Robinson v. Weiland, 936 So.2d 777 (Fla. 5th DCA Sep 01, 2006)

In the linked-to case two annuities were at issue.  At the center of the dispute were two change-of-beneficiary forms allegedly signed by the decedent right before he died.  Relying on these change-of-beneficiary forms, the decedent’s girlfriend claimed a 60% interest in the annuities (surviving son got the other 40%).  Decedent’s sister claimed these change-of-beneficiary forms were invalid because they either weren’t signed by the decedent or were the product of undue influence.

The "Smoking Gun" Witness

After trial but before judgment was entered, counsel for decedent’s sister hit the jack pot when he managed to track down girlfriend’s former roommate who signed an affidavit completely undermining girlfriend’s trial testimony.  Roommate’s affidavit ended with this bombshell:

After the forms were at the house for a number of weeks, I personally was present when she completed the annuity beneficiary change forms. She told me she was including herself as a 40% beneficiary because she did not want to appear to be too greedy…. The forms were definitely not completed in the presence of John S. Cetrano [the decedent] and were not placed in their envelopes for mailing by John S. Cetrano; Michael Weiland filled them out at 1711 Joshua Drive, NE, Palm Bay, Florida and mailed them many weeks after she first had possession of the forms.

But what if the trial court says "who cares"?

Assume you’ve found the smoking gun witness, and that the only reason you didn’t have this witness at trail was because an opposing party (girlfriend) defrauded you and the court during the discovery phase of the case.  No matter how un-enthusiastic the trial court may be when you seek to have this new evidence admitted, once you allege "fraud", the trial court MUST conduct an evidentiary hearing to address your claims, and failure to do so is reversable error. 

In this case counsel for sister filed motions under Civ. Pro. Rules 1.530 and 1.540(b)(3) trying to get a new trial or to set aside the judgment.  The trial judge summarily denied both motions and was reversed on appeal.  Here’s how the 5th DCA summarized its rationale:

The courts consistently agree that the trial court has discretion to grant a motion to reopen a case for presentation of additional evidence after the parties have rested and even after granting a motion for directed verdict for a party. .  .  .  Factors the trial court should consider in determining whether to reopen the case to allow presentation of additional evidence include whether the opposing party will be unfairly prejudiced and whether it will serve the best interests of justice.

Because the trial court summarily denied Robinson’s motion, we are unable to determine why the trial court made that decision or what factors, if any, the trial court considered. Moreover, given the allegations of fraud made by Robinson to support her motion, we think an evidentiary hearing was essential for the trial court to properly determine whether to grant the request to present the testimony of Adams.

After the final judgment was entered, Robinson filed her Motion for Rehearing, New Trial, or Evidentiary Hearing, pursuant to rule 1.530, Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, once again alleging fraud as a basis for relief. Cetrano and Weiland argue that Robinson failed to demonstrate the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motion, primarily arguing cases discussing motions for relief from judgment made pursuant to rule 1.540, Florida Rules of Civil Procedure. This court and others have held that if a party files a motion pursuant to rule 1.540(b)(3), pleads fraud or misrepresentation with particularity, and shows how that fraud or misrepresentation affected the judgment, the trial court is required to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the motion should be granted.  .  .  .  Moreover, the courts have held that the hearing requirement applies when fraud is asserted as a grounds for relief under either rule 1.530 or 1.540, Florida Rules of Civil Procedure.  .  .  .  The motion filed by Robinson sufficiently alleges fraud and demonstrates how it affected the judgment, thereby satisfying the requirement for an evidentiary hearing under either rule 1.530 or 1.540. Therefore, we reject the arguments advanced by Cetrano and Weiland.

We conclude that Robinson was entitled to an evidentiary hearing based on the motion she filed prior to entry of final judgment and the motion she filed thereafter. We, therefore, reverse the order summarily denying Robinson’s Motion to Reopen Trial For Newly Discovered Evidence and her Motion for Rehearing, New Trial, or Evidentiary Hearing and remand for an evidentiary hearing. Should the trial court determine that fraud occurred as Robinson alleged, we believe that a new trial would be warranted.

Key word: EVIDENCE

Your client doesn’t have a right to a favorable ruling, but he or she is entitled to a fair day in court.  Which means that if the other side cheats, lies or otherwise defrauds you and the court to keep you from finding your smoking gun witness, you have a right to an evidentiary hearing to establish this fraud and a new trial if evidence of fraud is in fact established.

  • Phil

    Very interesting. Where does this case stand now? Did the sister prevail in the retrial? Was the Weiland woman brought up criminal charges?

  • Phil – I only report on appellate decisions, I don’t track these cases once they go back to the trial judge. I suppose if you wanted to, you could attempt to contact the attorneys directly involved in the case. Regards. Juan.

  • Bob W.

    Even after remand the successor judge did not want to hear what the “smoking gun” witness had to say. No retrial date set yet, but the final round should happen in 2009.

  • Bob – Good luck to you. Juan