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County courts prepare for a ‘quiet restructuring’

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County courts are facing a “quiet restructuring” that for the first time since 1992 will expand their civil authority.

Beginning January 1, the $15,000 “amount in controversy” threshold that determines whether a lawsuit is filed in county or circuit court doubles to $30,000. Administrators have been preparing for a year, but the exact ramifications remain uncertain until litigants begin to file.

“We appreciate the confidence that the Legislature has shown in us by giving us more cases,” said Sarasota County Court Judge David Denkin. “We are sensitive to the fact that the numbers will change, but we have no idea how much.”

Judge David DenkinDenkin is the immediate past president of the Conference of County Court Judges of Florida and served on a working group formed last year by Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady. The group was chaired by Second DCA Judge Robert Morris and included two other appellate judges, two trial court administrators, four circuit judges, and 10 county court judges.

Using the Consumer Price Index as a guide, the working group ultimately recommended raising the threshold to $25,000, a figure the Supreme Court adopted in a final recommended order. The Legislature’s final work product, HB 337, went $5,000 higher.

And HB 337 moves the $30,000 threshold to $50,000 in 2023, but it also requires the Office of State Courts Administrator to submit a report on the restructuring to identify potential challenges.

“We have instruments in place to track the change,” Denkin said. “Projections are projections, so we’re going to track the numbers and report back the Legislature.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, called the change a “quiet restructuring.”

“We think this is going to be a significant shift,” Brandes said. “We think this is going to make the county courts much more relevant on the civil side.”

That increased relevance could pose challenges, according to the working group’s final report. One of the biggest is the potential for increased jury trials.

“Additional cases filed in county court may add a burden for counties handling civil cases in satellite courthouses, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough and others, where facilities are already crowded and have inadequate parking,” the report states.

The report suggests that chief judges could issue administrative orders requiring cases above $15,000 to be filed at the central courthouse, but that could “inconvenience litigants,” the report notes.

“Moreover, many county court judges handling civil cases are assigned hearing facilities that do not have jury rooms,” the report states. “Larger counties without assigned jury facilities for each courtroom handling civil cases include several high-volume courts such as Broward, Lee, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Pinellas.”

In 2018, some lawmakers proposed moving the threshold as high as $100,000, but the proposal failed when the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a final figure.

One of the biggest concerns was that court administrators couldn’t determine how many cases would shift from circuit to county courts because the system didn’t track filings based on the amounts in controversy, according to the working group report. Proposed changes to civil cover sheets should make the tracking easier in the future.

Using data from the National Center for State Courts and comparable case filings in Virginia, the working group estimated that 7,831 civil cases would be filed in county rather than circuit court if the threshold were moved from $15,000 to $25,000.

Such a shift, “may be absorbable within existing resources,” the working group concluded.

“For example, it is expected that the county court in Broward County would receive 1,181 of the 7,831 new county court cases,” the report states. “With 15 judges assigned to handle civil cases in county court, each judge would receive approximately 79 additional cases per year, or only 6.6 additional cases per month.”

HB 337 also provides that appeals of county court cases with amounts in controversy exceeding $15,000 go directly to district courts of appeal, but the legislation also repeals that provision on January 1, 2023.

The Supreme Court supported, “Adjudicating county court civil cases appealed with a value between $15,000 and $25,000 in the circuit court, allowing no direct appeal to district courts of appeal accept as otherwise provided by law.”

Another Supreme Court working group is studying the appeals issue.

Other provisions of HB 337 make low-cost mediation available in county court only in cases where the amount in controversy does not exceed $15,000, and adjusts filing fees paid to the clerk to maintain fiscal neutrality with respect to the threshold changes.

Office of State Courts Administrator spokesperson Paul Flemming said the courts have been preparing for the change since the chief justice formed the working group in 2018.

According to Flemming, the work includes:

• Preparing for technology changes required by the new limits, including working with clerks and the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority.

• Providing input and participating in a public awareness campaign in partnership with the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers and in consultation with The Florida Bar.

• Referral to The Florida Bar’s Civil Procedure Rules Committee to consider changes to the civil cover sheet and final disposition form. Approval from the Florida Supreme Court will be required to institute any changes.

• Designated contacts in trial and appellate courts are being recruited now to serve as outlets for communications and to provide information on impacts.

Despite the uncertainties, Judge Denkin said he’s ready to implement the changes.

“We’re going to hunker down and do the job that we were told to do,” he said. “If we’re going to need any additional support, we’ll ask for it, but we’re not going to ask for anything we don’t need.”