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Not Just 'Small' Claims: County Courts Might Soon Handle Cases Up to $50,000

By: Samantha Joseph - February 23, 2018

 Under Florida law, county courts handle cases with up to $15,000 at stake, but that limit could more than triple under proposed legislation.

Proposed legislation making its way through the Florida House and Senate would increase the county court jurisdictional limit to $50,000, potentially clearing thousands of cases from circuit court dockets.

Under Florida law, county courts handle cases with up to $15,000 at stake, while circuit courts adjudicate controversies above that limit.

But proposed legislation - HB 7061 and its Senate companion SB 1384 - could more than triple the county court threshold, potentially freeing circuit courts from thousands of trials involving vehicle repossession, credit card debt collection and other civil litigation. The bills would also link the jurisdictional limit to inflation and the unadjusted consumer price index for all urban consumers, keeping the $50,000 threshold in place until June 30, 2020, but then increasing it every five years.

"As a general proposition, all of the chief judges ... are in favor of the jurisdictional change," Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter said. "What we're uncertain about ... is what are the ramifications?"

Broward satellite courthouses in Hollywood and Deerfield Beach, for instance, aren't equipped for large trials. Thousands of parking ticket cases already heading to these courthouses would mean new staffing considerations and a plan for small parking lots that can't accommodate an influx of new users, Tuter said. Plus, 12 of Broward's county court courtrooms are in satellite buildings, meaning administrators would have to navigate several logistical issues, including sending jurors to far-flung outposts for civil trials now centralized in circuit courtrooms.

 "We have a lot of unknown questions," Tuter said. "Some of them won't be answered until we see what lawyers are asking for and where they're filing."

 Across the state, administrators are grappling with the proposed legislation.

 "The courts recognize the need to look at the jurisdictional amount," Miami-Dade Chief Judge Bertila Soto said. "The change will make an impact on the courts, but at this juncture, it's still too early to determine what those impacts would be. As always, our goal will be to continue to provide timely and fair administration of justice for the public we serve."

The bills - by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg; Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach; and Rep. Daniel Perez, R-Miami - passed the Senate's Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice and the House's Judiciary and Justice Appropriations subcommittees. They aim to accelerate circuit court adjudication, and include provisions to add five county and two circuit judges.

But critics say the proposed law would have the opposite effect: clogging circuit court dockets as big-dollar cases jump to higher courts on appeal. While few litigants raise appeals to pursue relatively small sums now before county courts, critics say bigger controversies will likely result in more dogged litigation.

In other words: Cases cleared from circuit dockets will make their way back to their courts' appellate panels.

"At first blush it sounds like good news," said William W. Large, president of Florida Justice Reform Institute, a Tallahassee-based think tank working on tort reform. "Unfortunately, the bill doesn't contemplate or outline what to do with appellate issues." 

Large testified three times before legislators as part of the FJRI's advocacy against the proposed law. His arguments hinge on insufficient resources at the county-court level, less experienced judges, and inconsistent rulings as courts across counties fail to follow the doctrine of stare decisis and adhere to each other's prior rulings.

"Florida is best suited to have our appeals go to our district courts of appeal," Large said. "It's hard to give legal advice when your get different results from different panels. The beauty of appellate law is that it gives you the same result."