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Forest v. Batts

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

October 25, 2017

YULIA V. FOREST, Appellant,
v.
L. LISA BATTS and STUART LAW GROUP, P.A., f/k/a L. LISA BATTS, P.A., Appellees.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit, Martin County; Elizabeth A. Metzger, Judge; L.T. Case No. 432015CA000982AAXMX.

          James Prescott Curry of Curry, PL, Jupiter, for appellant.

          L. Lisa Batts of Stuart Law Group, P.A., Stuart, for appellees.

          Warner, J.

         The trial court entered summary final judgment in a legal malpractice action, concluding that the action was barred by the statute of limitations. Appellant challenges that ruling, arguing that the time for filing a cause of action for legal malpractice does not begin to run until the underlying legal proceeding has been completed through appellate review and judicial labor comes to an end. We agree with appellant that her legal malpractice action was timely filed within two years of the entry of the amended final judgment, which was entered after reversal of the final judgment on appeal. We therefore reverse.

         The appellee Lisa Batts, and others, represented appellant in her dissolution of marriage action against her former husband. During those proceedings, the court bifurcated the proceedings, granted the dissolution of the marriage, and awarded the marital home to the husband on the ground that it was a non-marital asset, as the court found that the wife made no special claim against that asset. The court reserved jurisdiction to enter a final judgment after resolving the remaining issues. The court ultimately entered a final judgment on all issues on January 24, 2011. In it, the court incorporated the prior order, determined the equitable distribution of assets and liabilities including the husband's IRA, and determined that no alimony would be awarded, as the husband did not have the ability to pay. The wife appealed that judgment, and this court affirmed in part and reversed in part. Forest-Kohl v. Kohl, 126 So.3d 1094 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012). We remanded for the court to make necessary findings regarding credit card debt and school loans but affirmed as to all other arguments. The trial court complied with the mandate by entering an amended final judgment on August 13, 2013. The appellant filed an appeal of this amended final judgment, but she voluntarily dismissed her appeal on October 4, 2013.

         In October 2013 the former husband sought to enforce the Second Amended Final Judgment. The former wife contends that his actions forced her to file bankruptcy in February 2014. Within the bankruptcy case the former wife first initiated her legal malpractice action in July 2014 through an adversary proceeding against appellee. It was later filed in state court on May 2015 pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section 1367(d), after the dismissal of the bankruptcy proceeding and within two years of the rendition of the amended final judgment.

         Appellee Batts moved to dismiss the complaint, claiming that the statute of limitations had run on the legal malpractice claim against her. She then moved for summary judgment, which the court ultimately granted. The court determined that the time for filing of a legal malpractice action ran from the time of the final judgment entered on January 24, 2011 (or thirty days thereafter). The court discounted the appeal of that final judgment, because the issues on appeal did not concern the matters upon which appellant's legal malpractice claim was based, namely claims for credits against non-marital assets which appellee should have pursued as well as the husband's income to support an alimony award. It also discounted the amended final judgment entered after remand, because the only terms that changed in the amended final judgment were the disposition of marital liabilities, not the equitable distribution of properties or alimony. Because the appellant knew that she had not received any interest in the non-marital properties or an award of alimony at the time of the 2011 final judgment, the court reasoned that the time for filing a legal malpractice claim began to run. The court entered summary final judgment, prompting this appeal.

         The standard of review of an order ruling on a motion for summary judgment which poses a pure question of law is de novo. State v. Presidential Women's Ctr., 937 So.2d 114, 116 (Fla. 2006); Major League Baseball v. Morsani, 790 So.2d 1071, 1074 (Fla. 2001).

         Section 95.11(4)(a), Florida Statutes (2015), provides that an action for legal malpractice "shall run from the time the cause of action is discovered or should have been discovered with due diligence." Our supreme court has interpreted this as meaning the time when finality occurs in the underlying cause of action in which any malpractice is alleged to have occurred:

[W]hen a malpractice action is predicated on errors or omissions committed in the course of litigation, and that litigation proceeds to judgment, the statute of limitations does not commence to run until the litigation is concluded by final judgment. To be specific, we hold that the statute of limitations does not commence to run until the final judgment becomes final. [FN 2 - For instance, a judgment becomes final either upon the expiration of the time for filing an appeal or postjudgment motions, or, if an appeal is taken, upon the appeal being affirmed and either the expiration of the time for filing motions for rehearing or a denial of the motions for rehearing.]
We therefore hold, in those cases that proceed to final judgment, the two-year statute of limitations for litigation-related malpractice under section 95.11(4)(a), Florida Statutes (1997), begins to run when final judgment becomes final. This bright-line rule will provide certainty and reduce litigation over when the statute starts to run. Without such a rule, the courts would be required to make a factual determination on a case by case basis as to when all the information necessary to establish the enforceable right was discovered or should have been discovered.

Silvestrone v. Edell, 721 So.2d 1173, 1175-76 (Fla. 1998) (emphasis supplied). In Silvestrone, a jury failed to award Silvestrone and his co-plaintiff significant damages in an antitrust case. Because of post-trial motions and attorney's fees issues, final judgment was not rendered for two years resolving all issues, which was not appealed. Silvestrone then filed a legal malpractice action against his attorneys. The trial court found that the statute of limitations ran from the date of the jury verdict, because it was then that the plaintiffs knew of the inadequate damage award and any legal ...


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