In re Guardianship of Morrison, — So.2d —-, 2007 WL 4180873 (Fla. 2d DCA Nov 28, 2007)

Inter-state forum shopping in contested guardianship proceedings is a growing problem [click here].  So knowing what to do in a case involving parallel guardianship proceedings in different states with concurrent jurisdiction is useful for Florida probate litigators.

He who hesitates is lost!

In the linked-to case a guardianship proceeding was first commenced in New Jersey by the ward’s girlfriend, then a parallel guardianship proceeding was commenced in Florida by his daughter.  Both courts had jurisdiction.  So the question became: which court should adjudicate the matter, and which should stay its proceeding?

Under Florida law the test is pretty simple: the court that first “exercises its jurisdiction” over the matter gets priority unless there are “special circumstances” justifying a denial of the stay.  So when in doubt, file first, ask questions later.  This approach is the exact opposite of how I generally do anything as a lawyer, but in this context the side who wins the race to a courthouse with jurisdiction definitely gains an advantage.

In this case the New Jersey action was filed first, that court thus first “exercised” its jurisdiction over the matter, and thus the Florida court should have stayed its proceeding. Here’s how the 2d DCA explained the basic rule in Florida, as enunciated by the Florida Supreme Court in Siegel v. Siegel, 575 So.2d 1267 (Fla.1991):

If courts in different states have concurrent jurisdiction over a matter, then the proper court is determined by either legislation or the principle of comity. Philip J. Padovano, Civil Practice § 1.7 (2007). In this case, there is no legislation governing the subject of concurrent jurisdiction over guardianship proceedings, so the principle of priority governs as a matter of comity.

In general, where courts within one sovereignty have concurrent jurisdiction, the court which first exercises its jurisdiction acquires exclusive jurisdiction to proceed with that case. This is called the “principle of priority.” Admittedly, this principle is not applicable between sovereign jurisdictions as a matter of duty. As a matter of comity, however, a court of one state may, in its discretion, stay a proceeding pending before it on the grounds that a case involving the same subject matter and parties is pending in the court of another state.

Siegel v. Siegel, 575 So.2d 1267, 1272 (Fla.1991) (quoting Bedingfield v. Bedingfield, 417 So.2d 1047, 1050 (Fla. 4th DCA 1982)). The purpose of applying the principle of priority as a matter of comity is to prevent “unnecessary and duplicitous lawsuits” that “would be oppressive to both parties.” Siegel, 575 So.2d at 1272 (quoting Bedingfield, 417 So.2d at 1050).

In a concurring opinion, Judge Altenbernd nailed the race-to-the-courthouse aspect of this rule (which is a bad thing), and offered an alternative test that focuses on domicile instead of timing. If you ever lose the courthouse race, this domicile argument may come in handy (especially if you frame it within the context of the “special circumstances” exception discussed below).  Here’s an excerpt from Judge Altenbernd’s concurrence:

I concur in this opinion, but write to explain that I would reverse this case even if the petition for guardianship in Florida had been filed first. The principle of priority can sometimes unreasonably reward the person who wins the race to a courthouse with jurisdiction.

*     *     *
In a state like Florida that has a large population of older people who are actually domiciled in other states, it would seem prudent to me to encourage trial courts to defer to the state of a ward’s domicile even when petitions for guardianship are first filed in Florida.

Exception to the Rule: “Special Circumstances Justifying Denial of the Stay”:

There is (of course) an exception to the general principal-of-priority rule.  Court’s may deny a motion to stay – even if another court first exercised jurisdiction – if they enter an order containing findings of “special circumstances” justifying a denial of the stay.  Here’s how the 2d DCA made this point:

The most common example of such special circumstances is undue delay by the court with priority. See Siegel, 575 So.2d at 1272; Parker v. Estate of Bealer, 890 So.2d 508, 512 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005); Norris, 573 So.2d at 1086. At least one court has found special circumstances in a dissolution action when primary residences, property, business interests, and most of the parties’ children were in Florida. See Maraj v. Maraj, 642 So.2d 1103, 1104 (Fla. 4th DCA 1994).

In this case, the Florida court did not make any findings of special circumstances to explain its decision not to apply the principle of priority as a matter of comity. Instead, the court found that the New Jersey judgment on jurisdiction has no impact on the Florida court’s jurisdiction over the matter. However, the parties do not dispute that the Florida and New Jersey courts have concurrent jurisdiction. Instead, the question is whether the Florida court abused its discretion in refusing to stay the Florida guardianship proceedings while the New Jersey guardianship proceedings went forward.

Although the Florida court had the discretion to decline to stay the Florida proceedings as a matter of comity, it abused its discretion in doing so absent a finding of special circumstances.