Primer on Improper Grounds to Vacate a Judgment – the Unreasonable Motion to Vacate

You just won a case, the window for rehearing has elapsed; you take a breath, and then receive a motion to vacate. What now? Check the timing, events after judgment, and grounds alleged to initially make sure the motion is not using improper grounds to vacate. After reading below, if you have more questions on motions to vacate in Florida, contact Bernhard Law Firm at abernhard@bernhardlawfirm, www.bernhardlawfirm.com, 786-871-3349.

Does the Court lack jurisdiction to consider the motion to vacate, as it is unreasonably untimely?

After rendition of a final judgment, the Court loses jurisdiction over the case except to enforce the judgment. Balmoral Condo. Ass’n v. Grimaldi, 107 So. 3d 1149, 1152–53 (Fla. 3d DCA 2013) (holding court lacked jurisdiction to entertain Rule 1.540 motion for relief after appellate period expired); Voce v. Wachovia Mortg., FSB, 174 So. 3d 545, 546 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015) (aff’ing denial of motion to vacate judgment as not filed within a reasonable time); Bank One, N.A. v. Batronie, 884 So. 2d 346, 348 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004) (holding trial court lacked jurisdiction to entertain motion for relief from judgment).

The one exception to this rule of absolute finality is Rule 1.540, which gives a very narrow range of circumstances to relief if a defendant timely serves a motion to vacate within a reasonable time—failure to serve the motion within a reasonable time despite notice of events renders the motion untimely. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.540(b); Techvend, Inc. v. Phoenix Network, Inc., 564 So. 2d 1145, 1146 (Fla. 3d DCA 1990) (aff’ing denial of motion to vacate on holding that failure to move to vacate three months after defendant became aware of judgment, and failure to file supporting affidavits, constituted lack of due diligence); Allstate Floridian Ins. Co. v. Ronco Inventions, LLC, 890 So. 2d 300, 302 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004) (holding trial court grossly abused discretion in vacating judgment after seven-week delay, given numerous documents served before judgment, notice of litigation and entry of judgment, and failure to explain delay); Bailey v. Deebold, 351 So. 2d 355, 357 (Fla. 2d DCA 1977) (holding motion to vacate not filed within a reasonable time even though within 1 year); see also Lazcar Int’l, Inc. v. Caraballo, 957 So. 2d 1191, 1192 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007) (holding defendant not entitled to vacate judgment where motion filed six weeks after judgment and defendant failed to present competent evidence to excuse his delay); Airport Centre, Inc. v. Ugarte, 91 So. 3d 936, 936 (Fla. 3d DCA 2012) (reversing order vacating judgment where defendant failed to show excusable neglect and due diligence); U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n v. Anthony-Irish, 204 So. 3d 57, 61 (Fla. 5th DCA 2016) (holding motion for relief was not filed within a reasonable time).

In your case, is the motion to vacate judgment unreasonably untimely given events that have occurred after judgment? Has property been sold to a bona fide third-party purchaser? Has the movant accepted money on the judgment? Has the movant participated in other events relying on the judgment? If so, the Court may deny the motion to vacate as unreasonably untimely.

Does the Court lack jurisdiction to consider the motion to vacate as it is improper and unreasonable, given a waiver or release?

A person waives a claim to legal rights where (i) the person had knowledge of an existing legal right, and (ii) acts inconsistent with that legal right. See, e.g., Hammond v. DSY Developers, LLC, 951 So. 2d 985, 988 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007) (holding seller’s mailing of counteroffer after deadline for acceptance constituted an implied waiver of the acceptance date); Inverrary Gardens Condo. I Ass’n, Inc. v. Spender, 939 So. 2d 1159, 1161 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006) (holding manager waived right to arbitrate breach of contract claim); Mike Bradford & Co. v. Gulf States Steel Co., 184 So. 2d 911, 915 (Fla. 3d DCA 1966) (holding company with full knowledge of its rights waived right to arbitrate upon answering without raising arbitration).

Similarly, a release is a complete defense to all claims brought on a contract for sale of real estate. Plumpton v. Continental Acreage Dev. Co., Inc., 830 So. 2d 208, 211–12 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002) (release was complete defense to assignee claims for breach of land sale contract); AXA Equitable Life Ins. Co. v. Gelpi, 12 So. 3d 783, 784 (Fla. 3d DCA 2009) (release barred any claim or action arising out of relationship). Where release language is clear and unambiguous, the Court cannot indulge in reinterpretation of its plain meaning or claims of a unilateral mistake from the want of due care. Plumpton at 211.

In your case, did the movant knowingly waived their rights to challenge the judgment and seek post-judgment relief, either by express statements and agreement or by conduct after judgment? If so, the motion to vacate the judgment may be improper and unreasonably untimely, and the Court can deny the motion to vacate.

Does the Court now lack jurisdiction to consider the motion to vacate as it fails to state any proper grounds for relief under Rule 1.540?

Under Florida law, the contention that a court order was simply wrong as a matter of law on the merits is not an authorized ground for relief under Rule 1.540, and thus must be denied. Balmoral Condo. Ass’n v. Grimaldi, 107 So. 3d 1149, 1152–53 (Fla. 3d DCA 2013) (holding court lacked jurisdiction to entertain Rule 1.540 motion for relief after appellate period expired); Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.540. A movant should state one of the specifically enumerated grounds for relief under Rule 1.540 (unless by default judgment, whereby the movant may use the default rules).

In your case, did the movant improperly move to vacate on the allegation that the Court was simply wrong in its decision? Did the motion fail to cite any of the limited reasons under Rule 1.540 to vacate? If so, it may fail on its face and the Court can deny the motion to vacate.

Should the Court sanction the movant for disobeying its judgment?

Sanctions are warranted for willful failure to comply with court orders. Ledo v. Seavie Resources, LLC, 149 So. 3d 707, 710–11 (Fla. 3d DCA 2014) (aff’ing sanctions for failure to comply with court order); Asper v. Maxy Aviation Servs., L.C., 915 So. 2d 271, 273 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005) (aff’ing sanctions for failure to comply with court order); McCormick v. Lomar Indus., Inc., 612 So. 2d 707, 708–09 (Fla. 4th DCA 1993) (aff’ing sanction for failure to comply with order). Under Florida Statutes § 38.22, the Legislature specifically empowered the Court to punish direct, indirect, or constructive failures to comply with its orders, as contempt. § 38.22, Fla. Stat. (2017). The essence of contempt is a violation of a court order with which the contemnor was able to comply. Lake Worth Utils. Auth. v. Haverhill Gardens, Ltd., 415 So. 2d 125, 127 (Fla. 4th DCA 1982) (aff’ing award of fees for requiring proceeding to enforce order). The proper remedy for contempt by failure to comply with a court order is the award of attorney’s fees and costs to the aggrieved party. Id.

In your case, the Court may have ordered provision of a fact sheet, entitlement to fees and costs, or mediation of remaining issues. In your judgment, the Court may have specifically and expressly admonished all to comply or face sanctions. If you have made every effort to comply with the judgment, but the movant has failed to do the same, the Court may sanction the movant for disobeying the Court’s order.

If you have more questions on motions to vacate in Florida, contact Bernhard Law Firm at abernhard@bernhardlawfirm, www.bernhardlawfirm.com, 786-871-3349.

Bernhard Law Firm

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