de novo

Do Yourself a Favor: Have a Court Reporter at Important Hearings

Posted by David Adelstein on January 09, 2018
Appeal, Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Do Yourself a Favor: Have a Court Reporter at Important Hearings

Make sure to have a court reporter at any substantive hearing, particularly a hearing that could result in an appeal.

Here is why. In a slip and fall action, Lago v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 42 Fla. L. Weekly D2599a (Fla. 3d DCA 2017), the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant. The trial court’s summary judgment order provided NO elaboration or reasoning as to the basis of granting the summary judgment. It was probably a simple order that stated that the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was granted. This does not provide a whole lot of comfort to parties or even practitioners that receive an order with no reasoning. It certainly does not bring me any comfort.

The plaintiff appealed and argued that the trial court erred in entering an unelaborated order. The appellate court disagreed on this point: “‘[w]hile it might be desirable for the trial judge to specify his reasons for granting or denying a summary judgment there does not appear to be any rule or decision that requires him to do so.’” Lago, supra, quoting Newman v. Shore, 206 So.2d 279, 280 (Fla. 3d DCA 1968). Irrespective of the lack of stated reasoning in the order, the appellate court found that the reasoning was clear when reviewing the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff’s response, and the transcribed summary judgment hearing. (Remember, a summary judgment is reviewed on appeal with a de novo standard of appellate review.)

My guess is the transcribed summary judgment hearing was important and it underscores the importance of having a court reporter at a hearing for this purpose. If the trial court does not provide its reasoning in an order, it is not always clear what the reasoning is that led to the ruling. Having a court reporter at the hearing allows the appellate court to review the arguments raised at the hearing including any pronouncements by the trial court at the hearing.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Quick Note: Order Denying Attorney’s Fees Reviewed De Novo

Posted by David Adelstein on December 17, 2017
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An order denying a motion for attorney’s fees is generally reviewed under a de novo standard of appellate review.  In a recent case I wrote about dealing with a coverage dispute between an insured and a property insurer, both the insured and insurer moved for attorney’s fees after the jury’s verdict.  

In this case, the insured moved for attorney’s fees pursuant to statute — Florida Statute s. 627.428.  The trial court denied the insured’s motion.  The insurer moved for attorney’s fees pursuant to a proposal for settlement / offer of judgment it served under Florida Statute s. 768.79.  The trial court denied the insurer’s motion too.  Both orders were appealed and reviewed by the appellate court under a de novo standard of appellate review.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

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Arbitration is an Appealable Non-Final Order

Posted by David Adelstein on October 14, 2017
Standard of Review, Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Arbitration is an Appealable Non-Final Order

Arbitration is a creature of contract. If a contract requires arbitration that means the parties are required to arbitrate their disputes as opposed to litigate their disputes. Instead of their being a judge or jury, there will be an arbitrator.

There are three considerations when determining whether a dispute is subject to arbitration:

1) Is there a valid written agreement to arbitrate (such as an arbitration provision in a contract)?

2) Is there an arbitrable issue? And

3) Has the right to arbitrate the issue or dispute been waived?

Chaikin v. Parker Waichman LLP, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D2165b (Fla. 2d DCA 2017) quoting Jackson v. Shakespeare Found., Inc., 108 So.3d 587, 593 (Fla. 2013).

Entitlement to arbitration, and the granting or denying a party’s motion to compel arbitration, is a non-final order that is appealable. Fla. R. App. P. 9.130(a) (3)(C)(iv).  Typically, when a party moves to compel arbitration and that motion is granted or denied, there is an appeal of this non-final order.

An order granting or denying a motion to compel arbitration is reviewed on appeal with a de novo standard of review. Chaikin, supra, quoting Roth v. Cohen, 941 So.2d 496, 499 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006). Whether a party has waived the right to arbitrate “‘is a question of fact, reviewed on appeal for competent, substantial evidence to support the lower court’s findings.’” Chaikin, supra, quoting Green Tree Servicing, LLC v. McLeod, 15 So.3d 682, 686 (Fla. 2d DCA 2009).

For example, in Chaikin (the facts discussed in more detail here), the appellate court reversed the trial court and held that a party waived its right to compel arbitration of a counterclaim by virtue of the party initiating the lawsuit to begin with. By the party filing the lawsuit, they voluntarily relinquished the right to compel the counterclaim – based on the same facts as the complaint — to arbitration.  As the appellate court held, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander — a party cannot compel a counterclaim to arbitration when the same party filed a lawsuit.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

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Insurance Policy Construction is a Question of Law

Posted by David Adelstein on July 15, 2017
Appeal, Standard of Review / Comments Off on Insurance Policy Construction is a Question of Law

I am sure you have an insurance policy…some type of policy. An automobile liability policy. A commercial general liability policy. A professional liability policy. A property insurance policy.   A directors and officers liability policy. A workers compensation insurance policy. There are many types of insurance policies. I am sure you have some insurance policy to protect you or your business’s needs or risks.   You may have even been involved in an insurance coverage dispute or have had issues dealing with insurance coverage.

If you read any one of your insurance policies, you will probably be left with more questions than answers. You will be asking yourself “what does this mean?” or “what does this say?” and will often be left bemoaning “huh!?!” with every other sentence you read.  This is the exact reason why there are insurance coverage disputes.

When it comes to insurance coverage disputes and the interpretation of the language in an insurance policy, the Florida Supreme Court importantly explained:

Insurance policy construction is a question of law subject to de novo review.  Courts construe insurance contracts according to their plain language.  However, “any ambiguity which remains after reading each policy as a whole and endeavoring to give every provision its full meaning and operative effect must be liberally construed in favor of coverage and strictly against the insurer.”  A provision is ambiguous if it is “susceptible to two reasonable interpretations, one providing coverage and the other excluding coverage.”  The ambiguity must be genuine, and the lack of a definition for an operative term “does not, by itself, create an ambiguity “When a term in an insurance policy is undefined, it should be given its plain and ordinary meaning, and courts may look to legal and non-legal dictionary definitions to determine such a meaning.” 

Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Macedo, 42 Fla. L. Weekly S731a (Fla. 2017) (internal citations omitted).

Obviously, if you have an insurance coverage dispute, you want to make sure you are represented by an attorney that understands the complexities of insurance coverage.  Nonetheless, it is imperative that you understand that insurance policy construction is a question of law for the Court with a de novo standard of appellate review.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Insurance Coverage Disputes where the Focus is the Policy Language

Posted by David Adelstein on March 06, 2017
Standard of Review / Comments Off on Insurance Coverage Disputes where the Focus is the Policy Language

Insurance coverage disputes are fairly common between an insured and his/her/its insurer.   These are important disputes to an insured, particularly when they have been damaged and their insurer refuses to defend them from a third-party claim or otherwise denies coverage. An insured never wants to be in this position—understandably so. On the other hand, an insurance policy is not designed to cover every single risk under the sun as there are exclusions identified in policies for risks or perils that are not covered.   This ultimately means an insured needs to have an appreciation of those risks or perils not covered (in case he/she/it needs to procure another policy or a policy endorsement to cover certain risks or perils).

There are insurance coverage disputes where the primary focus is on the policy language. The material facts are not in dispute; the dispute is centered on whether the undisputed facts create coverage under the applicable policy. In this instance, the insurance coverage dispute is an issue for the court and not for a jury.

A recent case explains the appellate standard of review in insurance coverage disputes, particularly when the overriding issue has nothing to do with the facts and everything to do with the policy language:

We review the instant appeal from a final judgment interpreting the provisions of an insurance policy to determine coverage de novo. Where the facts are not in dispute and the language of an insurance policy is unambiguous and not subject to conflicting inferences, “its construction is for the court, not the jury.” Moreover, even where an ambiguity exists, if the facts are not disputed “it is within the province of the trial judge not the jury to resolve the ambiguity as a matter of law.” Here, because neither a factual dispute nor an ambiguity was demonstrated to exist, the coverage issue raised below should have been decided by the court below and on the record below….

Zurich American Ins. Co. v. Cernogorsky, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D476b (Fla. 3d DCA 2017) (internal citations omitted).

If you have questions regarding an insurance policy or you are involved in an insurance coverage dispute, do the prudent thing, consult an attorney that understands insurance.  Insurance is challenging, even for experienced practitioners, so do not assume you can navigate the complicated insurance waters solo.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Quick Note: So You Want to Appeal an Injunction Entered Against You…

Posted by David Adelstein on January 17, 2017
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So you want to appeal the issuance of an injunction entered against you. (There are numerous reasons why injunctive relief may be entered by the court in a civil context – check out this article as an example.) “If the injunction rests on factual findings, then a trial court’s order must be affirmed absent an abuse of discretion; but if the injunction rests on purely legal matters, then an injunction is reviewed de novo.” Nipper v. Walton County, Florida, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D171a (Fla. 1st DCA 2017). Stated differently, there is an abuse of discretion standard of appellate review if the injunction is based on factual findings by the trial court. But, assuming the facts are not in dispute and the injunction is based on a matter of law, there is a de novo standard of appellate review.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Appealing Entitlement to Attorney’s Fees

Posted by David Adelstein on January 08, 2017
Appeal / Comments Off on Appealing Entitlement to Attorney’s Fees

After a party prevails in a lawsuit, the next issue to consider is attorney’s fees, and this is oftentimes a driving issue because attorney’s fees can be fairly significant depending on the nature of the dispute. For example, assume you lost a trial and the other side moved for attorney’s fees. You challenged entitlement to attorney’s fees and lost – the trial court granted the other side’s motion for attorney’s fees. An evidentiary hearing was held and an attorney’s fees judgment was entered. Alternatively, assume you moved for attorney’s fees and the trial court denied your motion. Are these issues relating to entitlement to attorney’s fees appealable? Yes.

 

“‘A party’s entitlement to an award of attorney’s fees under a statute or procedural rule is a legal question subject to de novo review.’” Newman v. Guerra, 2017 WL 33702 (Fla. 4th DCA 2017) quoting Nathanson v. Morelli, 169 So.3d 259, 260 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015).

 

For instance, in a recent case, an owner established that a contractor’s lien was fraudulent. The contractor, however, prevailed in its breach of contract claim. The owner moved for his entitlement to statutory attorney’s fees since he prevailed in the contractor’s lien action. The trial court denied the owner’s motion for attorney’s fees because after considering all of the claims asserted in the case found that the contractor prevailed on the significant issues in the case. The owner appealed the trial court’s denial and this issue was subject to a de novo standard of appellate review.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Trial Court’s Responsibility is NOT to Rewrite a Contract

Posted by David Adelstein on November 25, 2016
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Many business disputes involve the interpretation and the application of a contract. This is because business transactions typically involve a contractual relationship governing the rights, liabilities, risks, and recourse relating to the transaction.   When there is a dispute regarding the transaction, this gives rise to a breach of contract claim.  

It is important to understand that a trial court’s responsibility is NOT to rewrite the terms of a contract so that the risks are allocated differently.  As explained:

[C]ourts are ‘powerless to rewrite [a] contract to make it more reasonable or advantageous to one of the parties…or to substitute [their] judgments for that of the parties to the contract in order to relieve one of the parties from the apparent hardships of an improvident bargain.  

Underwater Engineering Services, Inc. v. Utility Board of the City of Key West, 194 So.3d 437, 444 (Fla. 3d DCA 2016) quoting Fernandez v. Homestar at Miller Cove, Inc., 935 So.2d 547, 551 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006).

For this reason, a trial court’s interpretation of a contract is reviewed on appeal with a de novo standard of appellate review – the appellate court will refer to the record in the trial court anew (de novo) without giving deference to the trial court’s findings.

For example, in Underwater Engineering Services (a case I discussed here), the trial court found that a contractor defectively constructed a portion of its work and awarded damages to the owner for replacing the defective work. On appeal, however, the appellate court looked at the underlying contract between the owner and the contractor that required the owner to give the contractor notice before replacing defective work. (The trial court’s final judgment did not reference this contractual provision or provide any application of the provision). The trial court’s record established that such notice was never given to the contractor so the contractor was never in a position to replace the defective work. Based on this contractual provision–remember, courts are not there to rewrite parties’ contracts–the appellate court reversed the trial court’s findings / judgment in favor of the owner because the owner never provided the contractor the required notice per the unambiguous language in the contract.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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What Constitutes an Enforceable Contract?

Posted by David Adelstein on November 17, 2016
Appeal / Comments Off on What Constitutes an Enforceable Contract?

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An enforceable or valid contract requires an offer, acceptance of that offer, consideration, and sufficient specification of material terms. Jericho All-Weather Opportunity Fund, LP v. Pier Seventeen Marina, 41 Fla. L. Weekly D2565a (Fla. 4th DCA 2016). Whether a contract actually constitutes an enforceable contract is subject to a de novo standard of appellate review; this is the same appellate standard of review pertaining to an appeal of a trial court’s interpretation of a contract. See id.

The case in Jericho All-Weather Opportunity Fund exemplifies a party suing on the wrong contract and, thus, an appellate court reversing a judgment in favor of a plaintiff and remanding for the trial court to enter judgment in favor of the defendants. As you can imagine, this is a harsh outcome in an appeal – winning a trial only for the appellate court to reverse and mandate judgment for the party that lost during the trial.

In this case, the plaintiff (borrower) was seeking a construction loan. It entered into a second loan commitment with the defendant (lender) whereby the defendant agreed to loan the plaintiff money for the refinancing of property and constructing the project. The court explained that a loan commitment is “a lender’s binding promise to a borrower to lend a specified amount of money at a certain interest rate, usually within a specified period and for a specific purpose (such as buying real estate).” Jericho All-Weather Opportunity Fund, supra, quoting Armstrong Bus. Servs., Inc. v. AmSouth Bank, 817 So.2d 665, 673-74 (Ala. 2001).

The plaintiff and defendant then entered into a construction loan. The loan agreement was contingent on the actual closing of the loan—the closing of the loan was the consideration for the loan agreement. The loan agreement did not require the defendant to fund the loan as the agreement was predicated on the funding having occurred. However, the loan never closed and the plaintiff sued the defendant for breach of the loan agreement. The plaintiff prevailed at trial. The defendant appealed arguing that the loan agreement was not an enforceable contract as it never became a valid contract because the funding never occurred. The appellate court agreed stating that the plaintiff should have sued for breach of the second loan commitment and not the loan agreement. (Notably, the plaintiff had strategic reasons for not suing on the second loan commitment since it precluded the plaintiff from pursuing certain damages based on a waiver of consequential damages provision.  Unfortunately, by not suing under the second loan commitment, the plaintiff did not sue on an enforceable contract.)

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Appealing Trial Court’s Interpretation of Contract

Posted by David Adelstein on July 24, 2016
Appeal, Standard of Review / Comments Off on Appealing Trial Court’s Interpretation of Contract

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Many disputes turn on the interpretation of a contract, contractual term, or written document. When the trial court rules on the interpretation, there will typically be a party that disagrees with the court’s interpretation. In these instances, this party will appeal the trial court’s interpretation. There is a value to appeal because the appellate standard of review is de novo meaning the appellate court will review the trial court’s record anew without giving deference to the trial court’s interpretation.

The interpretation of a written contract is a question of law and the appellate court construes the contract under a de novo standard of review. Notably, construction of contractual terms is a question of law, which we review de novo, provided that the language is clear and unambiguous and free of conflicting inferences.

Ciklin Lubetz Martens & O’Connell v. Patrick J. Casey, P.A., 41 Fla.L.Weekly D1678b (Fla. 4th DCA 2016 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

For example, in a dispute concerning a law firm’s partnership agreement as it pertains to the withdrawal of a partner, the trial court made an interpretation of the partnership agreement that resulted in certain amounts being awarded to the withdrawing partner. The law firm appealed the trial court’s interpretation and the appellate court, examining the partnership agreement under a de novo standard of appellate review, reversed certain interpretations by the trial court. This is because the appellate court was able to examine the partnership agreement anew without providing any deference to how the trial court interpreted the partnership agreement.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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