In re Estate of Cummins, — So.2d —-, 2008 WL 373414 (Fla. 3d DCA Feb 13, 2008)

office-secretary Florida Probate Rule 5.401(d) requires a party objecting to a personal representative’s petition for discharge or final accounting to serve notice of hearing on the objections within 90 days of the date the objection is filed.  In the linked-to case counsel for the objecting party blew this deadline due to secretarial oversight.

My personal philosophy is to never excuse a mistake by blaming my secretary for a foul up; if something goes wrong I take the hit.  However, if it’s my client that’s being prejudiced by something a member of my staff messed up, that’s a different story.

The issue in the linked-to case was whether secretarial oversight = excusable neglect, thus allowing the objecting party to have a hearing on its objections to the PR’s final accounting.  The probate judge said NO, and was reversed when the 3d DCA said YES.

Florida Probate Rule 5.402(b) allows a probate judge to extend a deadline date in certain circumstances based on “excusable neglect.” Florida Probate Rule 5.402(b) provides as follows:

(b) Enlargement. When an act is required or allowed to be done at or within a specified time by these rules, by order of court, or by notice given thereunder, for cause shown the court at any time in its discretion . . .

(2) on motion made and notice after the expiration of the specified period may permit the act to be done when failure to act was the result of excusable neglect. The court under this rule may not extend the time for serving a motion for rehearing or to enlarge any period of time governed by the Florida Rules of Appellate Procedure.

For future reference, I’ve excerpted below the operative facts and law as summarized by the 3d DCA in support of its ruling that secretarial oversight does = excusable neglect.

The Facts:

At the hearing on the abandonment of Objections, Cummins’ counsel detailed the reasons for failing to comply with the ninety-day time period for filing the notice of hearing under Florida Probate Rule 5 .401(d). Counsel explained that the legal assistant responsible for procuring the hearing date was informed by the court that the presiding judge would not have a sufficient amount of time available for the hearing until September, 2007. In order to obtain an earlier hearing date, Cummins’ counsel decided to utilize the services of a special master. The legal assistant attempted to schedule a hearing with the special master but was informed that the attorney for the personal representative was out of the office and that only the attorney himself could place a hearing on his calendar. Subsequently, the legal assistant instructed Cummins’ counsel that she would follow-up on scheduling a hearing. However, without notice, the legal assistant ceased reporting for work in late June, 2007. On July 7, 2007, the individuals who were reassigned the legal assistant’s tasks realized that the ninety-day period for sending notice had expired. Cummins’ counsel attempted to obtain a hearing date, but because a full day was requested, the scheduling clerk could not immediately provide one. On July 17, 2007, a hearing date was set for August 29, 2007, at which time a notice of hearing was sent to the attorney for the personal representative. Additionally, throughout the course of the ninety days, Cummins’ counsel stated that the attorney for the personal representative suggested that a “global settlement” would be forthcoming, thus rendering a hearing on the Objections unnecessary.

The Law: Secretarial Oversight = Excusable Neglect

The 3d DCA based its ruling reversing the probate judge on cases construing Civil Procedure Rule 1.090(d), which also contains an “excusable neglect” out for deadline extensions and is otherwise “almost identical” to the Probate Rule 5.042(b).  Here’s how the 3d DCA framed its analysis:

The ninety-day time limit for filing a notice of hearing on the Objections is not jurisdictional. The standard of review applied to a trial court’s analysis of excusable neglect is abuse of discretion. Boudot v. Boudot, 925 So.2d 409, 415 n. 2 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006) (citing Smith v. Smith, 902 So.2d 859, 861 (Fla. 1st DCA 2005)); State Dep’t of Transp. v. Southtrust Bank, 886 So.2d 393, 396 (Fla. 1st DCA 2004) (citing Lyn v. Lyn, 884 So.2d 181, 185 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004)). A trial court is afforded discretion to consider objections for which a notice of hearing was not served within ninety days of the filing of said objections.

In Southtrust Bank, the trial court’s finding of excusable neglect pursuant to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.090(b) was affirmed because “the secretary’s oversight is precisely the type of error found to constitute excusable neglect.” Southtrust Bank, 886 So.2d at 396.