3d DCA: When does the statute of limitations clock start ticking on a breach of trust lawsuit against a trustee?
Taplin v. Taplin, --- So.3d ----, 2012 WL 1605253 (Fla. 3d DCA May 09, 2012)
Under F.S. 95.031, the statute of limitations period for most lawsuits starts running as of the date "when the last element constituting the cause of action occurs." Not so for breach of trust actions. Under F.S. 736.1008, the clock usually starts ticking as of the date the beneficiary knew or should have known of the breach of trust. This distinction is huge, and can be the difference between life or death for your case, as it was in the linked-to case above.
Under F.S. 736.1008, the statute of limitations period for a breach of trust action is usually 4 years (although it can range from as little as 6 months [which I wrote about here] to as long as 40 years). F.S. 736.1008 doesn't explicitly say you have 4 years to sue (that would be too easy), instead it gets you to a 4-year limitations period by cross referencing to "the applicable limitations period provided in chapter 95." Because a breach of trust is a form of intentional tort, the applicable limitations period is found in F.S. 95.11(3)(o), which is 4 years.
But when does the 4-year clock start ticking? In the linked-to case above the trustees argued the clock starts ticking when the breach occurs. In other words, if the breach occurred more than 4 years prior to when the lawsuit was filed, game over, case dismissed. This argument worked with the trial judge. The 3d DCA didn't buy it.
As we understand the trustees' argument, the trustees contend section 95.11(3)(o) limits the reach back of the second amended complaint in this case to four years from the date it was filed. This contention also is flawed.
Why did the trustees' argument fail on appeal? Because in breach of trust cases you only get to F.S. 95.11(3)(o) after you've complied with F.S. 736.1008, which says the clock starts ticking on this kind of case only after the beneficiaries get fair notice of the breach of trust. At the time the trust was created, the then applicable trust limitations statute was F.S. 737.307. As the 3d DCA noted, "for purposes of the issues in this [case], there is no practical difference in the application of [F.S. 737.307 and F.S. 736.1008]." Under F.S. 737.307, you only get to F.S. 95.11(3)(o) after the beneficiary is given fair notice in the form of a trust accounting and opportunity to examine the trust's records. If that didn't happen, F.S. 95.11(3)(o) doesn't apply.
As previously noted, the second sentence of section 737.307 provides for a limited application of Chapter 95 to actions against a trustee, namely those actions where (1) “[the] trustee ... has issued a final account or statement [to] the beneficiary,” and (2) “has informed the beneficiary of the location and availability of records for his examination.” See § 737.307, Fla. Stat. (1975). Section 95.02 necessarily had to yield to this incursion by the Legislature into the law of equity. Absent fulfillment by a trustee of the two conditions set forth in the second sentence of section 737.307 of the Florida Statutes, the common law remains in full force and effect with respect to actions brought by a beneficiary against a trustee of a trust.
What happens if F.S. 95.11(3)(o) doesn't apply?
It might surprise some to learn that under Florida common law breach of trust cases are not subject to any statute of limitations defenses (the best you could do is assert an equitable laches defense). So if F.S. 95.11(3)(o) isn't triggered in your case, defaulting to common law means the trustee can't hide behind a statute of limitations defense. That's what the 3d DCA was alluding to in the last sentence quoted above . .
Absent fulfillment by a trustee of the two conditions set forth in the second sentence of section 737.307 of the Florida Statutes, the common law remains in full force and effect with respect to actions brought by a beneficiary against a trustee of a trust.
. . . and here's how the 3d DCA summarized the common-law on this point earlier in its opinion.
It has long been recognized at common law that a statute of limitations is inapplicable to shield trustees from their responsibilities to their beneficiaries. Nayee v. Nayee, 705 So.2d 961, 963 (Fla. 5th DCA 1998). As the Florida Supreme Court stated before the turn of the last century:
[I]n cases of continuing trusts that are strictly such, and recognized and enforced in courts of equity only, so long as the relation of trustee and cestui que trust continues to exist, no length of time will bar the cestui que trust of his rights in the subject of the trust as against the trustee [subject to certain exceptions not relevant here].
Anderson v. Northrop, 30 Fla. 612, 12 So. 318, 324 (Fla.1892); see also Sewell v. Sewell Props., 30 So.2d 361, 362–63 (Fla.1947) (“Where the trustee by fraud or deception, or even by keeping quiet when he should speak and account to his cestui, causes the cestui to be ignorant of the rights of the cestui and of the duties of the trustee, laches will not be imputed to the cestui until discovery of the true condition.”). In fact, when the Legislature created chapter 95 in 1872, a statute-denominated “limitations on actions,” the Legislature expressly precluded the applicability of the statute to cases against a trustee of an express trust. See § 95.02, Fla. Stat. (1872) (“This chapter shall not apply to any action ... with respect to any moneys or property held or collected by any officer or trustee or his sureties .”).