The Changing Landscape of Florida Civil Litigation

Authored Article

Successfully navigating the Florida state court litigation system has become easier and less costly based on recent procedural and logistical developments. With more changes on the horizon, staying current on these developments is vital for anyone with a presence in the state court system.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought extensive logistical changes to Florida courthouses. In a matter of days, state court judges that previously disfavored allowing even telephonic appearances were forced to navigate the complexities of Zoom. Now, over two years later, Zoom appearances are still the norm in most circuit civil courtrooms. While the benefits and drawbacks for this new communication medium can be debated, one positive outcome is undoubtedly the time and cost savings to litigants. Travel for court appearances has increasingly become a nonfactor, whereas previously, it was a significant line item for litigation costs.

Adding to this cost savings, in December 2020, the Supreme Court of Florida substantially amended Rule 1.510 of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure relating to summary judgments.[1] The amendment was intended to track the summary judgment standard articulated by the United States Supreme Court in relation to Rule 56, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.[2] The amendment to Rule 1.510 became effective on May 1, 2021, and immediately streamlined pending cases.[3]

Specifically, under the amended rule, movants no longer had to “disprove the nonmovant’s theory of the case in order to eliminate any issue of fact.”[4] Additionally, the standard of what constitutes an issue of material fact was narrowed. No longer would “any competent evidence” create an issue of fact impeding the entry of summary judgment.[5] Instead, a nonmovant must now produce evidence that is more than “merely colorable.”[6] Indeed, nonmovants must submit “significantly probative” evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact to successfully oppose the entry of summary judgment.[7]

This beneficial summary judgment standard ensures more rational rulings while providing greater consistency, allowing litigants to better forecast potential outcomes.[8] A natural effect of the implementation of this new summary judgment standard is to provide litigants a more cost effective and efficient avenue to resolve cases thereby avoiding the expense and risk associated with a trial.

Further changes are in the works specifically geared toward the civil case management system and motion practice. In October 2019, the Judicial Management Council created the Workgroup on Improved Resolution of Civil Cases (the “Workgroup”).[9] The Workgroup was tasked with reviewing (i) the civil case management recommendations endorsed by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators, (ii) initiatives in other states to achieve timelier and more cost-effective resolution of civil cases, and (iii) laws, rules of court, and practices that have improved the management of civil cases in the federal court system.[10]

The Workgroup issued an interim report on March 5, 2021, which recommended the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court issue an administrative order directing the chief judges for each of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits issue an administrative order requiring nearly all cases subject to the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure be actively managed by the assigned judge.[11] An amendment to Fla. Admin Order No. AOSC20-23 was issued on March 9, 2021, incorporating the Workgroup’s recommendation.[12] The purpose of this amendment was to begin active case management in Florida’s civil courts based on significant docket backlogs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.[13]

To date, this amendment has had varying success dependent on the resources available in individual counties, case management processes already in place, and the size of the relative backlog. Many judges issued requirements mandating litigants complete case management reports within proscribed deadlines; however, due to limited funds and oversight, these efforts have not always succeeded in advancing cases.

The Workgroup filed its Final Report on November 15, 2021.[14] Therein, the Workgroup recommends sweeping changes to Florida’s case management system plus major changes to the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure. Specifically, the Workgroup recommends a complete overhaul to Rule 1.200 pertaining to case management, including a differentiated case management system like the structure used in federal courts.[15] At the inception of a case, it would be assigned to one of three tracks – streamlined, general, or complex – with different pretrial procedures and deadlines all geared towards moving cases as swiftly as possible commensurate with their level of complexity.[16]

The Workgroup also recommends significant additions to Rule 1.160 pertaining to motion practice.[17] Again, like the federal system, the Workgroup recommends requiring parties to meet and confer regarding many motions prior to filing and, if a resolution cannot be reached, permitting judges to rule without the need for a hearing on many matters.[18] These changes, coupled with the increased favorability of remote appearances, should further serve to streamline motion practice, thereby reducing litigation costs.

The implementation of these changes, coupled with the Workgroup’s sweeping recommendations, are set to dramatically change the civil state court litigation landscape. Staying on top of these developments is imperative for litigants to traverse the Florida civil state court system successfully and efficiently.

[1]See In re Amends. to Fla. Rule of Civ. Pro. 1.510, 309 So. 3d 192 (Fla. 2020).

[2]Id. at 192.

[3]Id. at 194.

[4]Id. at 193 (quoting Thomas Logue & Javier Alberto Soto, Florida Should Adopt the Celotex Standard for Summary Judgment, 76 Fla. Bar J. Feb. 2002, at 24).

[5]Id. (quoting Bruce J. Berman & Peter D. Webster, Berman's Florida Civil Procedure § 1.510:5 (2020 ed.)).

[6]Id. (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50 (1986)).

[7]Id.

[8]Id. at 194.

[9] Fla. Admin. Order No. AOSC19-73 (Oct. 31, 2019), available at https://www.floridasupremecourt.org/content/download/540288/file/AOSC19-73.pdf (last visited June 5, 2022).

[10]Id. at 2-3.

[11]In Re: Report and Recommendations of the Workgroup on Improved Resolution of Civil Cases, SC22-122, 6 (the “Final Report”).

[12]See Fla. Admin. Order No. AOSC20-23, Amend. 10 (Mar. 9, 2021), available at https://www.floridasupremecourt.org/content/download/724015/file/AOSC20-23-Amendment-10.pdf (last visited June 5, 2022).

[13] Final Report at 6.

[14]See Final Report at 1.

[15]See Final Report at 9-12 & Appendix 1.

[16]See id.

[17]See id. at 16 & Appendix 1.

[18]See id at Appendix 1.