People make mistakes. Even lawyers. Even judges. We are all human after all, and to be human is to be fallible. In the pressure-packed environment of a trial or hearing, the probability that a mistake will be made is even greater.

Part of the job of an appellate lawyer is to comb through the record of what happened in the trial court, and with the benefit of a fresh perspective, find the errors, and explain to the appellate court what errors the trial judge made. But that is not the end of the story. Not even close. If it was, one would expect every appeal to result in reversal. The reality is otherwise.

Why? There are a host of reasons–ranging from the failure of the side that lost to preserve the issue (by making the argument to the trial judge) to the deference given to the trial judge in making certain decisions that he or she is in a better position to make–and there isn’t nearly enough space here to get into all of them.

The Harmless Error Doctrine

One of the most significant factors–at least when the decision being appealed was reached after a full-blown trial–is the doctrine of harmless error. It has been the subject of recent debate, and the Supreme Court of Florida is poised to set down the definitive word on the issue some time after it resumes its opinion cycle after the summer hiatus.

Harmless error, in a nutshell, is the idea that sometimes a trial judge’s ruling, even though incorrect, was too insignificant in the context of all of the trial evidence the jury saw to have impacted their decision. The doctrine exists because the law recognizes that trials are a tremendous ordeal and after so much effort by the parties, the trial judge, and the jury members, the results should not lightly be tossed aside.

After the two sides and the judge have spent so much time preparing for and conducting the trial, and the members of the jury have sacrificed their time to listen and deliberate and reach a decision, appellate courts are understandably hesitant to undo the result. On the other hand, the law is the law, and litigants have the right and expectation that the law will be applied correctly in their cases, whether or not that may cause inconvenience.

“Harmless error” is where appellate courts draw the line. In Florida, there is actually a statute that prohibits courts from reversing unless “in the opinion of the court to which application is made, after an examination of the entire case it shall appear that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.”

Drawing Lines 

But it is a lot easier to say that an error will not result in reversal when it is harmless than it is to figure out when an error was, in fact, harmless. How does the court know whether there has been “a miscarriage of justice”? Judges do not have the option of calling the jurors and asking them whether their decision would have been different if they had not heard testimony they should not have been allowed to hear, or if they had seen evidence they should have been allowed to see.

So appellate courts have created tests to be used as a substitute. Most recently, the Fourth District Court of Appeal of Florida (4th DCA), sitting en banc, wrestled with what test to use in its late 2011 decision in Special v. Baux, 79 So. 3d 755 (Fla. 4th DCA 2011) (en banc).

The court began by observing that prior decisions of the Supreme Court of Florida and District Courts of Appeal of Florida reflect two ways of looking at whether there was a “miscarriage of justice.”

One approach asks whether the result would have been the same if the error had not been made. That is, looking at all of the evidence, if the jury had seen what it was supposed to see, would it have reached the same decision anyway? If so, the error is harmless. If not, a new trial is required. The 4th DCA called this test a results-oriented approach.

The second approach looked at whether the error had “an adverse effect upon the jury’s verdict.” In other words it asks whether the error “contributed to the verdict.” Was the wrongfully admitted or excluded evidence something that played a part in the jury’s decision? The 4th DCA called this approach an “effect on the fact-finder” test.

Prior 4th DCA decisions had used the results-oriented approach, and every other District Court of Appeal had also adopted some variation of the results-oriented test. Nonetheless, in Special, the 4th DCA declared that approach to be inconsistent with Florida Supreme Court precedent, and that it improperly requires the appellate court to weigh the evidence, which is not the role of an appellate court.

In its place, the Fourth DCA became the first Florida District Court of Appeal to expressly adopt the “effect on the fact-finder approach.” The rule in civil cases, it said, should be that an error is harmless only if it is more likely than not that the error did not contribute to the verdict.

Are There Really Two Approaches? 

I am not convinced that the case law reflects two different approaches so much as two ways of describing the same approach. In my view, when prior cases describe harmless in two different ways, they are doing nothing more than describing the same coin from two opposite sides. Language in prior cases describing the harmless error test as asking whether the error “affected the verdict” may be stating nothing more than the other side of the question of of whether the verdict (i.e., the “result”) would have been different if not for the error.

If they are two approaches, the only difference between the two tests that I can think of is that under the “effect on the fact-finder” approach, an error can be harmful if it is something that the jury likely would have considered in the jury roorm, even if without the error, the jury would have reached exactly the same verdict relying on the other evidence in the case. 

A Better Test?  

I have a hard time understanding why the 4th DCA unanimously endorsed the “effect on the fact-finder” approach. How can there ever be “a miscarriage of justice” when the jury would have reached the same verdict? 

I understand the 4th DCA’s concerns about appellate courts re-weighing the evidence. The first thing any appellate attorney learns is that one should never make an argument that asks the appeals court to weigh the evidence to conclude that the jury reached the wrong verdict.

But examining the trial evidence seems unavoidable in performing a harmless error analysis regardless of the approach. That is particularly true in Florida, where the harmless error statute requires that harmless error be determined based on “an examination of the entire case.” Determining whether the error likely had an effect on the jury does not avoid that problem because one cannot determine how important evidence is without looking at its context.

I also understand the 4th DCA’s goal of enhancing predictability by creating a test that is intended to be less vague and to leave less room for arbitrariness. But I do not see how speculating about whether the jury considered particular evidence is any less vague than speculating about what result the jury would have reached if not for the error.

The 4th DCA also seems to have been concerned that its prior harmless error test was too stringent, i.e., that it made it too difficult to obtain a reversal. I have not done a statistical analysis, but I read almost every opinion issued by every DCA and the Florida Supreme Court. In my observation, which is informed but admittedly unscientific, the 4th DCA had as high a reversal rate before Special as any DCA in Florida.

So however its test was nominally described, I am not sure it was any more stringent in practice than the standards used by other DCAs. In my estimation, the 4th DCA’s ultimate formulation of the test, that an error will only be found to be harmless when the beneficiary of the error shows that is “more likely than not that the error did not contribute to the judgment” throws the balance too far in favor of reversal.

Under this test, I would expect that very few errors will be found to be harmless, and reversal will become increasingly common. As I said at the outset, there are errors in every trial. There is some evidence of this happening already. No doubt that is a good thing for parties that lose at trial. For parties that obtain favorable jury verdicts, not so much.

We Should Not Have to Wait Long for Clarification 

The real impact of the rule set down in Special has yet to be determined. The 4th DCA certified to the Supreme Court of Florida the question of what harmless error standard should be used in civil cases as a question of great public importance and the Supreme Court has taken up the issue. Briefing is complete, and the Supreme Court heard oral argument in April. It is now ripe for a ruling.

So we should not have too wait long to know how likely it will be that future mistakes, which will surely be made, will result in a new trial. 

In the past few years, the strangest things have started appearing in appellate decisions: images. That has been seen as so revolutionary that it has been widely covered in the legal press, with 7th Circuit opinions authored by Judge Richard Posner (as is often the case) drawing the most attention. The question is: why are judges now inserting images into their opinions?

The answer may be that astute judges are responding to the changing environment in which their opinions are being read. Appellate court opinions have been accessible online for years, and they are now more commonly read on “screens” — computers, iPads/tablets, and smartphones — than in books. And studies have shown that we read differently when looking at a screen than when looking at printed text on paper.

For example, here’s how scientists say our eyes track the data on a webpage:

http://www.usability.gov/images/fpattern.JPG

Notice the concentration of red on the left hand border of the page created by the eye searching down the page for its structure. Note also how the eye tends to skip around.

Astute legal writers — especially appellate lawyers — would be wise to take note of how different the reading experience is on a screen, and to take it into account when drafting court submissions. That point was persuasively made during a presentation at the Florida Conference of District Court of Appeal Judges last fall (which I and other members of the Florida Bar’s Appellate Practice Section were fortunate enough to attend).

Judges (and their clerks) are increasingly reading appellate briefs and other court submissions on computer screens, and when travelling, on iPads, Kindles and other e-readers, or on smartphones. (An informal survey during another presentation at the conference revealed Florida appellate judges to be tech-savvy and partial to iPhones and iPads, although Android phones were also represented).

The trend toward screen-reading will only increase now that e-filing is replacing paper filing.

In order for an appellate brief or any piece of legal writing to be persuasive, it must command the reader’s attention. And to get and keep a reader’s attention when he or she is reading on a screen, attorneys need to adopt the format of their documents to fit the environment.

How? In much the same way as one makes a webpage easy to read and engaging. Here are some suggestions:

  • Add spacing — Text is easier to read when it is surrounded by white space. Increase margins.  Large block paragraphs extending from margin to margin are a relic of book reading. They are difficult to digest when read on a screen, particularly when read on a Kindle or similar e-reader.
  • Shorten the paragraphs. Not only do shorter paragraphs make the document more palatable to the eye (and increase white space), but they also account for the attention span issues that have been engendered by the digital age.
  • Use headings more liberally. Effective headings are alot like soundbites — they grab the reader’s attention and drive home the point quickly before that attention is lost. Hopefully, they also encourage the reader to continue to read and pay attention.
  • Insert document bookmarks. If you’ve opened a .pdf of a recent Florida Supreme Court opinion, you may have noticed a menu bar on the left hand side mapping out the sections of the opinion. Document bookmarks help the reader to get a feel for the overall structure of the document. They also help the reader to easily navigate between sections and arguments. When the reader must scroll up and down the screen to find sections, a traditional table of contents is a much less helpful roadmap than a bookmarks bar, where the reader can click right on the section he or she is looking for.

And finally there’s the most radical idea: illustration with images. This practice is the most obvious concession to the effect the internet and it remains relatively unorthodox and somewhat controversial. So a fair amount of tact and judgment is needed.

But when used appropriately, tactfully, and sparingly, images can be highly effective. (If the picture is worth 1000 words, it can also help to make the brief shorter, which judges always appreciate). If nothing else, images command attention. Just ask Judge Posner. 

It’s been almost 5 years since the Florida Supreme Court issued its grand compromise decision in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006).  As contemplated by that decision, many individual suits have been filed by Engle class members.  Some have been tried to a verdict or have been dismissed, and are now on appeal.  Can it be long before the Florida Supreme Court is compelled to step in to definitively resolve the next round of Engle issues?  

The District Courts of Appeal have recently been grappling with the thorny issues resulting from the Court’s decision to decertify the class, but allow class members to take advantage of 8 findings made by the Engle jury by way of res judicata

The 1st DCA gave an early interpretation of how to apply Engle in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Martin, decided in December 2010, in upholding a $28.3 million judgment in favor of a deceased smoker’s widow.  The Florida Supreme Court denied review in Martin in July. (RJR v Martin_07-19-2011_Order_Denying Review.pdf). 

Although the 11th Circuit had earlier offered its own thoughts on Engle, Martin stood as the only state appellate court decision on this score.  That changed on September 21, 2011, when the 4th DCA weighed in on Engle in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Brown, expressing some (but in my view, not much) disagreement with the 1st DCA’s application of it.  The tobacco industry defendants, which can’t be too happy with Engle or its aftermath, are no doubt chomping at the bit to use any disagreement among the DCAs to convince the Supreme Court to take up the case. 

Although it’s dangerous to try to read tea leaves, the differences between Martin and Brown, understood in context, don’t seem to me to be the type of conflict that would ordinarily win review, particularly while the issues are still percolating in the other Districts.  On the other hand, the defendants may take a bit more hope from Chief Judge May’s stinging concurrence in Brown, which questioned whether Engle can be applied as written without violating due process, an implication that could give the justices more of an impetus to address these issues sooner rather than later. 

And the Supreme Court will undoubtedly be asked to take up some of the other issues percolating in the Engle progeny cases, such as the Constitutionality of the statute passed after the State’s settlement with the Tobacco industry, which reduces the bonds that industry defendants must post for appeals.  In addition, although the 3rd DCA has yet to take up the core issue addressed in Martin and Brown, last week in Rey v. Phillip Morris, Inc., it interpreted Engle (and applied traditional conspiracy principles) to hold that any class member can sue Lorillard, Liggett, and Vector Group for their role in the conspiracy to conceal information, even though the class member didn’t smoke those companies’ cigarettes, and can take advantage of the Engle findings.  The Supreme Court will no doubt be asked to review that decision as well.      

So I have no doubt that the court will wade back into this controversy sooner or later.  The question is which one.

More details below.

Continue Reading Tobacco Litigation Headed Back to Supreme Court?

Long before foreclosure lawsuits flooded Florida court dockets, chief judges here and throughout the country were fretting over how to deal with the even more daunting “asbestos-litigation crisis” [Amchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 597 (1997)]  That ongoing and seemingly endless litigation has been flooding the courts since the 1960s and in the words of Justice Souter, “defies customary judicial administration.” Ortiz v. Fibreboard Corp., 527 U.S. 815 (1999).

Other mass torts (a/k/a toxic torts) have come and gone, but asbestos litigation – the first of the species – lives on. As long as it does, so will legislative and judicial efforts to control, limit, or end asbestos litigation.

Joining several other states, the Florida Legislature passed legislation aimed at curbing asbestos litigation in 2005. Asbestos plaintiff lawyers, who had lobbied hard against the legislation’s passage, challenged it in court almost immediately.

On Friday, July 8, 2011, the Florida Supreme issued its long awaited decision in several of those challenges, American Optical Corporation v. Spiewak, Nos. 08-1616, 08-1640, 08-1617, & 08-1639.  The Court declared the law to be unconstitutional as applied to anyone whose claims had “accrued,” but had not gone to trial, prior to July 1, 2005.

The decision allows a group of plaintiffs to sue who could not have sued under the legislation.  The question is how large that group might be.  According to Adolfo Pesquera’s article in the DBR, some are suggesting that this decision will “open the floodgates.” But I have serious doubts about that.

As I read the decision, it won’t affect anyone who wasn’t diagnosed before the asbestos reform law went into effect on July 1, 2005. According to the Court, if you were diagnosed before that date, it was unconstitutional for the legislation to deprive you of your right to sue, because your claim had already accrued. 

But when your claim accrued, the statute of limitations started running on your claims. The statute of limitations is 4 years. It’s been almost 6 years since July 1, 2005. So if you didn’t haven’t filed suit already, it would seem to be too late now to do so.

So I’m not sure that any new suits can be filed.  And if other plaintiffs did file suit, their cases would presumably have been dismissed long ago under the auspices of the reform law.  Unless they were stayed pending the Court’s decision in American Optical, it would too late to revive most of them now.

A more detailed analysis of the backdrop of the case and the court’s analysis follows.

 

Continue Reading Florida Supreme Court Restricts Reach of Asbestos Litigation Reform Law

Real electronic filing may finally make its way to Florida courts in the not-too-distant future.  But before that happens, the Florida Supreme Court wants to make sure that there isn’t too much private information in court filings for the public to access.

On June 30, 2011, the Court adopted sweeping new rules about what information can and can’t be put in the court file.  Florida litigators who want to avoid the sanctions that can be imposed for violating the new rules shouldn’t wait too long to become familiar with them — they are going into effect on October 1, 2011.

For the time being, the privacy rules don’t affect criminal cases, for the most part, but they affect all civil cases.  And the reprieve in criminal cases isn’t likely to last very long.

Here is a breakdown of the Rule changes you need to know:

Florida Rule of Judicial Administration 2.425

Rule of Judicial Administration 2.425, which was added by the Court’s June 30, 2011 Amendments, contains the overarching principles. So if you learn that Rule (and remember to apply it in whatever context you find yourself) you’ll be most of the way there. But one caution: Rule 2.425 only states a default rule — it gives way to conflicting Rules, statutes, and orders.

This chart spells out the types of information that are subject to Rule 2.425:

Restricted Info:     Can include in a filing?           Exceptions:

Child’s Name           Initials only                        Orders re: time-sharing, parental
                                                                   responsibility, or child support. 
                                                                   Any document re: child’s ownership of real property.
Birthdates               Year only                           Any party’s full birthdate in writ of attachment
                                                                   or notice to payor. Child’s full birthdate when
                                                                   necessary for jurisdiction.
Social Sec. #s              No                               General exceptions
Bank Account #s           No                               General exceptions
Credit/Debit Card #       No                               General exceptions
Charge Account #          No                               General exceptions
Drivers License #          Last 4 digits only            General exceptions
Passport #                   Last 4 digits only            General exceptions
Taxpayer ID #              Last 4 digits only            General exceptions
Employee ID #             Last 4 digits only            General exceptions
Phone #                      Last 4 digits only            General exceptions
Insurance Policy #         Last 4 digits only            General exceptions
Loan #                        Last 4 digits only            General exceptions
Patient/health care #      Last 4 digits only            General exceptions
Customer Accont #        Last 4 digits only            General exceptions
Email address               Truncated                      General exceptions
User name                   Truncated                      General exceptions
Password                     Truncated                      General exceptions
PIN #s                        Truncated                      General exceptions
Other sensitive info:      Truncated as per court order

General Exceptions:

  • Statute, Rule or Order authorizes the inclusion of the information in a filing
  • Account number is necessary to identify property at issue in a case.
  • Information that is “relevant and material to an issue before the court.” [!!! This looks to me like an exception that you could drive a truck through.  It’ll be interesting to see how courts interpret it.]
  • Records in an administrative, agency, appellate, or review proceeding.
  • Information used by the clerk or the court for file and case management purposes.
  • Criminal cases are temporarily exempt.
  • Traffic court cases are temporarily exempt.
  • Small claims cases are temporarily exempt.

A Few Other Notes:

What effect does Rule 2.425 have on parties’ ability to obtain a protective order?  According to the Rule itself, none.  But I’d be surprised if judges’ opinions on what information should be kept private were not influenced by the views of the Supreme Court as expressed in Rule 2.425.

The Rule also claims that it “does not affect the application of constitutional provisions, statutes, or rules of court regarding confidential information or access to public information.”  I’m not sure how that could be so, but again, we’ll see how courts interpret that subsection.

The Court is also amending quite a few other Rules to accomodate Rule 2.425.  Changes are being made to the Rules of Civil Procedure, particularly with regard to filing discovery documents, the Family Law Rules of Procedure, the Rules of Appellate Procedure, Probate Rules, and to a lesser extent, Criminal Procedure and Small Claims Rules, as well as several forms.

The amendments to those rules and forms are listed below. 

Continue Reading A Primer on the New Privacy Rules for Florida Court Filings