$8,000 not so small anymore.

FLORIDA LAW WEEKLY

VOLUME 44, NUMBER 46

CASES FROM THE WEEK OF NOVEMBER 15, 2019

COURT AMENDS SMALL CLAIMS RULES TO INCREASE THE COURT’S JURISDICTIONAL AMOUNT.

Amendments of Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, Florida Small Claims Rules, 44 Fla. L Weekly S 246 (Fla. November 14, 2019):

The Florida Supreme Court approved an Amendment to Florida Small Claims Rule 7.010, which increased the small claims jurisdictional limit from $5,000 to $8,000. The change becomes effective on January 1, 2020.

JUDGE WHO ORDERED SANCTIONS AGAINST LAW FIRM IN AN IN UNRELATED CASE SHOULD HAVE GRANTED MOTION FOR DISQUALIFICATION BECAUSE THE SANCTIONS ORDERED FOUND THAT THE LAW FIRM ENGAGED IN DECEIT AND LYING.

JJ FLB, LLC. v. CFLB Partnership, LLC, 44 Fla. L Weekly D2706 (Fla. 3rd DCA November 6, 2019):

In these consolidated cases, two petitioners were represented by the law firm, and in the remaining petition, the law firm was a party to the litigation, and the general counsel to the law firm was disclosed as a witness.

After a multi-day evidentiary hearing in another case, the trial judge had issued a detailed 51-page sanctions order, finding by clear and convincing evidence that this law firm had repeatedly made an unsubstantiated, false, and defamatory allegation both in sealed documents and in open court, thereby violating rules of professional conduct, misusing attorney-client privilege and participating in a scheme to bring fabricated criminal charges. The court imposed sanctions against both the individual attorney of record and the law firm in these cases.

Less than ten days later, the petitioners filed disqualification motions expressing well-founded fears that based upon the findings articulated in the sanctions order in the unrelated case, they could not receive a fair trial.

The question of disqualification focuses on those matters from which a litigant may reasonably question a judge’s impartiality, rather than on the judge’s perception of his or her ability to act fairly and impartially. Still, while the facts must be viewed from the perspective of the petitioners, adverse rulings alone are not sufficient to show bias.

However, in this case, in the midst of protracted litigation, petitioners received the sanctions order penned by the trial judge slated to serve as the arbiter in their disputes. The court had signed that order close in time with the hearings in the underlying cases. The findings were expansive in their scope and found the law firm engaged in “treacherous conduct,” lying, fabricating allegations, and acting deceitfully.

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CRIMINAL CASE ADDRESSED DAUBERT AND CAUSE CHALLENGES.

Hedvall v. State, 44 Fla. L Weekly D2696 (Fla.3rd DCA November 6, 2019):

In this murder trial, there was an issue raised by the defendant regarding the application of Daubert and an issue with the denial of defendant’s cause challenges.

On the Daubert issue, the trial judge had allowed a detective to testify regarding blood pattern analysis. The defendant asserted the expert was not qualified under §90.702.

According to the three United States Supreme Court decisions on the issue Daubert, Joiner, and Kumho, the court explained that in a Daubert analysis, the judge’s role is that of the evidentiary “gatekeeper,” meaning he or she is the person who determines whether the expert’s testimony meets the Daubert test.

Trial courts have broad discretion in determining how to perform their gatekeeper functions when addressing the admissibility of expert opinion testimony, and after hearing the detective’s testimony regarding his background and experience, the trial court here ruled the expert was qualified to offer opinions. Without any demonstration of abuse of discretion, the court affirmed that ruling.

As to the cause challenges, the court advised that trial judges have a unique vantage point from which to evaluate a potential jurors’ bias and to make observations of the jurors' voir dire responses, which cannot be discerned by the court’s review of a cold appellate record.

Therefore, the trial judge denied the defendant’s cause challenges, forcing the defendant to use peremptory challenges. The court reminded us that to prove the trial judge committed reversible error, the defendant must show that all peremptories had been exhausted and that an objectionable juror sat on the jury.

In this case, after the defendant’s peremptory challenges had been exhausted, he only identified two jurors on the jury whom he “would have struck” if granted additional challenges. Once the jury selection was complete, the defendant restated his objections on the record, stating he did not accept the panel. While he renewed his cause challenges, that was not enough as set forth above.

To prevail on appeal, defendants must show that they were wrongfully forced to exhaust peremptory challenges, by identifying a specific juror whom would have been stricken, showing that juror actually sat on the jury and showing that the defendant either challenged the juror for cause, or attempted to challenge the juror peremptorily after the cause peremptory challenges were exhausted. Because that did not occur here, the court ruled the issue was not preserved.