District Courts of Appeal

[The following is excerpted/adapted from a Continuing Legal Education (CLE) presentation I gave earlier this year for the Florida Bar Appellate Practice Section’s Monthly CLE Teleconference. Because the lecture was too long for one post, I’m breaking it down into several posts.]

Foreclosure cases are not what many think of as being the sexiest cases. But I have come to enjoy them. A major reason for that is that it is an area in which the law is evolving: much new law has been made over the past few years, and continues to be made.

It is undeniable that as the appellate courts have grappled with the issues in foreclosure cases, the emerging landscape has profoundly affected the litigation of the body of foreclosure cases that still remain in the system. But I believe there will an even greater impact on non-foreclosure litigation, as appellate court decisions in foreclosure cases that have analyzed more generally applicable principles, such as contract law and evidence law, are applied in other types of civil litigation.

Given the quantity of foreclosure cases that have been filed since the foreclosure crisis began, it was inevitable that appellate courts would eventually be hit with an influx of foreclosure appeals. And we have seen that over the past few years.

By my calculations, Florida District Courts of Appeal published about four times as many reported opinions in foreclosure cases between 2010 and 2014 as they did between 2000 and 2004. And I’ve heard second-hand reports that in recent months, foreclosure appeals have accounted for as much as half of all new appeals filed in the DCAs.

The huge number of foreclosure appeeals is, in part, a natural result of there being so many foreclosure cases filed in trial courts. But it’s also because foreclosure cases are more likely to wind up on appeal than other cases, which are most often resolved before there is any trial or appeal.

Foreclosure cases are different. For one thing, at least when the defendants are represented by counsel, foreclosure cases are much more likely to go to trial than other civil cases. Despite court-directed mediation programs and federal incentives encouraging loan modifications, a relatively small number of foreclosure cases settle. 

Second, foreclosure cases are more likely to have appealable issues. The trial courts have been instructed to move cases through the system as quickly as possible to clear the backload of foreclosures out of the court system and off the real estate market. And we all know the expression “haste makes waste.”

Volume also plays a role. Judges have many cases to decide, large banks have a high volume of foreclosures to process, and lawyers on both sides typically are dealing with a large number of cases at once. So mistakes are almost inevitable.

Counsel for foreclosure plaintiffs initially tried to get to judgment more quickly through motions for final summary judgment. Foreclosure trial judges were willing to grant such motions. But in a series of decisions, the district courts reversed many final summary judgments. Most of those reversals were due to the fact that for a plaintiff to obtain summary judgment, it must conclusively refute all of the defendant’s affirmative defenses.

Affirmative defenses are, of course, hugely important in foreclosure cases. Technical defenses are among the primary weapons in foreclosure defendants’ arsenals, and litigation over them can be more complicated than over the plaintiff’s establishment of its cause of action. So at this point, it seems lawyers representing foreclosure plaintiffs have deemed it advisable to go to trial and leave it to the defendants to try to prove their affirmative defenses, rather than trying to carry the burden of disproving them at summary judgment.

That’s why most of the more recent opinions coming out of the DCAs deal with judgments entered after trial. Due to the number of judgments after bench trial being reviewed and the centrality of technical defenses and arguments to foreclosure litigation, what seems like whole new bodies of case law have emerged from foreclosure appeals. More on the emerging case law in my next post.