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Chavez v. Tower Hill Signature Insurance Co.

Florida Court of Appeals, Third District

August 7, 2019

Juan Chavez, Appellant,
Tower Hill Signature Insurance Company, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          An Appeal from the Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, Miguel M. de la O, Judge. Lower Tribunal No. 17-19805

          David B. Pakula (Pembroke Pines); Michael A. Nuzzo, for appellant.

          Link & Rockenbach, P.A., and Kara Berard Rockenbach and Daniel M. Schwarz (West Palm Beach); Stone, Glass & Connolly, LLP, and Hugh J. Connolly, IV, for appellee.

          Before SALTER and MILLER, JJ., and LEBAN, Senior Judge.


         Juan Chavez ("Chavez") appeals the trial court's order granting final summary judgment in favor of Tower Hill Signature Insurance Company ("Tower Hill"). After an initial first-party property action brought by Chavez against Tower Hill was resolved by summary judgment in favor of Tower Hill, and subsequently affirmed on appeal, Chavez filed a replica lawsuit seeking damages arising out of the same loss. While baseball sage Yogi Berra's famous malapropism, "it's like déjà vu all over again" is worth hearing once more, Chavez's second lawsuit, a clone of his first, is not. Concluding that the current claim was barred by the doctrine of res judicata, we once again affirm the summary judgment.


         On April 20, 2014, Chavez sustained damage to his residence as a result of water leakage from a broken drain line. Chavez submitted a claim to his homeowner's insurer, Tower Hill, and competing estimates were prepared for the loss. Chavez's public adjuster estimated damages to be $106, 347.00, while Tower Hill's independent adjuster estimated damages to be $30, 785.92. Tower Hill issued payment in the amount of $25, 894.58 after application of the deductible and depreciation. Disagreeing with the payment amount, Chavez sued Tower Hill for breach of contract ("Chavez I"), for failing to make full payment for all of the damages sustained to Chavez's residence. In defense, Tower Hill affirmatively alleged that: (1) Chavez had already been paid for all of the damages associated with the covered loss; (2) there was no evidence that Chavez incurred any actual replacement costs over and above the payments already made; and (3) there was no evidence of any additional damages.

         The trial court granted Tower Hill's ensuing motion for summary judgment and entered an order expressly finding no breach by Tower Hill and providing that its order "does not preclude [Chavez] from submitting supplemental claims" pursuant to Slayton v. Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Co., 103 So.3d 934 (Fla. 5th DCA 2013) (finding payment of an insurance claim did not constitute breach of contract as insured was allowed to submit a supplemental claim). Chavez's motion for rehearing was denied and this Court per curiam affirmed the trial court's order granting summary judgment.[1]

         After this Court issued its affirmance in Chavez I, Chavez submitted to Tower Hill a conditional contract for the repair of the damage to Chavez's property resulting from the April 20, 2014 water leakage, proposing a total repair cost of $110, 050.00. Chavez refers to this proposal as a "sworn proof of loss." An addendum to the proposal, signed by Chavez and the contractor, J & J Construction, provided that the proposal was contingent upon coverage being provided and that either party could cancel "prior to the commencement of any repairs." Both parties agree that prior to filing the instant lawsuit, Chavez undertook no repair, incurred no expense in furtherance of repairing his property, nor did he allege or submit any proof of latent or hidden damages discovered after the filing of the Chavez I lawsuit. Tower Hill obtained a competing estimate, and on August 17, 2017, issued an additional payment totaling $7, 099.64. Disagreeing with the payment amount, Chavez sued Tower Hill for breach of the insurance policy ("Chavez II").

         In Chavez's amended complaint, filed on August 14, 2017, Chavez alleged that Tower Hill's failure to pay the amount of Chavez's "supplemental claim"[2] constituted a breach of the insurance contract. Tower Hill moved for summary judgment, arguing that the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel barred Chavez's lawsuit. A hearing was conducted, and on April 10, 2018, the trial court granted Tower Hill's motion for summary judgment, its written order stating in part:

The Court reiterates, as did Judge Schlesinger in his Order granting summary judgment in Case No. 2014-14150-CA-01 on February 23, 2015, and as the Defendant argued in its Answer Brief to the Third DCA, that Plaintiff is [sic] precluded from filing supplemental claims.[3]

         Chavez filed a motion for rehearing during which Chavez responded to the court's inquiry that he had not undertaken repairs, nor did he intend to do so. When discussing whether Chavez had filed a supplemental claim as expressly authorized in the Chavez I summary judgment order, the court stated:

There is no res judicata if it's a supplemental claim. If it's not a supplemental claim, there is res judicata. * * * I don't see how [Chavez II is] not barred by res judicata at this point until your client starts making repairs . . . I don't see anything that tells me I'm supposed to rule differently.

(Emphasis added). Although the trial court orally relied on res judicata during the rehearing motion, in its written order denying rehearing, the court relied on the law of the case doctrine, observing that "a per curiam decision of the appellate court is the law of the case between the same parties on the same issues and facts, and determines all issues necessarily involved in the appeal." The court's written order further stated that:

Plaintiff's claim that "Defendant prevailed in Chavez I by wrongly persuading both the trial court and the appellate court that under the controlling case law of Slayton" the Plaintiff is obligated to complete repairs and make a supplemental claim as a condition precedent to filing suit against the Defendant to challenge is of no moment. This Court is bound by these prior decisions.

         This appeal followed.


         This Court reviews summary judgment orders de novo, and summary judgment is only appropriate if there are no issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Volusia Cty. v. Aberdeen at Ormond Beach, L.P., 760 So.2d 126, 130 (Fla. 2000).


         The Doctrine Dilemma

         The trial court's vacillation between law of the case and res judicata is neither unique nor material to our resolution of this case. Both doctrines were raised and elements of each find support in the record. While the trial court's written order denying rehearing appears to rest on law of the case, its oral ruling at that hearing finds that, absent a "supplemental claim" to distinguish Chavez I from the instant case, "I don't see how [the case is] not barred by res judicata . . ."

         We hold that, based upon the Florida Supreme Court's analysis in Florida Department of Transportation v. Juliano, 801 So.2d 101 (Fla. 2001), this case is governed by the res judicata doctrine.[4] In Juliano, the Court acknowledged the confusion between these similar doctrines and clarified their application as follows:

[T]he doctrines of the law of the case and res judicata differ in two important ways. First, law of the case applies only to proceedings within the same case, while res judicata applies to proceedings in different cases. Second, the law of the case doctrine is narrower in application in that it bars consideration only of those legal issues that were actually considered and decided in a former appeal, while res judicata bars relitigation in a subsequent cause of action not only of claims raised, but also claims that could have been raised.

801 So.2d at 107 (internal citations omitted); see also McGregor v. Provident Tr. Co., 119 Fla. 718, 729 (Fla. 1935) (holding that "a judgment rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction, on the merits, is a bar to any future suit between the same parties or their privies upon the same cause of action, so long as it remains unreversed").

         Although the trial court may have conflated the doctrines, we reach the same conclusion under the principles of res judicata, as the doctrine was fully addressed by the parties, its elements established on the record, and expressly relied upon by the court at the proceedings on ...

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