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Courthouse News Service

Florida Considering Changes to Civil Court System

ALEX PICKETT - March 2, 2018

(CN) – Florida’s civil court system could undergo significant changes if state lawmakers pass a bill shifting tens of thousands of cases to the state’s county courts.

HB 7061 would give county courts jurisdiction over claims of $50,000 or less, while circuit civil courts would hear cases above that limit. Currently, county courts only deal with cases seeking less than $15,000.

Florida has not changed the $15,000 jurisdictional limit since 1992.

The measure, sponsors say, would ease the case load on circuit civil courts, as thousands of debt collection cases and contract disputes move to the lower court.

According to a report by the Office of State Courts Administrator, the change could shift more than 25,000 cases to county courts statewide in the first fiscal year. However, the report notes there is not enough data to make a clear prediction.

“We tried to give the legislature our best guess,” said Chief Judge Frederick Lauten of the Ninth Judicial Circuit in a phone interview. “It’s a little hard for us to know what these numbers are.”

Lauten expects county court judges’ workload to increase, but does not envision any problems absorbing the new cases in his circuit. He recognized the possibility of more cases coming back to the circuit courts through appeals.

“We don’t know yet if that would be a net gain or loss in workload,” he said.

Some critics contend those appeals would reverse any gains in efficiency and negatively impact the court system in other ways.

“As a byproduct of increasing the jurisdictional limit for county courts, a significant amount of appeals will now be required to be filed with Florida’s circuit courts instead of the state’s main appellate courts — the five DCAs,” wrote William Large, president of the Florida Civil Justice Institute, in a letter to lawmakers last week.

Large, who reiterated his opposition to the bill in a phone interview with Courthouse News, said circuit courts are not equipped to handle the increase in appeals to their jurisdictions.

For one, circuit court judges tend to have fewer resources, such as law clerks, than judges in Florida’s district courts of appeal.

Moreover, Large warns, the proposed law could worsen existing flaws in the circuit courts’ appeals process.

The appeals process in circuit courts varies widely. Larger counties convene a panel of three judges, but in some rural areas, appeals can be heard by just one judge. Last year, the Florida Bar petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to standardize the panels.

With such variables between the state’s 20 circuit courts, rulings can be inconsistent, sometimes differing between judges in the same circuit.

Large is not alone in his assessment. In November, Judge Thomas Logue wrote a dissenting opinion regarding an insurance dispute that reached the Third District Court of Appeals after moving through Miami-Dade county and circuit courts.

“It is a well-known, but little-discussed defect in our court system that litigants in the county courts often have their cases decided based upon conflicting circuit court appellate decisions,” Judge Logue wrote, adding cases are won and lost “based upon the predilections of the individual judges who heard the trial and appeal and not upon a coherent body of law that applies to all litigants.”

If passed, the changes in jurisdictional limits would take effect in July. Then, in 2020, the amount would increase with inflation every five years. The proposed law would not increase filing fees and provides for the hiring of five more county court judges and two more judges for circuit civil.

The Florida House is set to vote on the measure Friday. A similar bill in the state senate, SB 1384, stalled in committee until a lawmaker added it to an appropriations bill. That vote could happen next week.