate courts understandably want to know if there is such a motion pending. The Fifth District recently issued a notice [.pdf] expressly asking parties to inform the court if an appeal should be held in abeyance. Specifically, the court asks that, along with the notice of appeal, the parties “immediately” inform the court of pending motions by filing a notice with the Court. Similarly, parties are requested to file a notice with the court again when the trial court rules on the pending motion, and include a copy of the lower tribunal’s signed, written order disposing of the motion.

To further facilitate this, the Court this week amended Administrative Order AO5D12-2 [.pdf] to require the clerk of the lower tribunal to indicate on its transmittal that a motion postponing rendition is pending.

This just makes sense, and would be good practice in all of the DCAs, even in the absence if a formal request from the Clerk. The easier parties make it for the Court to get to the merits, the better the system works for everyone. The full text of the notice reads:

Informing the Appellate Court of Pending Motions Postponing Rendition at time of Filing the Notice of Appeal

April 10, 2015

Effective January 1, 2015, Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.020(i)(3) has been amended to eliminate the abandonment of motions authorized pursuant to rule 9.020(l) by the filing of a notice of appeal. Rendition of a final order will be delayed by the filing or service of a timely and authorized motion and the filing of a notice of appeal will not result in the abandonment of such a motion but rather the appeal shall be held in abeyance until the filing of a signed, written order disposing of the motion.

Attorneys and parties filing a notice of appeal should immediately inform the court by the filing of a proper notice if a motion postponing rendition is pending so that the case may properly be held in abeyance. Likewise, the attorneys or parties in the case should inform the court by notice upon the lower tribunal disposition of such motions by filing a copy of the lower tribunal’s signed, written order disposing of the motion.

Lower court clerks, lower tribunal clerks, and agency clerks are now required to complete a new section of the electronic transmittal form submitted when efiling notices of appeal to this court which must indicate whether or not a motion postponing rendition is pending in the case below. Clerks must mark this section of the form or the notice of appeal may be rejected until such time as the transmittal form is properly completed.

/s/
____________________________
Joanne P. Simmons, Clerk of Court

Magistrates, Reconsideration, and Writs, Oh My!

Every once in a while a case comes along that is just a treasure trove of procedural goodness. It’s even nicer when you happen to know the prevailing party, and know the rules as applied helped the good guys. The case is Seigler v. Bell, Case No. 5D14-642 (Fla. 5th DCA Sept. 19, 2014)[.pdf]. The underlying dispute is a complicated child custody battle between a Mother and Grandmother. While there is no need to go into the nitty gritty of the underlying facts of the dispute, the decision today provides great insight into several issues of broad application: (a) The role of magistrates in proceedings before a trial court, (b) the important differences between rehearing and reconsideration at the trial court level, and (c) jurisdiction over writs of certiorari and mandamus. Let’s unpack each in turn.

Magistrates and Finality

The opinion lays out in detail the legal and procedural effect of an issue being heard by a magistrate. Most importantly:

While a magistrate’s report is more than a mere recommendation, it is not a final judgment, as magistrates lack the authority to enter final judgments….Even when no exceptions are filed, the trial court is “duty bound to examine and consider the evidence for itself and to make a judicial determination as to whether[,] under the law and facts[,] the court is justified in entering the judgment recommended” by the magistrate…. Merely “approving” the magistrate’s report is not sufficient to effect an appealable final judgment.

Slip. Op. at 7-8, citations omitted. In this case, both parties did file exceptions, and the trial court ruled on them, but the effect of that ruling was not a final judgment. The trial court rejected one party’s exceptions and accepted some of the other party’s exceptions, but the resulting order on the recommendation merely stated “the Report … is hereby modified….” Because the trial court “modified” the magistrate’s report but did not enter judgment, the order modifying the report (“the Modification Order”) was not a final order.

Rehearing v. Reconsideration

Whether the Modification Order was a final order is important in this case, because it is determinative of the next issue the appellate court decided — whether the Grandmother’s “Motion for Rehearing or Reconsideration” (the “Reconsideration Motion”) was timely and authorized. The Mother’s Petition sought review of the trial court’s order granting the Motion for Rehearing or Reconsideration. The Reconsideration Motion was filed 12 days after the trial court entered its order modifying the magistrate’s report and recommendation. If the Modification Order had been a final judgment, then it would be subject to a Rule 1.530 motion for rehearing. But then the Reconsideration Order would have been untimely, because at the time Rule 1.530 required that a motion for rehearing be served no later than 10 days after entry of judgment. (The rule was since amended to allow 15 days for service of a motion for rehearing).

The Court held that since the Modification Order was not a final order, the trial court had the inherent power to reconsider its interlocutory order at any time. Op. at 9. The court explained:

Motions for rehearing and motions for reconsideration are two distinct motions and, though they are often confused, they do not overlap. Motions for “rehearing” pursuant to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.530 apply only to final judgments and “those orders that partake of the character of a final judgment, i.e., orders that complete the judicial labor on a portion of the cause.” Motions for “reconsideration” apply to nonfinal, interlocutory orders, and are based on a trial court’s “inherent authority to reconsider and, if deemed appropriate, alter or retract any of its nonfinal rulings prior to entry of the final judgment or order terminating an action . . . .” … Nomenclature does not control, and motions for either “rehearing” or “reconsideration” aimed at final judgments shall be treated as rule 1.530 motions for rehearing, while motions aimed at nonfinal orders shall
be treated as motions for reconsideration.

Op. at 9-10, citations omitted. The Court also emphasized that the trial court had the power to sua sponte reconsider its own interlocutory orders. Op. at 10.

Certiorari, Mandamus, and Appealable Non-Final Orders

Because the Court had the power to reconsider its interlocutory order, the next question it considered was whether the order granting reconsideration in the Grandmother’s favor (“the Reconsideration Order”) was an appealable order. The Court didn’t even look at whether the Reconsideration Order was a final order, because it left open further proceedings and still did not take on the tenor of a judgment of the Court.

The Court considered but rejected the argument that the Reconsideration Order could be classified as an appealable nonfinal order under Rule 9.130(a)(3)(C)(iii), which allows for immediate appeal of orders determining the right to child custody in family law matters. It is not clear whether the Mother made this argument, but the Court did the right thing in considering it in any event, because Rule 9.040(c) allows that “if a party seeks an improper remedy, the cause shall be treated as if the proper remedy had been sought.” Fla. R. App. P. 9.040(c). However, the Court concluded that the order does not determine the right to custody, but “merely indicates that more evidence will be considered before the trial court determines Mother’s motion to revoke the prior temporary custody order.” Op. at 10. It’s a decision to take more evidence, not a determination of custody, and therefore not an appealable interlocutory order.

The court also considered whether the Mother’s Petition entitled her to the relief requested, certiorari or mandamus relief. Both certioari and mandamus are extraordinary appellate remedies, because they allow the appellate court to step in and rule on the propriety of an interlocutory order. The Court dismissed the Petition for Writ of Certiorari for lack of jurisdiction and denied the Petition for Writ of Mandamus.

The Mother argued in favor of certiorari review because, based on her view that the Rehearing Motion was untimely, the trial court was without jurisdiction to entertain it. The Court set out the standard test for certiorari relief:

“To obtain relief by way of a writ of certiorari, a petitioner must establish: 1) a departure from the essential requirements of the law, 2) a resulting material injury for the remainder of the trial, and 3) the lack of an adequate remedy on appeal.”… The second and third prongs of this three-part standard of review are often combined into the concept of “irreparable harm,” and they are jurisdictional.

Applying this test — and its prior procedural analysis that the trial court had the power to reconsider the Modification Order and enter the Reconsideration Order — the Court found that the Reconsideration Order neither departed from the essential requirements of law or caused irreparable harm. The Court therefore held that it lacked jurisdiction to grant the requested certiorari relief.

The request for mandamus relief likely asked the Court to order the trial court to enter final judgment on the Modification Order. As the Court explained:

“Mandamus is a common law remedy used to enforce an established legal right by compelling a person in an official capacity to perform an indisputable ministerial duty required by law.” … “To state a cause of action for mandamus, a party must allege a clear legal right to performance of the act requested, an indisputable legal duty, and the lack of an adequate remedy at law.”

Op. at 11 (citations omitted). In this case, because the trial court had the power to reconsider its own interlocutory order, the Mother could not prove she was entitled to compel the trial court to enforce an established legal right to entry of judgment in her favor. The Court therefore denied the petition for writ of mandamus.

Kudos

Congratulations again to my friend Vicki Levin Eskin of Levy & Associates, P.A. for her appellate win! Vicki represents the Grandmother in this case pro bono, to boot (that means free, folks).

Full Disclosure: I assisted Vicki pro bono in responding to the appellate motion for rehearing or rehearing en banc filed by the other side. I am pleased to report that the court denied rehearing today, so the decision is now final.