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Bright House Networks, LLC v. Cassidy

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

March 23, 2018

BRIGHT HOUSE NETWORKS, LLC, a Delaware Limited Liability Company, Appellant,
v.
ALBERT B. CASSIDY; STEVEN L. CASSIDY; PETER E. CASSIDY; CAROL CASSIDY RHINEHART; and MICHAEL H. CASSIDY, Appellees.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Polk County; Mark F. Carpanini, Judge.

          Eric J. Partlow and Donald A. Mihokovich of Adams and Reese, LLP, Tampa, for Appellant.

          John Marc Tamayo and Barbara W. Davis of Valenti, Campbell, Trohn, Tamayo & Aranda, P.A., Lakeland, for Appellees.

          SILBERMAN, Judge.

         Bright House Networks, LLC, appeals a final order denying its motion for attorney's fees based on a proposal for settlement that Bright House had served on one of the plaintiffs, Albert B. Cassidy, pursuant to section 768.79, Florida Statutes (2011), [1]and Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.442 (2012).[2] Because the trial court erred in determining that the proposal for settlement contained an ambiguity that could reasonably cause the offeree to be uncertain about the proposal's conditions, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         In 2012, five members of the Cassidy family filed a one-count complaint for breach of contract against Bright House. The Cassidys alleged that Bright House was providing cable services to the Cassidys free of all charges and costs pursuant to a contract, but Bright House began issuing 1099 tax forms for the value of the services beginning in 2011. The Cassidys alleged that these taxes are charges and costs that they should not have to bear.

         Bright House served "Defendant's Proposal for Settlement to Albert B. Cassidy" (the Proposal) in January 2013. He did not accept the Proposal. The Cassidys later amended their complaint to add a count for a declaratory judgment. After the trial court entered summary judgment in Bright House's favor, it filed a motion for attorney's fees and costs. Bright House sought attorney's fees based on its Proposal. Bright House asserts on appeal that it did not serve a proposal on any other plaintiff in order to avoid the issues that can arise with joint proposals for settlement.

         The Proposal defines the Offeror as Bright House and the Offeree as Albert B. Cassidy. At issue are paragraphs 4 and 6 of the Proposal which read as follows:

4. Relevant Conditions: Upon acceptance of this proposal, Offeree shall, within ten (10) days thereof, cause this civil action to be dismissed with prejudice as to all claims against Offeror. . . .
6. Claims to be Resolved: This proposal is to settle and otherwise fully and completely resolve all claims asserted by Offeree against Offeror in this action.

         The trial court denied Bright House's motion for attorney's fees because the court found that "[t]here is an inherent ambiguity created in Paragraph 4 of the Proposal for Settlement regarding which claims were to be dismissed." The trial court found that the Proposal "could reasonably cause Albert Cassidy to be unsure about the conditions of the Proposal." Recognizing that "the case law requires strict construction" with respect to proposals for settlement, the court found that the Proposal did not meet the particularity requirement of rule 1.442 and was invalid.

         Appellate review of a party's entitlement to attorney's fees under section 768.79 and rule 1.442 is de novo. Anderson v. Hilton Hotels Corp., 202 So.3d 846, 852 (Fla. 2016); Saterbo v. Markuson, 210 So.3d 135, 138 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016). Proposals made under the offer of judgment statute must strictly conform to the requirements of the statute and rule because the statutory award of attorney's fees is in derogation of the common law that usually provides for each party to pay its own fees. Anderson, 202 So.3d at 852. Rule 1.442(c)(2)(C) requires that proposals for settlement state relevant conditions with particularity. See State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Nichols, 932 So.2d 1067, 1078 (Fla. 2006). A lawsuit's dismissal "is a proper and relevant condition in an offer of judgment." Sherman v. Savastano, 220 So.3d 441, 443-44 (Fla. 4th DCA 2017) (quoting 1 Nation Tech. Corp. v. A1 Teletronics, Inc., 924 So.2d 3, 6, (Fla. 2d DCA 2005)). The condition of a dismissal must be stated with particularity in the proposal. Id. at 444. The version of rule 1.442(c)(2)(B) applicable here also provides that the proposal shall "identify the claim or claims the proposal is attempting to resolve."[3]

         The Florida Supreme Court has recognized that it may be impossible to rid proposals for ...


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