How to Set Aside a Florida Judgment
Vacating Final Judgments Based on the Rules of Civil Procedure
As their name suggests, final judgments in Florida are, for the most part, final. That’s because the law favors finality. Nevertheless, there are a limited number of circumstances where relief can be granted from a final judgment.
Under Florida’s rules of civil procedure, the court’s authority to vacate, or amend, a final judgment is limited to the time and manner provided by the rule.
Grounds for Vacating a Final Judgment
The strict grounds for amending or vacating a judgment in Florida are guided by Florida Rule 1.540 – Relief from Judgment, Decrees, or Order. The rule states that a court may consider modifying a final judgment if any of the following instances occur:
- Mistakes, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect;
- Newly discovered evidence that could not have been reasonably discovered previously;
- Fraud, misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party;
- The judgment is void; or
- The judgment is now set aside, released, discharged; or a prior judgment on which it’s based is reversed, or it is no longer equitable that the judgment has prospective application.
The rule doesn’t allow for the reopening of a lawsuit so a party can make new claims or to have a rehearing of the evidence already presented.
Furthermore, there are time limitations under the rule: “The motion shall be filed within a reasonable time, and for reasons (1), (2), and (3) not more than 1 year after the judgment, decree, order, or proceeding was entered or taken.”
To have the court grant relief from a judgment requires that the person seeking relief be diligent in learning about a judgment and diligent in seeking to vacate the final judgment. Meaning, the person seeking relief will not have their request granted if their prejudice was caused by their own inaction.
When Does Rule 1.540 Apply?
The rule for vacating final judgments applies to all civil cases. However, the rule doesn’t apply to proceedings to which small claims, probate, or family law rules of procedure apply.
(Note: The family law rules are substantially similar to the rules of civil procedure. Also, in Probate, the court is required by rule to apply the Rules of Civil Procedure in any adversarial proceeding. Thus, the court may amend or vacate a final probate or family law judgment under its own rules of procedure.)
These motions can be used to bring newly discovered evidence to the court’s attention after a final judgment (the new evidence must not have been reasonably discoverable at the time of trial or hearing in which the final judgment was entered).
Finally, a motion to vacate can be filed after any rehearing or after the appeal process takes place and a judgment becomes final.
Case Examples Where a Party Sought to Vacate or Open a Final Judgment:
Example of a Vacated Final Judgment Caused by Errors of Law
In this case, Amado Garcia was correct that the court made an error by ordering disbursement to the condo association generated by a foreclosure sale of his unit. However, under Rule 1.540, reliefs from judgments can only occur under a limited set of circumstances, of which a legal error is not one. The rule does allow the court to relieve a final judgment if the judgment is void. So, because the error caused the trial court to be without subject matter jurisdiction, the order was considered void and vacated.
Example of Vacated Final Judgment Caused by Errors of Fact (Later Reversed)
Allstate Insurance Company appealed a relief from a judgment filed by Bhoodram and Ethel Ramjit regarding their hurricane claim. The Ramjits had failed to submit discovery as requested by Allstate. Six months later, after the case was dismissed, the couple complied with the request for discovery and the court granted their motion to vacate the judgment. Allstate argued that Rule 1.540 allows for relief when a mistake has been made and that the Ramjits had, instead, simply not complied with the original request – no mistake was made. The motion vacating the judgment was reversed and denied.
Example of Vacated Final Judgment Caused by Bad Court Hearings
A trial court filed an order denying James Boelter’s request for a rehearing yet mailed his attorney an order incorrectly granting the motion and ordering him to set a hearing date. The court later noticed its error and mailed Mr. Boelter’s attorney a physical note acknowledging the mistake. By the time his attorney found the note, the time to appeal the final judgment had passed. So, Boelter’s attorney filed a motion to vacate the order denying the motion for rehearing based on Rule 1.540 and the court’s mistake, which ultimately was accepted, leading to the relief from judgment.
Example of a Vacated Final Judgment from a Mistake in the Judgment (Later Reversed)
Susan Edel and A. Grayson Walker filed for a dissolution of marriage that included two trials that took place over more than three years. Despite the delay, both parties requested a ruling rather than a mistrial at the end of closing arguments. After the final ruling, however, the former husband filed a motion to vacate the final judgment due to the unreasonable delay in entering the final order. The court granted his motion. However, the motion was later reversed due to the appellate court’s determination that a delay in a court ruling, on its own, is not grounds to set aside a final judgment.
Example of a Final Judgment Not Being Vacated Due to Mistakes by a Party or Lawyer
During their dissolution of marriage case, Emma Pearl Williams and James Williams, Jr. worked through an agreement to refinance their joint property. Both acknowledged they understood the terms of their agreement early in the trial, but the husband later argued that he was confused by the terms and did not want the divorce to take place. He asked for relief from the final judgment, claiming that he was under duress. Rule 1.540, however, cannot be used to relieve a party from their own mistakes during a trial and the evidence did not support that the husband was in fact under duress. The motion for relief from judgment was denied.
Example of Where a Final Judgment Should Have Been Vacated Because of Lawyer Negligence
In the case of Walker v. Franklin, the court erred by denying a motion to vacate a final judgment. The attorney for appellant Julia Walker did not attend the summary judgment hearing and was, therefore, unable to point out that the motion and affidavits did not negate the issues of fact. A motion to vacate judgment was filed but denied by the court in error since, per Rule 1.540, there was excusable neglect due to the appellant’s attorney failing to attend a hearing.
Example of Vacated Final Judgment Caused by New Evidence (Later Denied)
Alan Fishman filed a negligence lawsuit against Neapolitan Enterprises for his slip and fall accident. Neapolitan alleged that Mr. Fishman’s accident was the result of Parkinson’s disease and not negligence. The jury ruled in favor of Neapolitan Enterprises and Mr. Fishman did not move for a retrial or appeal the final judgment at that time. After the judgment was finalized, Mr. Fishman sought out new evidence because he did not believe he had Parkinson’s. He found that Neapolitan had cited the medical records of another patient of the same name with Parkinson’s disease during the trial and filed a motion for relief from judgment. His motion was originally granted. However, after Neapolitan’s appeal that Mr. Fishman had shown no ‘diligence or vigilance’ to counter claims he had Parkinson’s disease, as is required by law under Rule 1.540, his request for relief from judgment was denied.
Call Alan Sackrin for a Free Case Evaluation
Alan Sackrin is a Board-Certified Civil Trial Expert with more than 38 years of experience. He will take the time to explain your rights and outline the process of vacating a final judgment. He offers a free initial consultation to answer your questions. When you’re ready to speak with a civil trial lawyer about your case, call Alan at 945-458-8655.