By Gary Blankenship
Phone lines to the help desk were jammed, but few other problems were reported as mandatory electronic filing in Florida courts for civil cases went into effect on April 1. Clerks and the agency that oversees the statewide portal through which the filing is done reported a huge jump in filings as the date passed when attorneys were required to make electronic rather than paper submissions.
The portal reported 20,590 filings encompassing 31,730 documents on April 1, a 445 percent increase in filings and 450 percent increase in documents from the daily average for March. A total of 10,566 attorneys made filings on that first day, and those attorneys logged in a total of 24,920 times during the day.
On April 2, there were 25,506 total filings and the number rose to almost 28,000 on April 3. On April 4, there were 28,554 filings. By week’s end the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal was expected to have processed well over 100,000 filings.
“We were well prepared and things went well,” said Escambia County Clerk of Court Pamela Childers, in comments that were echoed around the state. “And the case count was good.”
“Things have gone as smooth as silk,” said Miami-Dade Clerk of Court Harvey Ruvin, whose office reported 4,263 circuit and county court civil filings in April 1 and 5,757 on April 2.
And any problems? “Nothing worth mentioning,” Ruvin said.
Putnam County Clerk of Court Tim Smith, chair of the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority Board, which oversees the portal, praised the initial results.
“I am pleased with where we are and the number of new cases e-filed demonstrates that the architecture and design of the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal is successful. As we move forward, we will collectively improve the functionality and prove that building on existing infrastructure was appropriate,” Smith said. “As with any project of statewide magnitude such as this one, we have seen some issues and we are working on them. By and large though, the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal is running smoothly.”
None of the 67 counties were forced to ask for an extension from the Supreme Court to comply, although some weren’t ready until just before the deadline.
Officials in Hillsborough County didn’t “throw the switch” to be able to accept electronic filings in new cases until March 31. But the clerk’s office there handled 1,306 filings on the first day.
Kathy Regan said the number of new case filings was low on the first day, but that was expected to increase as the week went along and more attorneys and their staffs became familiar with the system.
“It’s new for the attorneys; they’re getting accustomed to the [e-filing] rules,” added Doug Bakke.
Some lawyers were apparently unready for the change. Leon County Clerk of Court Bob Inzer said 50 to 60 paper filings were dropped off at his office on Monday, while about 190 cases were electronically filed — about the average for his office. But filings were spiking upward on April 2. Inzer said he planned to begin giving those dropping off paper filing copies of the Supreme Court order.
Other clerks said they had fewer attempts to file paper. Regan, in Hillsborough County, said lawyers were reminded in the weeks prior to April 1 that the office would not be accepting paper filings.
Patrick Pinkerton, who reviews incoming electronic filings at the Leon County clerk’s office, said percentage of filings that come in without problems is “in the high 90s.”
Common problems, he said, are picking the wrong county to file, errors in the case number, and making mistakes with scanning documents. He also said that problem filings go into a special holding folder and lawyers are notified and have five days to fix problems. But instead of fixing the problem, some file new, corrected documents which leaves clerks unaware the documents in the folder have been supplanted. If older documents are not corrected, clerks have to make a best guess about where and how they are filed, he said.
Gypsy Bailey, who also works in Inzer’s office, said scanning problems include setting the resolution too high, scanning documents as images instead of text documents that can be searched, and setting the scanner to gray scale instead of black and white. She noted that standards require documents to be submitted in a PDF format that can be searched and that also comply with ADA requirements.
Other clerks also said there have been some problems with scanned documents, including that attorneys set the resolution (which should be 300 dpi) too high which results in oversized documents.
Aside from civil cases in trial courts, April 1 was also the start of mandatory e-filing for the Supreme Court.
“It’s actually gone overall really well,” said Supreme Court Clerk Tom Hall. “We’ve had a few little glitches, but nothing you would not expect given that you’re doing something of this magnitude.”
Overall, the court had about 35 filings in the first two days, slightly down from normal volume, but Hall said lawyers might be adjusting to the new system.
“We got a lot of phone calls from people trying to figure out the logistics of what they have to do,” he said. “I was still amazed at how many people called up and said, ‘We didn’t know anything about this.’ We kind of talk them through it and they got up to speed and got everything filed.”
The Attorney General’s Office walked over a large paper filing in a death penalty case, Hall said, but only because those employees thought the court might want a paper backup. “They said they were glad to file electronically, and 15 minutes later they did file electronically,” he said.
Beth Allman, spokesperson for the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, which provides staffing services for the portal authority, said the portal’s telephone help line was jammed with calls the first day. She advised attorneys not to call more than once, as multiple calls will not lead to a faster call-back and only jams up the system.
She noted, “The Florida Courts E-Filing Authority has a list of “Frequently Asked Questions” posted on the website that answers a lot of the basic questions many callers have had.” They are located at:www.flclerks.com/e-Filing_Authority/eFiling_faq1.html. Additionally, there are a number of instructional videos and manuals found on the main Authority page, lower lefthand side. The web address for that page is www.flclerks.com/eFiling_authority.html.
Several clerks’ employees around the state noted aside from instructional information included on the portal authority’s website, several local clerk offices have e-filing advice on their local sites to help lawyers and their staffs.