Hirchert v. Hirchert Family Trust, — So.2d —-, 2008 WL 2695897 (Fla. 5th DCA Jul 11, 2008)

California constructive-trust judgment:

This case started in California where, after a two-day bench trial, the trial court found that a California trustee had breached his fiduciary duties by wrongfully withdrawing trust funds, which were then used to buy a house for himself and his wife in California. After the trustee died, his widow sold their California home, moved to Florida, and bought a Florida home with the sales proceeds of the California residence. The California court entered a judgment imposing a constructive trust on the widow’s Florida home.

The first issue on appeal was whether the California court had jurisdictional authority to enter a judgment imposing a constructive trust on Florida real property. The trial court said yes, based on the following reasoning, which was adopted verbatim by the 5th DCA:

The trial court analyzed the jurisdictional issue as follows:

The Superior Court of the State of California for the County of San Diego, which entered the judgment in question in this matter, entered said judgment after a trial on the merits. Counsel for Defendant, JOHNEE ANN ALLE HIRCHERT actively participated in the trial. The California court, while not having in rem jurisdiction over the property that was situated in Florida did have in personam jurisdiction over the Defendant, JOHNEE ANN ALLE HIRCHERT.

A court of one state does not have the power to directly affect title to land physically located in another state. However, “[a] court of equity, having authority to act upon the person, may indirectly act upon real estate in another state, through the instrumentality of this authority over the person.” Fall v. Eastin (1909) 215 U.S. 1 at 8, 30 S.Ct. 3, 54 L.Ed. 65 (Emphasis supplied) [sic]. “The court’s decree does not operate directly upon the property or affect its title, but is made effectual through coercion of the defendant.” Groza-Vance v. Vance, 834 NE.2d 15 (Ohio App.2005) citing Fall at 10, 11 supra. See also MDO Development corporation v. Kelly, 735 F.Supp 591 (S.D.N.Y.1990)….

Counsel for the Defendant has raised the “local action rule.” Under such rule, “… court may not exercise in rem jurisdiction over property located outside its geographical territory.” Bauman v. Rayburn, 878 So.2d 1273 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004) (Emphasis in the original] [sic]. However, as long as in personam jurisdiction exists, relief may be granted even if it might incidentally affect real property. Bauman at 1274. In that the California court in this matter had in personam jurisdiction, the local action rule would not apply for the relief sought and subsequently obtained in this matter. See also Gardiner v. Gardiner, 705 So.2d 1018 (Fla. 5th DCA 1998).

While “… jurisdictional authority exists over the property only in the circuit where the land is situated,” this rule does not apply where a party, “… [seeks] equitable relief alleging, inter alia, resulting and constructive trust claims….” Ruth v. Department of Legal Affairs, 684 So.2d 181, 186 (Fla.1996). “The court’s in personam jurisdiction alone provides the court with authority to determine the equitable rights of the parties.” Id. See also General Electric Capital Corporation v. Advance Petroleum, Inc., d/b/a World Fuel Services of Florida and World Fuel Services, 660 So.2d 1139 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995) [In personam jurisdiction comports with the mandates of the Federal and Florida Due Process Clause.]

(Emphasis in original). We agree with the trial judge’s analysis.

Was Florida’s homestead creditor protection pierced? Probably NOT

As I’ve written before, under Florida law the circumstances permitting the imposition of an equitable lien on homestead property are extremely narrow [click here, here]. Apparently hoping to avoid getting sucked into the twilight zone that is Florida homestead jurisprudence, the trial court attempted to punt on this issue as follows:

The trial court went on to note:

Defendant has also raised the issue of her homestead status of the Florida property. Here, the property is not being conveyed or the title changed or transferred. No change in legal ownership has been ordered. A constructive trust has been established by the California court and the legal document so establishing the constructive trust is being filed in the Florida courts. Homestead is not a matter before the Court at this point.[FN 1]

[FN 1]. It may be that at a later point when, and if, there is an attempt to convey the property an issue may arise as to the validity of the Homestead status based, in part, on the source of the funds used to purchase the property. LaBelle v. LeBelle, [sic] 624 So.2d 741 (Fla. 5th DCA 1993) [.] That issue is one for another day and another court.

Nice try, but no cigar. The 5th DCA remanded the case back to the trial court to decide the homestead issue:

We believe that the homestead issue raised in Ann’s declaratory judgment count was properly before the court. The domesticated California judgment is creating homestead issues which the trial judge needs to resolve. We therefore remand for a judicial determination of homestead status and the legal effect, if any, of the California judgment on Ann’s property.