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Civil cy pres bill passes House panel

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Rep. Anna Eskamani

Rep. Anna Eskamani

A bill that would allow unclaimed funds in civil class action suits to go to civil legal aid agencies has passed a House subcommittee.

HB 409, by Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, cleared the House Civil Justice and Property Rights Subcommittee on March 12. The bill is supported by The Florida Bar Foundation.

“It would allow the doctrine of cy pres to be applied in class action lawsuits to allow left over funds that are unclaimed to go toward civil legal aid organizations,” Eskamani said.

Especially during the pandemic, legal aid offices are overwhelmed with cases, including on evictions and domestic violence, she said, adding, “This is a private solution to keep their coffers to a point where they continue providing this essential service to our constituents.”

She also said 24 other states have similar laws or provisions.

As originally drafted, the bill would have allowed unclaimed funds from class action cases to go to charities related to the cause of the action, including legal aid agencies.

Eskamani offered — and the subcommittee approved — an amendment that would limit the recipients “to one or more nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations that provide either civil legal services to the poor or funding or support for the provision of civil legal services to the poor reasonably related to the subject matter and purposes of the civil matter involved.”

“We really do want the intent to be [unclaimed funds from] civil cases go to civil legal aid,” she said.

In response to a question, Eskamani said the Supreme Court had rejected a proposed rule that would have allowed cy pres awards in civil cases, with justices saying it was a matter for the Legislature.

She also said, in response to another question, that cy pres already exists in the probate code for trusts. “It’s specific to just trusts, and so this expansion would allow it to apply to class action lawsuits,” Eskamani said. “Federal judges oftentimes are able to apply the cy pres doctrine when it comes to civil cases, but at the state level, we are not able to.”

Paulo Annino, director of the Florida State University College of Law Public Interest Law Center, said the doctrine of cy pres dates back to the year 544.

“What we’re doing here in this bill is simply codifying a principle that is really engrained in western jurisprudence,” he said. “It’s not going to cost the cities, the state, any corporation; it’s not going to cost money to do this and the benefit is…it’s going to help out access to legal justice.”

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, noted a Foundation study that showed every dollar spent on legal aid generates more than $7 in economic impacts.

“There’s a clear connection to the idea of making sure that people have access to an attorney yields economic benefit to our state,” he said.

Noting she had worked with subcommittee Chair Rep. Wyman Duggan, R-Jacksonville, on the bill and amendment, Eskamani said, “This is a great bipartisan product. I think at the end of the day when you are in a situation where you need support of a pro bono attorney, nobody cares what your party is. Everyone should have access to representation in cases of desperation and we have seen the real-life impact of that throughout the pandemic.”

HB 409 passed 16-0 and next goes to the Public Integrity and Elections Committee and Judiciary Committee. Its Senate counterpart, SB 1270 by Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, has been referred to the Judiciary, Community Affairs, and Rules committees, but has not been heard in committee.

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