Vazza v. Estate of Vazza, — So.3d —-, 2014 WL 4082864 (Fla. 4th DCA August 20, 2014)

“[R]egardless of whether the creditors gave approval or not, there is a higher power that [personal representatives are] accountable to and, short of God, that’s me.”
On average Broward County’s probate judges each took on 2,848 new cases in FY 2012-13 (see here). The unavoidable consequence of that kind of case load is what’s been referred to as the “cold judge” factor; a term coined in a 2009 ABA Litigation magazine piece entitled Persuading a Cold Judge.

Probate courts are especially prone to cold judging. Not because our probate judges don’t want to do the right thing (I believe most do), but because Florida’s state court system is so starved for resources they’re tempted to move cases through the system as quickly as possible. One way to do that is not requiring evidentiary hearings before ruling on temporary injunctions or “freeze” orders. Most of the time these no-evidence freeze orders don’t get appealed, but when they do, our appellate courts will step in from time to time and reverse them (see here, here). That’s what happened in this case.

Case Study:

The 4th DCA’s linked-to opinion above provides close to zero factual context for its ruling. Fortunately the case was reported on in the DBR in a piece by reporter Noreen Marcus entitled 4th DCA — Acting Somewhere Between God And Judge — Reverses Ruling Made Without Evidentiary Hearing. According to the DBR report, the decedent in this case is Richard R. Vazza, a wealthy real-estate developer who personally guaranteed loans worth $140 million. After his death Mr. Vazza’s creditors accused two of his sons of improperly siphoning funds out of the probate estate. They sought an order from the probate judge compelling the decedent’s sons, who were also serving as personal representatives, to return over $800 thousand in contested fees. The sons cried foul, claiming they’d acted with creditor approval. This argument didn’t get very far with the judge. As reported by the DBR:

Broward Circuit Judge Mark Speiser seemed to side with the creditors when he said the court registry would retain $855,253 in disputed salaries and fees to the Vazzas. He issued his Dec. 18, 2013, ruling without first holding an evidentiary hearing. According to a transcript quoted by the sons’ lawyers, Speiser stated, “regardless of whether the creditors gave approval or not, there is a higher power that they’re accountable to and, short of God, that’s me.”

Probate judges will often go out of their way to tell the lawyers involved in this kind of hearing that the ruling is temporary in nature and in no way reflects how he or she is going to ultimately rule on the merits of the case, which is apparently what happened in this instance. As reported by the DBR:

When he required the Vazzas to turn over the $855,253 to the court registry, Speiser explained: “But, again, I’m probably being redundant and repetitious, but I want to do so to overemphasize, I am not ruling today that they’re not necessarily entitled to any or all of that money. They may very well be entitled to all of it, but the proper process and procedure is that that has to get prior court approval.”

I have no doubt the judge’s comments were sincerely made. However, in the real life push and pull of contested probate proceedings this kind of ruling is inevitably viewed as a big win for the prevailing party. Why? Because it’s perceived as a strong indication of how your judge is “leaning” in terms of a final ruling, which isn’t a problem if the judge’s “leanings” are based on actual evidence. What is a problem is when the court skips the evidence step and rules on nothing other than uncorroborated argument of counsel, which is apparently what happened here. The DBR quotes the Vazzas’ lawyer, Gerald Richman of Richman Greer in West Palm Beach, as follows:

Richman characterizes what Speiser did as granting a mandatory injunction or prejudgment writ of attachment, both of which require a lot of record support.  “You don’t go ahead and say put this back when there’s no evidence that it wasn’t justified,” he said. “The important thing is that there’s a reason why you have to have an evidentiary hearing rather than just assuming that what was done is wrong.”

According to the 4th DCA he’s right: no evidence = reversal:

Richard W. Vazza and Stephen F. Vazza, former personal representatives of their father’s estate, appeal the trial court’s December 8, 2013 “Order on [Successor] Personal Representative’s Motion to Void and Set Aside Transactions Involving Conflicts of Interest.” The order required the Vazzas to return and reimburse the estate for allegedly improperly distributed funds.

Despite the disputed allegations regarding whether the Vazzas acted properly under Florida law and within their statutory power, the trial court entered its order requiring return of specific funds without holding an evidentiary hearing. Accordingly, we reverse and remand the case back to the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing. See In re Estate of Winston, 610 So.2d 1323, 1325 (Fla. 4th DCA 1992) (citing § 733.6175, Fla. Stat. (1991)) (“[T]he Florida probate court has exclusive jurisdiction and is obligated to review estate fees upon the petition of a proper party.”).

Lesson learned?

The problem here isn’t a particular judge who doesn’t understand the right way to go about entering a freeze order, in my opinion it’s systemic: we ask our state court judges to do too much with too little. So what’s to be done? That depends on when you’re hired. Ideally, you’re brought in at the planning stage before the client passes away, which allows you to anticipate — and plan accordingly for — the structural limitations inherent to an overworked and underfunded state court system. As I’ve previously written here, one important aspect of that kind of planning should be “privatizing” the dispute resolution process to the maximum extent possible by including mandatory arbitration clauses in all our wills and trusts.

Once the client passes away, your options for opting out of the public court system are limited. What to do then? Anticipate — and plan accordingly for — the “cold judge” factor. And how do you do that? Follow the advice provided in Persuading a Cold Judge:

Begin at the beginning. In every court appearance, there are six basic queries to answer for a judge: [1] Who are you? [2] Who is with you, and whom are you representing? [3] What is the controversy, in one sentence? [4] Why are you here today? [5] What outcome or relief do you want? [6] Why should you get it? This last query is most often forgotten. Indeed, these six essential queries are a good beginning even when you are dealing with a warm judge. Consider putting them on a PowerPoint slide, a handout in the form of an “executive summary,” or a demonstrative exhibit to project through Elmo or other presentation technology.

A judge in a suburban district told me that the one thing I could do to assist his judging was to begin succinctly by telling him what was before the court, remind him of the nature of the case, and tell him what action I wanted the court to take and why I thought I had the right to that action. Once I did this for him, he would be ready to listen to my argument. This particular judge told me that he has so many cases that he can’t read the motions before the hearing, and if he has read them, it was so long ago that he couldn’t recall what he’d read. He has no legal assistant to write memos for him; he does his own legal research, and if you cited more than 10 cases for him to read, he couldn’t do it. He likes being a judge and wants to do the best job he can, but he is forced to come into hearings and trials cold. So, help him be the good judge he wants to be and the quality of his decisions will be your reward.