United Bank v. Estate of Frazee, — So.3d —-,  2016 WL 3745512 (Fla. 4th DCA July 13, 2016)

Sometimes you blow a deadline and the courts cut you a break (see here). Sometimes you’re not so lucky. This case is an example of the latter.

Florida implemented mandatory e-filing on April 1, 2013. Which means that if a document’s not e-filed, it doesn’t count (even if you made your filing the old fashioned way on paper). If you blow a deadline because you made some kind of e-filing mistake, you can throw yourself on the mercy of the court and ask for an excuse under Rule 2.525(d)’s as “justice” may require exception.

An appellate court’s going to reverse a trial judge’s call on your plea for mercy only if you overcome the almost impossibly deferential “abuse of discretion” standard of review. Which means if you’re a probate lawyer, you should assume you’re probably stuck with whatever your probate judge rules. And that’s exactly what happened in this case.

Case Study:

United Bank hired counsel to file two probate creditor claims on its behalf shortly after e-filing became mandatory in Florida. The bank’s filing deadline was May 15, 2013. The claims were first filed only in paper form on May 14th, but didn’t get properly e-filed until May 23rd. So which “filing” counted? Paper or electronic? According to both the probate judge and the 4th DCA, the only filing that counted was the electronic filing on May 23rd (which meant the creditor claims were filed late):

[A] statement of claim (which qualifies as a “document”), even if submitted in paper, is not filed unless it is electronically submitted or falls within one of the exceptions to electronic filing. When a clerk must accept a paper document under one of the exceptions to electronic filing set forth in Rule 2.525(d), the clerk must “immediately thereafter convert any filed paper document to an electronic document.” Fla. R. Jud. Admin. 2.525(c)(4) (emphasis added). Since “filing” is only accomplished through electronic submission (in the absence of a Rule 2.525 exception), a document is not actually “filed” when improperly submitted to the clerk in paper, and the clerk’s obligation to convert paper filings would not kick in.

. . .

Based on [a May 23rd] filing date, the claims were untimely. There were no circumstances meriting an extension “upon grounds of fraud, estoppel, or insufficient notice of the claims period.” § 733.702(3), Fla. Stat. Unless the court considered the Bank’s claims as having been filed when the Clerk received the paper filing on May 14th, the claims would be barred under the Probate Code.

Does lack of knowledge = justifiable excuse? NO:

OK, so maybe bank’s counsel mucked up the e-filings, but the paper filings were filed timely on May 14th. Did bank counsel get any credit for that? NO. Just because you make an honest mistake figuring out our e-filing rules doesn’t mean you’re going to get a do-over:

The court . . . noted that one of the exceptions in Rule 2.525(d) would allow it to accept the document as timely filed [on May 14th] where “justice so requires.” Fla. R. Jud. Admin. 2.525(d)(8). However, the court concluded that the failure to file was a result of the negligence and lack of knowledge of the attorney . . . and those excuses did not amount to justice requiring the court to allow the late filing of the claims.

Lesson learned?

There are two big risks probate lawyers need to worry about when it comes to Florida’s mandatory e-filing system: missing deadlines and confidentiality issues. This case is a prime example of what can go wrong if you blow a creditor deadline because you didn’t get the e-filing done right. We’ve yet to see someone get slammed for improperly filing confidential documents in a probate proceeding, but probate lawyers file confidential documents all the time, so it’s probably only a matter of time (don’t be the test case!).

For more on how not to run afoul of our e-filing confidentiality requirements, you’ll want to read Laird Lile’s excellent presentation entitled The e-Thics of e-Things, and for more on how e-filing in general shouldn’t be taken for granted by litigators, you’ll want to read E-Filing or E-Failure: New Risks Every Litigator Should Know.