Yawt v. Carlisle, — So.3d —-, 2010 WL 1879697 (Fla. 4th DCA May 12, 2010)

In probate proceedings you don’t need to file a new complaint every time you want your probate judge to rule on some new issue. Why? Because probate is an in rem proceeding where the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure generally don’t apply. That’s NOT how it’s supposed to work in trust litigation. Subject to a few clearly-defined exceptions, F.S. 736.0201 says “proceedings concerning trusts shall be commenced by filing a complaint and shall be governed by the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure.”

Probate Custom vs. Trust Litigation

Here’s the problem: most trust litigation takes place before probate judges, and probate judges are – quite naturally – accustomed to playing by the rules that apply to probate proceedings, NOT the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure applicable to trust litigation. This clash between probate-court custom and the procedure governing trust litigation is at the heart of what went wrong in the linked-to case above.

In the linked-to case above the probate judge entered a final judgment approving the sale of trust property. After this final judgment was entered, the purchaser received the results of its environmental inspection and declined to close under the approved agreement. The trustee and potential purchaser negotiated and entered into a new contract, which significantly reduced the purchase price and extended the closing date. The trustee then sought court approval of the new agreement by filing an unsworn “Petition for Approval of Amended Contract.”

This approach could work in a probate proceeding, but NOT in trust litigation. Here’s how counsel for the objecting beneficiaries, Stephen Zimmerman, argued this point:

MR. ZIMMERMAN: … The current proceeding that’s before the Court right now was initiated by a motion in a case that’s already closed and then by only a couple of days notice without even a chance to respond. We’re not even having an evidentiary hearing, we’re just having attorneys argue about this, so it’s entirely inappropriate for the Court to dispose of this matter in a summary way like this without an evidentiary hearing, without a new case being filed, without a pleading.

THE COURT: What would be the purpose of an evidentiary hearing, what are we going to establish?

MR. ZIMMERMAN: Establish whether this is a fair price for this property. I mean, the Court is just relying upon attorneys coming in here and talking. We think this is not a fair price for this property….

New claim = New pleadings

Mr. Zimmerman was right, of course. No pleadings, no discovery, no evidence: that’s not the way to try a case. Unfortunately the probate judge didn’t see it his way and ruled against him. Wrong answer says the 4th DCA. Here’s why:

Appellants rely upon the provisions in Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.110(h) for their argument that appellees needed to file subsequent or supplemental pleadings for the relief they sought. This rule provides as follows:

When the nature of an action permits pleadings subsequent to final judgment and the jurisdiction of the court over the parties has not terminated, the initial pleading subsequent to final judgment shall be designated a supplemental complaint or petition. The action shall then proceed in the same manner and time as though the supplemental complaint or petition were the initial pleading in the action, including the issuance of any needed process. This subdivision shall not apply to proceedings that may be initiated by motion under these rules.

Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.110(h).

The Committee Note to this rule states, in pertinent part:

Subdivision (h) is added to cover a situation usually arising in divorce judgment modifications, supplementary declaratory relief actions, or trust supervision…. The last sentence exempts post judgment motions under rules 1.480(c), 1.530, and 1.540, and similar proceedings from its purview.

Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.110(h), Committee Note, 1971 Amendment.

Appellants argue that appellees failed to comply with this statute and that the trial court erred in granting relief based on their mere filing of a petition. They sufficiently preserved this issue for appeal, as they similarly argued below that the case was not procedurally ripe because appellees did not file a new pleading or afford them an opportunity for discovery and an evidentiary hearing.

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Because appellees have sought different relief than that originally pled, they were required to re-serve appellants in the same manner as they did originally and give them a new opportunity to respond

An “insider’s” view:

For an insider’s view of this case, you’ll want to read this interview of one of the attorneys on the winning side of the case.