Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Successor Judge

A 1989 Florida divorce case provides some guidance for lawyers who find their case assigned to a "successor judge." There, the former husband was challenging a final judgment of dissolution. Batista v. Batista, 553 So.2d 1281 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1989). Litigation can take time, and the reality is that people involved in litigation, adjusters, doctors, lawyers and even judges can come and go. Most attorneys practicing Florida workers' compensation will eventually litigate a case before a successor judge. 

The litigation process in Batista demonstrated neglect. Following the wife's petition for dissolution, the husband filed nothing for over one year. As a result, the wife moved for default, and a hearing was held. The husband, remaining consistent, did not appear for the hearing. The judge entered the requested default judgment. As an aside, ignoring litigation and missing hearings is usually not the way to win in litigation. 

After waiting for another six months, the husband moved to vacate the judgment, specifically seeking to "reduce the amount of child support awarded." The husband claimed he had been mislead, that both husband and wife had been represented by the same attorney, and that he was the victim of fraud. But, by the time the husband filed this motion for relief, "the original trial judge" was no longer on the bench, and the hearing on the motion to vacate the judgment "was held before a successor judge."

The successor judge "denied the motion on the grounds that a successor judge could not vacate another judge's final judgment and that modification was the proper remedy." There were intriguing arguments raised by both litigants, generally surrounding whether the husband was seeking a "rehearing" or a "modification." But, the successor judge concluded that, regardless of the procedural distinctions urged by the parties, "a successor judge can never reconsider a ruling made by his or her predecessor."

The appellate court noted that the Florida Supreme Court "expressly indicated that a successor judge is entitled to entertain a rule 1.540 motion." That Rule of Civil Procedure allows a "court" to address "clerical mistakes in judgments" and to do so "at any time on its own initiative or on the motion of any party." It also allows the trial court to "relieve a party" from a judgment or order for various reasons including "mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect," and more. The appellate court concluded therefore that the successor judge could hear the motion to vacate, and ordered that judge to do so. 

The reader may at this point voice two thoughts. First, the litigation of Florida workers' compensation cases is not controlled (in most aspects other than discovery) by the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure. And, second, that a dissolution of marriage case might not be viewed as very persuasive by a Judge of Compensation Claims who recognizes that her or his authority is limited to that which the legislature affords, see Conferring Jurisdiction. Two valid points for consideration and discussion. 

However, the Florida Supreme Court authority relied upon in Batista was a Florida workers' compensation case, Tingle v. Dade County Bd. of County Com'rs, 245 So.2d 76 (Fla 1971). There, the Supreme Court, relied upon the civil procedure rule and found it persuasive or instructive. While the Court might no longer find that rule applicable in workers' compensation, the arguments remain. And, the Court provided some critical guidance for both attorneys and judges:
There is a limitation . . . on a successor judge's reconsideration of his predecessor's Final judgments and orders, upon the merits on the same facts absent mistake or fraud and upon discretionary final rulings where the facts remain unchanged.
Those final rulings are not subject to reversal, modification or review by a successor judge, absent the grounds in Civil Rule 1.540. 
The successor does have authority even after final judgment to make such further order as may be necessary to effectuate the judgment.
Where the final order or judgment is not complete, the succeeding judge may supply the element which may have been omitted.
The Court provided this advice for judges: 
A judge should hesitate to undo his own work.
A Judge should hesitate still more to undo the work of another (the prior) judge
But, until final judgment, the judge has the power to do so and may therefore vacate or modify the Interlocutory rulings or orders of his predecessor in the case. 
The Court explained that these cautions, this "code" of behavior, are based upon
The law of the case 
Comity (courtesy and considerate behavior toward others), and
With these cautions in mind, attorneys may wish to exercise restraint in asking a successor judge for such accommodating or relief. Attorneys may wish to think about what a reconsideration might change as to process or procedure, whether the due process rights of some party would be affected by a reconsideration, and whether there is sufficient grounds upon which the successor judge might be persuaded to exercise this discretion. 

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