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.

“Final” Judgment While Appeal Pending is Void

On a petition for certiorari filed by a non-party challenging a post-judgment discovery order, the Second District Court of Appeal has provided us with some great language on what constitutes a void judgment. In Gibson v. Progress Bank of Florida, No. 2D10-4137 (Fla. 2d DCA Feb. 23, 2011)[.pdf], the court decided what should be a fairly obvious point — that a final judgment entered while an interlocutory appeal is pending is outside the jurisdiction of the trial court and therefore void. This proposition comes directly out of Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.130(f), which states:

In the absence of a stay, during the pendency of a review of a non-final order, the lower tribunal may proceed with all matters, including trial or final hearing; provided that the lower tribunal may not render a final order disposing of the cause pending such review.

(emphasis by Court).

A final summary judgment, all parties agreed, “constitutes a final order disposing of the cause.” The Court held, therefore, that the judgment was null and void, explaining:

A void judgment is “[a] judgment that has no legal force or effect, the invalidity of which may be asserted by any party whose rights are affected at any time and any place, whether directly or collaterally…. It is incapable of being confirmed, ratified, or enforced in any manner or to any degree.”

Applying Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.560, the court concluded that there can be no discovery in aid of execution of a void judgment. Moreover, applying the general discovery rules applicable to pending actions, the court held that discovery from the Petitioners under those rules was irrelevant prior to judgment. Quashing the discovery order, the court concluded “because the final judgment is void, the Petitioners would suffer irreparable harm if forced to disclose their personal financial information.”

Jurisdiction and Extraordinary Writs

Sometimes, you can win the battle and lose the war. So it can be with jurisdiction. Even if you are correct that there is no jurisdiction over an appeal in the Florida intermediate appellate courts, the Court still has the discretion to treat an appeal as a request for an extraordinary writ.

And that’s exactly what the Second District Court of Appeal did to late last month. (Full disclosure, I was attorney of record for the Appellee on this case). On the eve of a hearing on the Defendants’ summary judgment motion, the Plaintiff filed a notice of voluntary dismissal. The Defendant asked the trial court to strike the notice of voluntary dismissal, arguing that it had attained rights in the case precluding voluntary dismissal and fraud on the court. The trial court did so, and the plaintiff appealed.

The problem, however, was that the order they were attempting to appeal was neither a final appealable order nor an order available for interlocutory appeal. And I elloquently told the court so.

The Second DCA knew I was right:

We briefly address this court’s jurisdiction to consider this appeal. Service Experts’ notice of appeal was filed pursuant to Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.130(a)(5). The Northside defendants have argued that this court does not have jurisdiction under rule 9.130(a)(5) because that rule applies to orders entered on motions for relief from judgment filed pursuant to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.540. They state that their motion to strike the notice of voluntary dismissal was not made pursuant to rule 1.540 because that rule applies to final judgments, decrees, orders, or proceedings, and the voluntary dismissal they sought to set aside was not a final judgment, decree, or order. We agree with their procedural assessment.

However, the Court dug deep and created a remedy for the Plaintiff by converting the appeal to a writ of prohibition, pursuant to Rule 9.040(c):

Based on the facts of this case, appellate jurisdiction does not neatly fall within the confines of rule 9.130(a)(5). Nevertheless, Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.040(c) provides that when a party seeks an improper remedy, “the cause shall be treated as if the proper remedy had been sought.” Here, a writ of prohibition is appropriate “to forestall an impending injury where no other appropriate and adequate legal remedy exists and only when damage is likely to follow.” City of Ocala v. Gard, 988 So.2d 1281, 1283 (Fla. 5th DCA 2008). It is “the appropriate remedy to prevent an inferior tribunal from acting in excess of jurisdiction” where there is no right to remedy the wrong at issue by direct appeal. Id. at 1283. Because we conclude that the trial court’s order was in excess of its jurisdiction, we have appellate jurisdiction to “forestall an impending injury”-forced litigation after the plaintiff’s notice of voluntary dismissal was filed. As there is no other adequate remedy, we convert this appeal to a writ of prohibition.

Now, the rules geek in me does, in fact, feel vindicated that I was right about the jurisdiction issue. But that’s not much comfort to the client, who had a favorable ruling overturned.

A request for clarification is pending on the appeal. The case is Service Experts, LLC v. Northside Air Conditioning & Elec. Service, Inc., No. 2D09-5416, ___ So.3d ____ (September 22, 2010) [.pdf].