The SCOF in April granted a motion by the Respondent to recall the mandate, withdrew the opinion of January 4, 2019, and concluded that "jurisdiction was improvidently granted." The case had come to the SCOF based upon the decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeal: Nationstar Mortgage LLC v. Glass, 219 So. 3d 896 (Fla. 4th DCA - 2 - 2017).
The Petitioner, Glass, had asserted that district court decision was in direct conflict with the decision of the First District Court of Appeal in Bank of New York v. Williams, 979 So. 2d 347 (Fla. 1st DCA 2008). Upon accepting that premise, the existence of conflict, the Supreme Court undertook review and issued the January decision. The January decision quashed the decision by the Fourth District Court.
As a side note, the "conflict" jurisdiction of the SCOF exists because any decision of a District Court of Appeal is "controlling" in the geographic area served by that Court. Outside of that geographic area, such a decision is "persuasive," meaning it is given some degree of deference, but is not controlling. Thus, it is possible that two District Courts may disagree about what the law says. The law might be different in two cases because of where in the state those cases occur. So, the SCOF has the authority to hear and resolve such conflicts and thus bring uniformity across the state.
The Glass case began when a lender filed suit to "foreclose a mortgage on real property." After multiple amendments to that suit, prompted by Glass' motions to dismiss, the trial court in 2015 dismissed Nationstar's suit with prejudice. Thereupon, Glass sought attorney's fees from Nationstar related to her defense of the lawsuit. Nationstar appealed the dismissal to the Fourth District.
In 2017, "after briefing" (that is after the parties had written their arguments and legal citations and submitted them to the court), Nationstar dismissed its appeal. Glass then filed a motion seeking appellate attorney fees. Glass asserted that she was the "prevailing party" on the appeal. The Fourth District denied that motion. Glass asked for rehearing en banc (heard by the whole court as opposed to a three-judge panel), which the Court granted. Thereafter, it "issued a nearly identical opinion on rehearing en banc." Therefore, Glass sought review of the Supreme Court.
The original Supreme Court analysis notes "mischaracterization of the procedural history of this case by the district court." The Supreme Court quoted the District Court opinion, in which there were conclusions regarding arguments raised by Glass in the trial court. There, Glass alleged that Nationstar lacked "standing," in other words the right to bring the suit. The SCOF concluded that the Fourth District had decided that entitlement to attorney fees was dependent upon "reciprocity provision of section 57.105(7)." Since Nationstar lacked standing, it was not entitled to enforce the contract under consideration, and thus the "reciprocity" was not present.
However, the SCOF noted that "Nationstar did not seek review of the attorney's fees order in the district court." The appeal was about the dismissal of the underlying lawsuit by the trial court. The SCOF concluded that this distinction was critical. It directed attention instead to the dismissal of the appeal, and the "prevailing party" statute. The SCOF also iterated three additional allegations Glass made in support of dismissal by the trial court, in addition to the standing issue.
The SCOF restated that "when a plaintiff voluntarily dismisses an action, the defendant is the prevailing party." Citing Thornber v. City of Ft. Walton Beach, 568 so. 2d 914 (Fla. 1990), and a prior decision by the Fourth District (omitted). The SCOF noted precedent supporting the award of prevailing party fees under statute and under a contract provision, even if the contract is rescinded or unenforceable.
Justice Polston dissented from the original SCOF decision, joined by Justices Canady and Lawson. The dissent concludes that there is no express and direct conflict between Glass and Williams. It explains that statute sets two requirements. The Fourth District addressed the "second requirement," whereas the purportedly conflicting analysis in Williams instead "only addressed the first requirement" of that statute.
The Glass case is pertinent for several reasons. First, the Florida First District Court has concluded that section 57.105 is not applicable to workers' compensation proceedings. See Lane v. Workforce Business Services, Inc., 151 So. 3d 537 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014). In reaching that conclusion, the Court noted that Chapter 440 does not incorporate that statute. Rather,
"The essentially self-contained workers' compensation law in chapter 440 already provides a host of specific sanctions and remedies which includes attorney's fees for frivolous claims and defenses under section 440.32, Florida Statutes (2011)."
That distinction may be worthy of consideration by parties that have perceptions of the validity of either claims or defenses in Florida workers' compensation proceedings.
Second, The SCOF ultimate decision states that its jurisdiction is dependent upon "express and direct conflict." That is a significant burden for any party to demonstrate, while seeking Supreme Court review. In another conflict case, a workers' compensation proceeding several years ago, the issue of conflict was similarly raised. In Sanders v. City of Orlando, 997 So. 2d 1089 (Fla. 2008), the underlying case involved both present claims and an effort to set-aside a prior settlement in another claim involving the same worker. The trial judge set-aside the settlement.
The employer/carrier, Orlando, contended that the 2001 amendments to Chapter 440 "divested the JCC of the authority to vacate or set-aside" a settlement. The Florida First District Court of Appeal agreed and reversed the trial judge. The SCOF accepted jurisdiction concluding that decision was "in express and direct conflicts with multiple decisions of all the district courts," (citing decisions of the Second District and Fourth District). The SCOF reversed the First District.
In Sanders, Justice Cantero dissented. He explained that the cases cited from the Second and Fourth District did "not interpret the particular subsection of the statute at issue here." He contended that therefore there was no "express and direct" conflict and therefore there was not jurisdiction. Some might argue that analysis in Sanders perhaps foreshadowed the decision in Glass. That is, a very focused and strict interpretation of conflict.
Glass is worthy of consideration as regards workers' compensation. Statutorily all appeals regarding decisions of Florida's Judges of Compensation Claims are vested in the First District Court. Section 440.271, Fla. Stat. Though the SCOF found conflict in Sanders, in two other Districts, it is perhaps less likely that the Court would so conclude today. The Glass analysis of jurisdiction may suggest that SCOF review of workers' compensation cases is less likely on "conflict" grounds.
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