Barrett v. Barrett, — So.2d —-, 2008 WL 239032 (Fla. 4th DCA Jan 30, 2008)

Pro se (self-represented) litigants are not sensitive to the sanctions normally applied to counsel for bringing frivolous actions, and indigent litigants are not sensitive to fee-shifting or fines.  Little wonder then that an out of control pro se litigant can be especially difficult for both courts and opposing parties to contend with. I’ve written before about the "inherent power" Florida courts have to manage a vexatious pro se litigants [click here].

In the linked-to case the trustee of a family trust admitted that he had taken "several hundred thousand dollars" from the trust in the early 80’s; when confronted by his brothers, he promised not to do it again and to pay the money back.  Fast forward to 2005, wayward trustee is again "experiencing financial difficulties" and again tries to dip into trust funds.  This time his brothers sued to have him formally removed as trustee.

Although he was represented by counsel for the appeal, it’s unclear whether wayward trustee ("Marc"), was pro se for the underlying trial.  To me, it looks like he was pro se The issue on appeal was whether the trial court erred when it denied his last-minute attempt to amend his answer and claim a new affirmative defense.  The trial court said no, and the 4th DCA upheld that decision as follows:

In 2005, when Marc was again experiencing financial difficulties, he attempted to interfere with the management of the trust, and his brother’s filed this lawsuit seeking to have him removed as co-trustee and a declaratory judgment ordering that any funds improperly taken from the trust by Marc would be deemed advancements, to be recouped as an offset against future disbursements to Marc from the trust.

The first issue Marc raises, and the only one we address, is the denial of his motion to amend his answer to raise the defense that any money he owed the trust had been discharged in bankruptcy. The complaint was filed in October, 2005, and seventeen days before the trial in July, 2006, Marc filed a motion for leave to amend with his proposed amendment attached. The proposed amendment alleged that Marc had gone through a bankruptcy in 1985 in Colorado and that the indebtedness to the trust was based on promissory notes he had executed in the early 1980’s before the bankruptcy.

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Significantly, Marc did not attach any documents to support his statements about the bankruptcy. The court entered an order denying the motion to amend without prejudice.

The non-jury trial did not begin as scheduled in July, 2006, but did take place at the end of September, 2006. At the beginning of the trial, Marc asked the court to continue the trial for a week or two stating that the bankruptcy court had reopened his bankruptcy case. The court refused to delay the trial but agreed to “incorporate whatever the bankruptcy court says” into the final judgment. No orders or any other documents from the bankruptcy court were filed.

Amendments to pleadings under rule 1.190 should be liberally granted when justice requires, but the closer a case is to trial when amendment is requested, the less likely a denial of amendment will be an abuse of discretion. Zikofsky v. Robby Vapor Sys., Inc., 846 So.2d 684 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003).

If Marc, who alleged that he had just reviewed the court file of his bankruptcy, had attached documents supporting his proposed affirmative defense that these claims were discharged, we have no doubt that the trial court would have allowed him to amend. Notably, the court denied the motion without prejudice, and the trial was postponed for several months, yet Marc made no effort to support his claim by attaching documents. Under these circumstances the court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion.

Lesson learned?

Motions to amend pleadings under Rule 1.190 of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure are almost always granted.  I have never objected to such motion.  This case is a good example of when "NO" might be the right answer to a motion to amend.  If a litigant appears to NOT be acting in good faith, the trial court should be willing to call him or her on it; and opposing counsel shouldn’t feel constrained from asking a trial court to reign in this type of behavior . . . which in my opinion is most often seen in cases involving pro se litigants.