Officials working to address the concerns
By Gary Blankenship
From a lack of uniformity between counties to slow confirmations to difficulties in fixing errors, Florida lawyers are working their way through the state’s new e-filing system.
While it may prove frustrating at times, Tim Smith, chair of the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority, said the authority takes seriously the issues filers are reporting and is committed to identifying solutions and adding efficiencies moving forward.
A month and a half in, here is what some lawyers have found:
Dawn Ellis of Floral City handles probate cases all over Florida. For her, the Florida courts’ new mandatory electronic filing system for civil cases is not helpful.
She’s found that not all counties are accepting filings through the new statewide portal. Procedures and portal pull-down menus for filing vary county to county. When she pays filing fees through the portal using a credit card, the resulting statement has no details about which fees were paid for which cases, creating a bookkeeping headache.
One county rejected a petition because exhibits were attached in the same filing, Ellis said. Yet two others rejected petitions because the exhibits were not attached to the same filing.
“The system is killing me,” Ellis said. “You can’t do good; you can’t do the right thing.”
Ft. Lauderdale attorney Ernest Kollra, who handles primarily landlord/tenant issues, has a different problem. It’s taking days, and sometimes weeks, to get a case number when he files eviction cases, which effectively delays those cases.
He recounted filing several cases April 10. On May 1, he was still waiting for case numbers. “I know these people; I know these clerks work their tails off. I don’t understand it,” he said.
Kollra noted that a mailed notice to tenants is required in eviction cases, and attorneys must supply an addressed, stamped envelope to the clerk. Before e-filing, lawyers would have someone deliver the eviction action to the courthouse, with an extra copy and envelope, and clerks would mail that copy after assigning a case number. Now, he said, attorneys have to wait for the case number and then send someone to the courthouse with the envelope, essentially making the e-filing redundant, from the lawyer’s perspective.
Clearwater attorney Andy Sasso, a member of the Bar Board of Governors, ran into a problem encountered by other attorneys when he made a mistake in filing a document. He scanned the required confidentiality statement with an annual guardianship filing only to discover the electronic filing system wanted the confidentiality statement filed separately (there’s actually a section right above where a document is to be added where the confidential form is linked, ready to fill out and submit). The filing went into a special holding queue until the problems could be resolved.
So Sasso redid the filing with separate documents for the filing and the disclosure. But when he got to the part where he clicked to submit the corrected filing, the submit button was not active. The corrected documents could not be filed.
Sasso contacted his local clerk’s office, and was advised he needed to contact the help desk for the statewide e-filing portal. But the help desk, as expected, was overwhelmed with inquiries from lawyers. It took more than two weeks for a reply to Sasso’s e-filed inquiry. It advised him to contact his local clerk’s office.
By then, Sasso had fixed the problem, sort of. On advice from the local clerk’s office, he refiled the documents as a separate case and had them accepted. But, eventually, he received an automated notice reminding him the original filing was still in the holding queue, waiting to be corrected.
And so it goes as Florida lawyers grapple with the implementation of mandatory electronic filing for court cases.
The Florida Courts E-Filing Authority met last month saying the civil mandatory filing began on April 1 with relatively few problems.
“We expected there to be some growing pains as we all get used to new business processes. The authority is aware of the variation between counties and is working to try to address this. We will be reviewing this issue in depth at the May meeting, looking at standardized drop-down menus,” Smith said.
But there were problems, which proved worrisome to lawyers.
As Ellis found with her probate cases, two counties, in a March 25 administrative order from the Supreme Court, were given permission not to use the portal for e-filing and instead continue with their pre-existing, local e-filing systems. Those counties are Sarasota and Clay.
Besides those authorized exceptions, Ellis said she found Seminole County was not accepting electronic filings for new cases and that Hamilton County was not accepting any electronic filings. Kristy Morgan, chief deputy clerk in Hamilton, said that office did ask that paper backups be filed, but has accepted electronic filings since April 1. An inquiry to the Seminole clerk’s office was not returned before this News went to press.
Ft. Lauderdale’s Jay Fabrikant said he’s had long delays in getting certificates that cases have been accepted and case numbers for evictions in Broward. He said he’s also been unable to file evictions in Miami-Dade though the portal, and has been notified by the Miami-Dade clerk’s office that it is also not accepting small claims filings through the portal. An inquiry to the Miami-Dade clerk’s office was not returned by the News’ deadline.
Jerry Tepps, another lawyer handling evictions in Broward, estimated a case that once took two weeks from start to finish will now take two months because of delays associated with e-filing.
“For every case, if there are two or three filings, you’re dead,” he said. “Certainly, it’s changed the practice of law where you can’t get stuff done.”
Another concern from lawyers who practice in more than one county is variations in the menus on the portal depending in which county the papers are being filed.
“The thing that really irks me: Why do the counties have the right to do different procedures on the portal instead of being uniform throughout the state?” Fabrikant asked.
For someone like Ellis, with a statewide probate practice, it’s a major headache. She said she had filed in 17 different counties since the April 1 mandatory deadline.
“Every single county is handling this differently,” Ellis said.
“The drop-down menu where you pick which document type you are filing — it can be simple or complex,” Ellis said. “In one county, there were about 10 categories with 15 subcategories. I literally spent 10 minutes finding the name of the document I was trying to file. There had to be 75 choices. . . . Can’t the clerks get together and say, ‘Let’s all have the same drop-down menus?’”
The e-filing authority board has spent considerable time studying and discussing uniformity between counties, but concluded there was not time to completely reach that goal before the start of mandatory filing.
Lawyers also are frustrated about correcting problems when they make mistakes and filed documents go to the special holding queue.
“The problem is the e-portal doesn’t tell you what to do to correct it when it sticks it in that queue, and you can’t get ahold of anyone to tell you,” Kollra said.
Hoffman experienced frustration reviewing documents during the filing process. He noted the portal screens offered that option after every step, but he found it takes five to 20 minutes for the portal to provide the document.
One problem expected by the e-filing authority was delays in responding to inquiries to the help desk, which is severely understaffed. The authority is seeking an appropriation from the Legislature to dramatically expand its help desk staff. “It is notable that now we have been at this for four weeks that the call volumes have dramatically decreased as we have seen filings exceed 30,000 a day,” Smith said.
Ellis said she spent a couple weeks getting “vague” answers to emails before finally reaching someone by phone and getting her problem solved in minutes.
Paying filing fees through the portal also is a concern. Ellis said the portal does not provide a number or identification that links the payment to the case involved, and sometimes it takes a few days for payments to be credited.
That delay means she has to backtrack to figure out what charge applied to which clients.
“They’re asking us to do three or four more steps just to pay the filing fee,” Ellis said.
The lawyers who contacted the News about their e-filing woes were not entirely negative. Sasso noted that “95 percent of what I’ve done with the portal has been great — smooth, no glitches. I’m obviously greatly in support of the portal, but everybody recognizes there are going to be some glitches.”
Ellis, who experienced annoyance because of the county-by-county variations, said that the portal “as a system is a much cleaner, nicer system” than the individual electronic systems used by some counties before the portal. She added for an attorney who primarily does filings in one county and learns the details for filing in that county, the portal should work well.
“Everyone is committed to building on the success of the initial rollout of the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal and to assist local clerks of courts in this endeavor,” Smith said.