“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].

Dismissal Sanction Too Extreme

Is a single violation of the Rules of Appellate Procedure severe enough to justify dismissal of the appeal as a sanction?

The Second DCA answered the question in the negative in Altman v. State, __ So.3d ___, No. 2D09-3871 (Aug. 6, 2010)[.pdf]. The opinion makes clear that the record is not exactly a model of clarity, due in large part to the fact that the appellant filed an inadequate Appendix. I’ve said it before: a proper Appendix is critical to effective appellate review.

Still, the Court still went out of its way to review, on certiorari, a lower courts’ dismissal of the appeal for failure file a timely brief. The case appears to be a criminal appeal where the circuit court acted in an appellate capacity, and the DCA’s patience may have been bolstered somewhat by the trial court conflating the rules for when a criminal appeal is due with the rules for when a civil appeal is due.

In any event, the circuit court sitting in its appellate capacity thought the brief was late, and relying on Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.410 issued an order to show cause why the appeal shouldn’t be dismissed for failure to file a timely brief. The Appellant indirectly responded by moving for an enlargement of time to file a brief, explaining that the record was not yet completely transcribed. The Appellant was granted that enlargement, which gave her until July 23rd to file her initial brief.

Inexplicably, the court dismissed her appeal sua sponte on July 21st, vacating the enlargement of time that had been entered as “improvidently granted.” On review to the Second DCA, the Court held that this action failed to comply with procedural due process and the notice requirements of Rule 9.410. The Court concluded that “Dismissal is an extreme sanction and, as such, it is reserved for the most flagrant violations of the appellate rules. Without more, however, the failure to file a brief on time is not a serious enough violation to warrant dismissal of an appeal.” (emphasis in original).