It has frequently been said that “it is the little things that get you.” That certainly holds true in the practice of law. A recent decision from the Fourth District Court of Appeals provides an illustration of the accuracy of that saying. It also provides an example of the dangers faced by attorneys attempting to practice from out of state. The case is United Bank v. Estate of Frazee, No. 4D15-826 (4th DCA 2016). In that case, United Bank, utilizing West Virginia counsel who was also a member of the Florida Bar, attempted to file paper copies of two statements of claim against the estate of a decedent whose estate was being probated in Florida, but was informed after the deadline had passed that the claims had to be filed electronically. By the time the claims were electronically filed, it was too late.
Section 733.702(1), Florida Statutes (2012) requires creditors to file any statements of claim against a decedent’s estate within three months of the first publication of the Notice to Creditors or within thirty days of being served with a copy of the Notice, whichever is later. Any claim not timely filed is barred unless the court grants an extension. Subsection 3 of the statute provides that extensions may be granted “upon grounds of fraud, estoppel, or insufficient notice of the claims.”
In this case, a Notice to Creditors was filed and served on the bank and the deadline for the bank to file a claim was May 15, 2013. On May 10, a West Virginia attorney representing the bank mailed two statements of claims to the clerk of court by certified mail. The clerk received the claims on May 14, prior to the bank’s deadline. Approximately nine days later, the clerk notified the bank’s counsel that the bank’s claims were rejected and had to be filed electronically. That same day, the bank submitted the claims through the e-filing portal. Approximately a year later, the Bank moved the trial court to find that the claims had been timely filed, arguing that they should have been deemed filed on May 14, the day the paper versions were received by the clerk. United Bank argued that Florida Rule of Judicial Administration 2.520(f), which states that “[n]o clerk of court shall refuse to file any document because of noncompliance with this Rule”, unambiguously prohibits the clerk from rejecting paper filings. The estate argued that e-filing became mandatory statewide on April 1, 2013 pursuant to Rule 2.525, with certain limited exceptions, none of which were applicable. It also argued that Rule 2.520(f) only applied to errors in formatting and other technical issues but not act as a loophole to allow parties to circumvent the e-filing requirement.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed with the estate and found that the plain meaning of the applicable rule was that such documents had to be electronically filed. It did observe that one of the exceptions provides for paper filing if the court deems that “justice so requires”, but the trial court had concluded that justice did not require it to allow for paper filing when the late filing was the result of negligence or lack of knowledge by a licensed Florida attorney. Although there was a vigorous and well-reasoned dissenting opinion, no doubt that was little solace to the bank or its counsel when the appeal was rejected.
This appears to be a cautionary tale for out of state counsel to keep abreast of current developments in the law of all states in which they are licensed and to have in place the ability to electronically file documents in all such states.
About the Author:
Joel C. Zwemer is an attorney and Shareholder in Dean Mead’s Fort Pierce office. He concentrates his practice in the areas of commercial business and real estate litigation, creditors’ rights and bankruptcy. He has successfully litigated a wide range of cases in federal and state courts and regularly represents financial institutions in business and bankruptcy cases and litigation in Fort Pierce and Port Saint Lucie. He may be reached at (772)464-7700 or firstname.lastname@example.org.