Evidence Rules Matter: Best Evidence Rule and Hearsay Require Reversal

In an appellate victory for DPW Legal, the Second District Court of Appeal issued an opinion today reaffirming that banks seeking to foreclose on homes must strictly adhere to evidentiary rules governing negotiable instruments and business records.

In Heller v. Bank of America NA, No. 2D14-3530 (Fla. 2d DCA. Jan. 27, 2017) [.pdf], the Bank at a foreclosure trial offered into evidence a copy of the note, rather than the original note, with its counsel asserting that the original had been recently filed with the court clerk. The trial court admitted the copy over defense counsel’s objection, citing the Best Evidence Rule, Section 90.953, Florida Statutes. The Bank also admitted into evidence (again over the homeowner’s objections) testimony of its representative based not on personal knowledge, but on his review of business records that were not in evidence or elsewhere in the court file.

DPW Legal attorney Dineen Pashoukos Wasylik argued on appeal that both rulings were abuses of discretion and an erroneous interpretation of the evidence code, and the Second District agreed. First, the Court held that Section 90.953 of the Florida Evidence Code requires any party seeking to enforce a negotiable instrument—such as the promissory note involved here—to produce and surrender the original of the instrument to the court. The Court rejected the Bank’s argument that the trial court was entitled to rely upon counsel’s assertions that the original had been filed with the clerk. The Court reaffirmed the longstanding tenet of law that a trial court may not “rely on an unsworn statement of counsel to make a factual determination.”

Plaintiffs Must Overcome Defenses to Win Summary Judgment

Another appellate victory for  Dineen Wasylik and DPW Legal, overturning an improper grant of summary judgement in a foreclosure appeal.

Another appellate victory for
Dineen Wasylik and DPW Legal,
overturning an improper
grant of summary judgement
in a foreclosure appeal.

We are proud to report our firm racked up another appellate win yesterday — DPW Legal secured the reversal of summary judgment against our clients in a mortgage foreclosure action. In this case, the Bank before the trial court won summary judgement, even though its summary judgment motion made no mention of the defendants’ numerous affirmative defenses set out in their answer.

On appeal, we correctly pointed out that Rule 1.510 Requires that a motion for summary judgment “shall state with particularity the grounds upon which it is based and substantial matters of law to be argued,” as well as the myriad of cases that require plaintiffs to affirmatively overcome each and every defense before they can earn summary judgment. The appellate court ultimately agreed, and reversed the summary judgment, explaining:

It is true that the Bank did submit a response to an affidavit regarding the Paragraph 22 notice, disputing the Amstones’ affidavits that the notice had not been received or was deficient. But the Bank did not address the affirmative defenses in its motion for summary judgment. And at the hearing, the Bank’s counsel simply asserted that “the Affirmative Defenses were dealt with.” The Amstones’ counsel responded that the Bank had failed to refute all of the affirmative defenses…The Amstones’ counsel also emphasized that the affidavits regarding the Paragraph 22 notice crated a factual dispute that needed to be resolved. The court made no findings regarding any of these defenses. Accordingly, genuine issues of material fact remained, and summary judgment should not have been granted.

In our view, this was a case where strong advocacy at oral argument made a huge difference. What is not clear from the opinion is that the Bank argued that the defendants had waived this issue by failing to argue it on the record below, and the court seemed to want to buy that waiver argument. At oral argument, we were able to refute the waiver argument with citation directly to the proper part of the record showing why it was not waived. We’ve ordered the oral argument video, and will further expound on the important preservation issues in a later post, when we can share the video. But in the meantime, the lesson to be learned is that at the trial level, preservation is key, and at the appellate level, knowing your record cold is key (see my prior post on preparing for oral argument).

Attorney Ralph Fisher acted as able trial counsel, and ensured the issues were preserved on appeal.

The case is Amstone v. The Bank of New York Melon, No. 2D14-5480 (Jan. 6, 2016) [.pdf].

Second District Publishes Practice Preferences

The Second District Court of Appeals in October published on its website a brief but mighty Practice Preferences guide [.pdf] to assist parties in guiding their practice before that Court. The document includes three main sections: (1) Notices, Motions, and Records, (2) Briefs and Brief Writing, and (3) Oral Argument. The document is a mix of general appellate advocacy best practices and the specific preferences of this Court and its judges. Some of the most important practice tips:

Make jurisdiction easy to discern (See page 1, #1).

When filing a notice of appeal, include a copy of any tolling motion and the order granting or denying that motion, so the date of rendition is clear without having to look outside of the filing to determine jurisdiction.

No footnotes! (See page 4, #8).

The Second District will just take your footnotes out of the margin and pull it into the body of the brief to make it more readable for the judges. And whatever you do, don’t cite Bryan Garner style (sorry, Bryan). This Court hates that, and I have personally witnessed a Court sending a so-cited brief back to the party to re-file with inline citation.

Maximize Oral Argument (See pages 5-6).

Probably the most useful section of the Practice Preferences goes into detail about Oral Argument best practices: how to introduce yourself, answer the Court’s questions, don’t interrupt the judge, be conscious of your remaining time, know your record and briefs and law, and practice!

Whether you are in the Second District or any other Florida intermediate appellate court, the guide is a concise and helpful summary of some of the most common questions of appellate procedure and practice.