Comprehensive tort reform spurs record filings
New cases initiated last month stood at 280,122. That influx was 126.9% higher than the previous record in May of 2021.
Florida’s statewide E-filing Portal shattered nearly every record in its book in March, according a progress report produced by Portal Program Manager Carolyn Weber.
The total number of documents filed through the Portal in March was 3.58 million (in 2.19 million submissions). Those numbers mark a 28% increase from February, and 10% higher than the record high in August 2022.
Even more staggering, Weber reported the number of new cases initiated last month stood at 280,122. That influx was 126.9% higher than the previous record in May of 2021.
Many argue that the influx of portal activity is directly related to the passage of HB 837, the comprehensive tort reform measure that passed by the Legislature and quickly signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis March 21.
“Clerks of Court across the state saw a tremendous increase in civil filings in anticipation of the passage and signing of House Bill 837,” Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers President and Martin County Clerk Carolyn Timmann said. “Our primary concern is having adequate resources to process the high volume of cases and appropriately serve all parties and the judiciary.”
The sweeping tort reform package applies only to lawsuits filed after the legislation went into effect following the governor’s signature. This prompted attorneys to flood the portal to have cases heard under the previous law.
The new law cuts in half the four-year statute of limitations for filing negligence lawsuits and it largely nixes the “one-way” attorney fees insurers often pay to cover the costs of plaintiffs’ lawyers.
Speaking with the Tallahassee Democrat, Florida Justice Association Secretary Todd Michaels said many of these cases would’ve been turned down or settled pre-suit, “But given the deadline, you have to file a suit to protect your client.”
Sarasota Clerk and Florida Courts E-Filing Authority Chair Karen Rushing said dedicated teams of clerks throughout the state are working to address “this avalanche.”
“It was obviously not expected, but we’re doing our best to manage it,” Rushing said.
Rushing said the crunch of new case initiations started around March 17 and that all clerks are experiencing the increase. Of the record number of new case initiations in March, Rushing said 71,000 of those come from Miami-Dade County and 53,000 from Hillsborough.
“The opinion that I and many of my colleagues on the bench have is ‘keep calm and carry on,’” said 11th Circuit Administrative Judge Jennifer Bailey, adding she believes the current backlog is all going to workout.
“These cases aren’t going to be heard all at once. It’s a mistake to panic,” Bailey said. “We have to treat each case according to its needs.”
Judge Bailey also praised the Florida Supreme Court on the implementation of its case information system for preventing unnecessary backlogs. Bailey also lauded the work of Interim Miami-Dade Clerk Luis G. Montaldo, who she’s been in contact with daily and say has “risen to the occasion.”
Before HB 837 was signed into law, Montaldo implemented a proactive plan to meet the increased surge of civil cases. This plan included authorization of daily, three-hours of overtime (totaling 680.5 hours thus far) for staff on a voluntary basis; authorization to open the office on Saturday, March 25, for an additional full-day of overtime; and a review of current clerk functions to ensure that those areas will not be impacted either by the surge of new cases or the proactive measures.
Last year (February 26 to March 27, 2022), the Miami-Dade Clerk’s Office created 15,359 new cases. During the same period this year, the office processed 62,440 new cases.
“In those areas where you have that kind of uptick it’s going to take a while for those cases to completely be filed, but everyone is focused on overtime and getting those things done,” Rushing said.
Florida’s court clerks were already facing budget deficits and problems with staff retention well before HB 837 took effect.
Polk Clerk and FCCC Legislative Chair Stacy Butterfield made a budget presentation before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Civil and Criminal Justice February 16 and told members “insufficient funding” has impacted the services the clerks provide.
Butterfield said employee costs make up over 90% of their budgets, and staffing issues directly impact clerk services.
“Our staff is stretched thin and we’re constantly plugging holes because we do not have the resources to be able to do all the pieces we need to do,” Butterfield said.
Now that new cases have flooded the portal over the last month, Rushing says clerks face an uphill battle.
“I think it’s fair to say that under current budget conditions, this unexpected volume is impossible to address right away,” Rushing said. “We don’t have the resources and it’s why we have to stay focused and apply as much overtime as we can with the budgets we have.”
The Senate sponsor of the tort reform law, Palm Coast Republican Travis Hutson, said that the number of new filings shows how much reforms are needed.
“I think it proves to us that the system is kind of broken and we need to reform it,” Hutson said. “You’re seeing all these lawsuits being filed now and it’s going to shock the system for a little bit, but eventually it will work itself out and we’ll be able to move forward under the new provisions.”
Hutson also knows the budget crunch clerks currently face as he serves as the sponsor of SB 1130, the measure that stands to diversify revenues, support staffing needs, and would give the clerks access to $31.2 million that would otherwise flow to the state’s general revenue fund.
“The clerks really do all the . . . heavy lifting and I’m glad to have a bill to reward their efforts for all they do,” Hutson told the Judiciary Committee on March 29.
Rushing said the new law has created an enormous volume and the clerks are doing their best to file quickly so that courts can depend on the record.
“It’s an interesting unintended consequence by the Legislature that this would have such impact statewide,” Rushing said. “It just shows how legislation affects many areas of our community.”