The Chasm in Florida Appellate Law: Intra-Circuit Conflicting Appellate Decisions.

Author:Rogers, J. Sebastien
Position:Appellate Practice

Florida's circuit courts function in a trial and appellate capacity. In an appellate capacity, they review issues from county court civil and misdemeanor cases and requests for extraordinary writs. As more appellate issues receive review by Florida circuit courts, these tribunals' decisions lead to an increasing number of conflicting opinions. When conflicting opinions exist within the same circuit, en banc review to alleviate conflicting precedent does not exist as a remedy available to circuit appellate courts. Similarly, circuit courts do not possess statutory authority to certify a conflict with an appellate opinion issued by a panel or judge within the same judicial circuit. This article analyzes the problems resulting from conflicting appellate opinions issued by Florida circuit judges within the same circuit.

Florida Circuit Court Appellate Jurisdiction

The Florida Legislature defines a circuit court as a trial court pursuant to F.S. [section]26.012(5). In addition to the circuit court's "exclusive original jurisdiction" in a trial court capacity, (1) the legislature grants appellate jurisdiction to the circuit courts to review county court civil judgments pursuant to [section]26.012(1) and misdemeanor judgments pursuant to F.S. [section]924.08 (1983). (2) Circuit courts also review "administrative action if provided by general law." (3) Regarding the reference to Rule 9.030(c)(1)(C) to "general law," [section]26.012(1) authorizes circuit court jurisdiction over "appeals from final administrative orders of local government code enforcement boards." (4) Circuit courts also review interlocutory orders pursuant to FLA. R. APP. P. 9.030(c)(1)(B), (c)(2), and 9.130(a)(1). Similarly, Rule 9.140(c)(2) authorizes the state of Florida to appeal nonfinal orders issued in criminal cases. (5) Rule 9.030(c)(3) grants a circuit court original jurisdiction to issue extraordinary writs, such as mandamus and common law certiorari writs.

In summary, circuit appellate courts review issues originating in county courts; administrative tribunals, such as municipal government agencies and legislative bodies; and Florida state agencies, such as the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

For fiscal year 2015-2016, the Florida Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA) published statistics regarding case filings in Florida's circuit and county courts. In particular to Florida's 11th Judicial Circuit Court, OSCA's statistics indicate that litigants filed 673,690 cases in the county court civil and criminal divisions. (6) From these 673,690 county court cases, litigants appealed civil and criminal issues to the 11th Judicial Circuit's Appellate Division. In fiscal year 2015-2016, the Florida Legislature authorized 80 circuit judges for the 11th Judicial Circuit. (7) Considering the circuit court's overall appellate jurisdiction, 80 circuit judges in Florida's 11th Judicial Circuit review direct civil and criminal appeals, interlocutory appeals, and issue extraordinary writs. Thus, 80 circuit court judges develop decisional law applicable to county courts and administrative tribunals. Naturally, 80 judges do not consistently reach the same legal conclusions when resolving an appellate issue, thus, leading to intra-circuit conflicting appellate opinions.

Intra-Circuit Conflicting Appellate Opinions

Florida decisional law contributes to the existence of intra-circuit conflicting opinions. For example, the Fifth District Court of Appeal held that a "circuit court sitting in its appellate capacity was required to consider all decisions of the circuit court in the Ninth Circuit when searching for precedents upon which to base its decision, and, in the absence of a rule of procedure to resolve conflicts among the decisions, to make its independent decision." (8) State v. Lopez, 633 So. 2d 1150 (Fla. 5th DCA 1994), only requires that a circuit appellate court consider other intra-circuit decisions but does not require that a circuit court follow an appellate decision issued by another circuit judge or panel within the same judicial district.

The Fifth District's Lopez decision impacts circuit appellate courts. Appellate panels within the 11th Judicial Circuit acknowledge that one panel's decision does not operate as binding precedent upon another panel, thus, occasionally declining to follow an opinion issued by another panel. For example, one circuit panel stated that it must consider the decisions from its appellate division when "'searching for precedents'" but clearly noted they could "make an independent decision when ... disagree[ing] with another panel." (9)

The State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Suncare Physical Therapy, Inc., a/a/o Henrisma, 18 Fla. L. Weekly Supp. 776a (Fla. 11th Cir. Ct. July 13, 2011), circuit panel chose not to follow United Automobile Insurance Company v. Diaz, 18 Fla. L. Weekly Supp. 348a (Fla. 11th Cir. Ct. Feb. 3, 2011), cert. den., 3D11-866 (Fla. 3d DCA 2011), even though the Third District Court of Appeal declined to vacate Diaz. (10) By directly disagreeing with Diaz, the Henrisma circuit panel created an intra-circuit conflict and destabilized the law regarding examinations under oath in personal injury protection cases. Consequently, county courts in Miami-Dade County encountering factually similar cases lacked clear precedent regarding the examination-under-oath issue. The intra-circuit conflict between Henrisma and Diaz not only impacted the county courts but also influenced a U.S. Court of Appeals. In Nunez v. Geico General Insurance Company, 685 F.3d 1205, 1207 (11th Cir. 2012), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reviewed an order dismissing the second count in a complaint, which requested that the federal trial court decide whether Florida's personal injury protection statute (11)...

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