Trial Practice and Procedure - Philip W. Savrin

Publication year1997

Trial Practice and Procedure by Philip W. Savrin*

I. Introduction

This Article surveys the 1996 decisions of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals that have a significant impact on issues relating to trial practice and procedure.

II. Jurisdictional Issues

A. Federal Question Jurisdiction

1. Constitutional Challenges. The Eleventh Circuit held in Boatman v. Town of Oakland1 that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider a property owner's action under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 against a Florida town for denial of a certificate of occupancy. Plaintiffs attempted to construct and occupy a manufactured home in one of the town's residential districts. The town refused to issue a certificate of occupancy because plaintiffs' home was designated a "mobile home" in violation of a zoning-ordinance. Plaintiffs sought an injunction directing the town to issue the certificate, money damages, and attorney fees under section 1983.2 Their complaint alleged that the ordinance was arbitrary and capricious, violated their due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, and deprived them of their vested property right.3

The district court found plaintiffs' home did not fit the definition of a mobile home under the ordinance, and awarded compensatory damages.4 The Eleventh Circuit reversed, however, finding that subject matter jurisdiction was absent on several grounds.5 First, the determination of what constitutes a mobile home under the ordinance was a question of state law.6 Second, plaintiffs had no constitutional or statutory authority to support their contention that the ordinance exceeded the town's police power.7 The court found the ordinance was fully accepted by the Florida Department of Community Affairs, an agency that governs whether the growth plans of local governments comply with state laws.8 Furthermore, the court perceived no substantive due process ground, and any procedural due process claim was meritless because plaintiffs were afforded sufficient due process by the state.9 In this regard, the court noted that several options were available for the resolution of plaintiffs' dispute at the county and state levels—options which plaintiffs had disregarded completely.10

2. Challenges to Congressional Regulations and Legislation Affecting Veterans' Benefits. In Hall v. United States Department of Veterans' Affairs,11 the Eleventh Circuit questioned the vitality of the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. Robison,12 which held that district courts have jurisdiction over facial constitutional challenges to congressional legislation affecting veterans' benefits.13 Plaintiff, a state prison inmate, filed a pro se action in district court challenging the constitutional validity of a congressional regulation14 that reduced his VA disability benefits.15 The district court sua sponte dismissed the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under 38 U.S.C. Sec. 511(a).16 The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, citing provisions in the Veterans' Judicial

Review Act ("VJRA"),17 which vests judicial scrutiny of regulations affecting benefits exclusively in the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.18 In light of congressional intent in the VJRA to place judicial review of regulations at the appellate level, the court reasoned, the validity of the Johnson decision is debatable.19 The Eleventh Circuit noted a continued split among several circuits with respect to the jurisdiction of district courts to entertain challenges to legislation affecting benefits,20 but declined to reach the issue because plaintiff did not specify a challenge to legislation.21

3. Disbarment Proceedings. Federal court jurisdiction over matters of state bar admissions, bar disciplinary actions, and disbarments was the subject of the Eleventh Circuit's decision in Matter of Calvo.22 Calvo, an attorney, was found to have violated federal securities laws, and a district court enjoined him from further violations. The Florida Bar began disciplinary actions against him that resulted in his disbarment.23 In response to an order from the federal court to show cause why he should not be barred from practicing in federal court as well, Calvo filed a pleading that alleged constitutional defects in the state court proceedings.24 The district court nevertheless ordered plaintiff's disbarment.25

Before reaching the merits of the district court's disbarment order, the Eleventh Circuit first examined whether federal courts have jurisdiction to hear disbarment proceedings. After noting that it could find no authority in its own precedent or in decisions from the Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit expressed a concern over whether a "case or controversy" existed under Article III of the United States Constitution. In finding that federal courts do have jurisdiction, the court reasoned that the "case or controversy" requirement focuses on the "nature and effect" of the ruling, and not its form.26 Given the adversarial nature of disbarment proceedings, the Eleventh Circuit ultimately determined that a justiciable case or controversy was presented and affirmed Calvo's disbarment from federal court proceedings.27

4. Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The decision in Maynard v. Williams28 addressed whether a private right of action exists under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 to enforce the childcare provisions of the Family Support Act of 1988.29 Plaintiffs filed a section 1983 suit claiming that a freeze by the State of Florida on childcare benefits for families participating in a job training and education project under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children30 ("AFDC") program deprived them of their right to education. Plaintiffs alleged that 42 U.S.C. Sec. 602(g) imposes an obligation on states, regardless of financial constraints, to guarantee childcare services to all AFDC recipients involved in the program.31

The district court granted plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding that under the Supreme Court's two-step analysis in Golden State Transit Corp. v. City of Los Angeles,32 section 1983 does not provide a right of action for the enforcement of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 602(g).33 Although Congress intended the childcare provisions of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 602(g) to benefit plaintiffs, that statute did not create a "binding obligation" upon states to guarantee childcare as a part of the job and education training program.34 Instead, Congress intended for states simply to consider all their resources available for the program, including those for childcare services.35

B. Diversity of Citizenship Jurisdiction—Amount in Controversy

The Eleventh Circuit's decision in Tapscott v. MS Dealer Service Corp.36 involved an interesting issue of removal and the burden of proof for diversity of citizenship jurisdiction. Plaintiff filed a state law class action against defendants alleging common law and statutory fraud and civil conspiracy arising from service contracts on automobiles.37 After defendant removed the action to federal court, plaintiffs filed a motion to remand on grounds of subject matter jurisdiction, claiming that each class member's demands for damages failed to meet the requisite amount for diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1332.38 The district court denied the motion, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.39 In so ruling, the court of appeals addressed the burden of proof required for diversity jurisdiction in removal when a plaintiff has made an unspecified demand for damages in a state court.40 With an unspecified amount, a burden of proof lower than a legal certainty is required because there is no measuring stick available to determine appropriate damages for purposes of diversity.41 A defendant, however, must still prove that the plaintiffs would not recover less than the statutory amount required for diversity.42 Thus, the court held that a removing defendant must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy more likely than not exceeds the jurisdictional threshold.43

Concerning the satisfaction of the amount in controversy requirement, the Eleventh Circuit then decided for the first time that punitive damages could be aggregated.44 The court of appeals first noted that resolution of the issue did not turn upon whether the action arose from multiple individual transactions or a single act.45 Instead, the court relied on state law governing punitive damages and found that punitive damages are collective in nature and are awarded for the public good.46 Because punitive damages reflect defendant's conduct toward all of the class members, it was proper to consider their damages in the aggregate.47 However, the court of appeals limited its ruling to its facts and cautioned against a bright-line rule that any class claim for damages could be aggregated for diversity purposes.48

C. Personal Jurisdiction under Florida's Long-Arm Statute

The issue of personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant was the subject of the Eleventh Circuit's decision in Robinson v. Giarmarco

& Bill, P.C49 The litigation arose from estate planning services provided by defendants, which plaintiff alleged were negligent.50 Defendants moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction or change of venue, claiming Florida's long-arm statute did not extend to foreign tortious acts.51 The district court denied the motion, finding both jurisdiction and venue proper.52

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit first addressed the extent of the long-arm statute, noting its previous finding in Sun Bank, N.A. v. E.F. Hutton & Co.53 that the reach of the statute54 outside the state was unclear.55 Despite an attempt by Florida courts to define the parameters of the statute, according to the court of appeals, the extent of jurisdiction remained cloudy.56 As a result, the Eleventh Circuit followed its decision in Sun Bank, holding that personal jurisdiction under the statute is not limited to negligent acts within the...

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