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Defendant's Attorney: Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas LLP and Jonathan Mann
and Robin Bresky
Miami, Florida - Trust Litigation lawyer represented Appellants/Petitioners with asserting that they had an ownership interest in the property.
Paul A. Thompson, as trustee of the Paul A. Thompson and Virginia A.
Thompson Revocable Trust, filed an unlawful detainer action in county court
under section 82.04, Florida Statutes (2019), seeking to remove John A.
Thompson and Nanette Thompson from a residential property held by the
trust. In their answer, John and Nanette asserted, among other things, that
John had an ownership interest in the property as a beneficiary under the
trust and an equitable interest in the property based upon improvements that
he made to it. After a trial, final judgment was entered in favor of the trustee.
John and Nanette then filed two Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.540(b)(2)
motions to vacate the final judgment. Following hearings, the county court
denied John and Nanette’s motions to vacate.
In case number 3D21-0165, John and Nanette seek review of the trial
court’s denial of their motions to vacate, arguing the county court lacked
subject matter jurisdiction1 to consider the action once they asserted an
equitable ownership interest in the property via answer.
Because we decide
1 “Jurisdiction of the subject-matter of an action is a power to adjudge
concerning the general question involved therein, and is not dependent upon
the state of facts which may appear in a particular case or the ultimate
existence of a good cause of action in the plaintiff therein.” Bohlinger v.
Higginbotham, 70 So. 2d 911, 915 (Fla. 1954) (quoting Quigley v. Cremin,
113 So. 892, 894 (Fla. 1927)).
2 Although John and Nanette challenged the county court’s subject matter
jurisdiction in their second motion to vacate, they did so on a basis different
in John and Nanette’s favor solely on this issue, we do not reach the other
arguments raised on appeal.
“Unlawful detention is a statutory action created under chapter 82,”
Colantonio v. Moog, 326 So. 3d 807, 809 (Fla. 5th DCA 2021), the essence
of which is a claim for “unlawful withholding of possession by the defendant,”
Se. Fid. Ins. Co. v. Berman, 231 So. 2d 249, 251 (Fla. 3d DCA 1970). The
issue raised by a claim of unlawful detainer is one of possession, not ultimate
title to the property. § 82.04, Fla. Stat. (“The court shall determine only the
right of possession and any damages. Unless it is necessary to determine
the right of possession or the record titleholder, the court may not determine
the question of title.”); see Floro v. Parker, 205 So. 2d 363, 366 (Fla. 2d DCA
1967) (“[I]t is immaterial whether plaintiff had the [l]egal right of possession
or not. He may have been devoid of any muniments of title, or even be a
trespasser. So long as he had peaceful prior possession and had been
forcibly put out of that possession by defendant, the action would lie.”); see,
from the one presented to us. This does not preclude our review, as the
issue of whether the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction may be raised
for the first time on appeal. Contreras v. Contreras, 336 So. 3d 772, 773
(Fla. 3d DCA 2021) (“A legion of cases make it clear that the issue of subject
matter jurisdiction may be considered by an appellate court even though
raised for the first time on appeal.” (quoting Parker v. Parker, 553 So. 2d 309,
311 (Fla. 1st DCA 1989))).
e.g., § 82.101, Fla. Stat. (“A judgment rendered either for the plaintiff or the
defendant pursuant to this chapter may be superseded, in whole or in part,
by a subsequent judgment in an action for trespass for injury to the real
property, ejectment, or quiet title involving the same parties with respect to
the same real property.”). Because a claim for unlawful detainer concerns
possession of real property, as long as the amount in controversy
requirement is met, exclusive jurisdiction lies in the county court, where this
case undisputedly was properly filed. § 34.011(2), Fla. Stat.; Pro-Art Dental
Lab, Inc. v. V-Strategic Grp., LLC, 986 So. 2d 1244, 1251 (Fla. 2008).
However, when John and Nanette answered that John was a
beneficiary of the trust and had an equitable ownership interest in the
property, the matter sounded in ejectment. See Toledo v. Escamilla, 962
So. 2d 1028, 1030 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007) (“[W]hen Ms. Toledo asserted in her
answer that she was not a tenant and that she had an equitable interest in
the property, ejectment, not eviction, was the proper remedy . . . .”);
Mesnikoff v. FQ Backyard Trading, LLC, 239 So. 3d 765, 770 (Fla. 3d DCA
2018). Section 26.012(2)(f), Florida Statutes (2019), provides that the circuit
courts of this state have “exclusive original jurisdiction” over ejectment
actions. See also Pro-Art Dental Lab, Inc., 986 So. 2d at 1250 (“Florida’s
county courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction to entertain ejectment
actions.”). As such, the matter could only have proceeded to judgment
before a circuit court. See Dupree v. Dellmar, 323 So. 3d 343, 344 (Fla. 3d
DCA 2021) (holding that “county court exceeded its jurisdiction in
adjudicating issues related to [defendant’s] claims of an equitable interest in
real property” raised in counterclaim or affirmative defense); Ward v. Est. of
Ward, 1 So. 3d 238, 239 (Fla. 1st DCA 2008).
Because the county court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to
adjudicate John and Nanette’s claim of an equitable interest in the property,
the final judgment is void. Quinones v. Quinones, 569 So. 2d 884, 885 (Fla.
3d DCA 1990) (“Without jurisdiction over the subject matter, the judgment
was void.”); Esposito v. Horning, 416 So. 2d 896, 898 (Fla. 4th DCA 1982)
(“[J]urisdiction is not a question a court can take or leave, and a judgment
entered without jurisdiction is void.”). We therefore vacate the final judgment
and remand with instructions to transfer the action to the circuit court. See
Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.060(a) (“If it should appear at any time that an action is
pending in the wrong court of any county, it may be transferred to the proper
court within said county by the same method as provided in rule 1.170(j).”);
Golden Cape of Fla., Inc. v. Ospina, 324 So. 3d 558, 560 (Fla. 3d DCA 2021)
(reversing county court’s dismissal with prejudice of ejectment suit and
remanding with instructions to transfer cause to circuit court where
jurisdiction lies); Mendez v. Ortega, 134 So. 2d 247, 248 (Fla. 3d DCA 1961)
(“Courts are bound to take notice of the limits of their authority and if want of
jurisdiction appears at any stage of the proceedings, original or appellate,
the court should notice the defect and enter an appropriate order.”).
Outcome: While their first motion to vacate was pending in the county court, John
and Nanette filed a petition for writ of prohibition in the circuit court
challenging the county court’s jurisdiction to proceed in the case. By petition
for writ of mandamus in case number 3D21-2335, they seek an order
compelling the circuit court to transfer to this court their petition for writ of
prohibition under the changes to the circuit court’s jurisdiction that took effect
on January 1, 2021. See Ch. 20-61, § 3, Laws of Fla. Given our holding that
the county court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate the trustee’s action and
instructions on remand to transfer the cause to the circuit court, we deny the
petition for writ of mandamus as moot.3