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Lawmakers up the civil jurisdiction for county courts

Senior Editor News in Photos

For the first time in 28 years, the Legislature has agreed to update a key “amount-in-controversy” monetary threshold that divides the workload between county and circuit courts.

Rep. LeekThe Senate voted 36-0 on May 3 to send the measure to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Leek, R-Daytona Beach, HB 337 would, among other things, raise the existing $15,000 county court threshold to $30,000, beginning January 1, 2020.

The bill would also raise the $30,000 threshold to $50,000 on January 1, 2023, but it includes another provision that calls for a study by the Office of State Courts Administrator to determine if the change is working. The study must be completed by February 1, 2021.

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

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

The proposal has its origins in the Supreme Court’s “Workgroup on County Court Jurisdiction,” created by Chief Justice Charles Canady last summer.

Using the Consumer Price Index as a guide, the workgroup recommended raising the county court threshold to slightly more than $27,000. Justices adopted a final recommendation that rounded the figure down to $25,000, but lawmakers rounded in the opposite direction.

The workgroup was chaired by Second DCA Judge Robert Morris and included two other state appellate judges, four circuit judges, 10 county court judges, and two trial court administrators.

The workgroup reported that county courts or their equivalent in 14 other states have jurisdictional thresholds of less than $15,000; five states share Florida’s threshold; six have a $25,000 threshold and 11 states have thresholds of $30,000 or more, with four of those states exceeding $50,000.

The workgroup also looked at Virginia, which recently increased its lower trial court threshold from $15,000 to $25,000.

The workgroup projected that hiking Florida’s existing threshold to $25,000 would shift 7.4 % of all circuit civil cases to county courts. It estimated that a $50,000 threshold would shift 25.9 %, of all circuit civil cases — or 27,408 filings — to county courts.

The workgroup also projected that a $100,000 threshold would shift two-thirds of all circuit civil filings — 70,478 — to county courts, which are projected to handle 90,000 cases this fiscal year without a jurisdiction change.

Leek originally proposed a $70,000 threshold, but Canady warned The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors in October that boosting the threshold too high would create administrative “complications.”

House and Senate sponsors differed on how to restructure appeals.

Under the final agreement, circuit courts would continue to hear county court appeals, except:

• “Appeals of county court orders or judgments where the amount in controversy is greater than $15,000,” which will go directly to district courts of appeal (a provision that expires on January 1, 2023.)

• County court orders or judgments “declaring invalid a state statute or a provision of the State Constitution.”

• Orders or judgments that county courts certify to district courts of appeal to be of great public importance.

In addition to relenting on a much higher threshold, Leek also agreed to drop a proposal that would have allowed litigants to contest the amount in controversy before the court heard the merits of the case.

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, argued that approach wasn’t practical as it would require a prehearing before the trial on the issues.

“I’m concerned about the plaintiff’s ability…to lay all this out on an evidentiary hearing before discovery has taken place,” Diamond said.