Defendant's Attorney: Candy L. Messersmith and Lan B. Kennedy-Davis
Daytona Beach, FL - Divorce lawyer represented Appellant with appealing the orders denying his motion to vacate/set aside default judgments .
Appellant argues that the county
court lost monetary subject matter jurisdiction to entertain this case once
Appellee, Hoa Nguyen, filed her counterclaim seeking to enforce an oral
contract for the sale of real property, where the counterclaim explicitly sought
damages exceeding $15,000 exclusive of costs and attorney’s fees. At the
time Appellee’s counterclaim was filed, the county court’s monetary
jurisdiction ended at $15,000; thus, Appellee’s claim should have been
immediately transferred to circuit court. Accordingly, we reverse the
appealed orders, quash the default final judgment and amended default final
judgment, and remand to circuit court for further proceedings consistent with
On September 10, 2019, Appellant filed a pro se eviction complaint in
county court against Appellee, claiming that she stopped paying rent for a
condominium (the “Property”) he owned. In response, Appellee submitted
her pro se “Letter of Explanation” claiming that while she was dating
Appellant, he did not ask her to pay rent nor had they entered into any
contract that required her to pay rent. However, when Appellee discovered
that Appellant was still married, their relationship changed, and Appellant
asked her to pay rent.
Appellee then retained counsel who filed a Verified Answer, Affirmative
Defenses, and Counterclaim on behalf of Appellee on September 20, 2019.
Later, Appellee vacated the Property which Appellant claims led him to
believe that the lawsuit was over; thus, among other reasons, he did not
respond to Appellee’s counterclaim. Appellee moved for entry of a default,
which drew no response from Appellant. On November 1, 2019, the county
court entered a default final judgment and on January 14, 2020, entered an
amended final default judgment in favor of Appellee and against the
Appellant. The amended final judgment awarded Appellee $10,300 in
attorney’s fees, $4.95 in taxable costs, and $41,500 for the breach of the oral
contract Appellee claimed existed whereby Appellant was to sell the Property
to her in exchange for monthly installment payments she had made. The
amended final judgment also created an equitable lien on the Property which
Appellee later sought to enforce by moving on January 17, 2020, for an order
setting a judicial sale of the Property.
Appellant retained counsel who filed an appearance on January 17,
2020, and filed an emergency motion to vacate the amended final judgment
based on excusable neglect which also was included within Appellant’s
simultaneously filed proposed answer to the counterclaim. Included within
that motion was Appellant’s argument that Appellee sought relief outside the
county court’s jurisdiction and that the case should be transferred from
county court to circuit court based on the counterclaim seeking damages in
excess of the county court’s monetary jurisdiction and for seeking an
equitable lien which Appellant argued was only available in circuit court.
At the hearing held by the county court on May 13, 2020, Appellant
began to argue that the county court lacked subject matter and monetary
subject matter jurisdiction over the case. Appellee interrupted Appellant’s
argument and objected to the court entertaining that argument, asserting that
the only issues to consider were whether Appellant’s failure to respond
resulted from excusable neglect and whether he had acted with due diligence
to set aside the default. The county court sustained Appellee’s objection and
advised that it would not entertain further argument on the issue of subject
matter jurisdiction. Furthermore, the county court stated that any such
argument regarding a lack of subject matter jurisdiction had to be clearly
noticed and set for hearing in the future.
The parties submitted written closing arguments as directed by the
court. Appellant argued in his written closing argument that the county court
lacked subject matter and monetary subject matter jurisdiction given the
nature of and monetary amount of relief sought in the counterclaim. The
county court entered a written order on June 15, 2020, in which it denied
Appellant’s motion to set aside the default amended final judgment, finding
a lack of excusable neglect and a lack of due diligence. Consistent with its
earlier oral ruling sustaining Appellee’s objection, the order denying
Appellant’s motion made no ruling regarding or any mention whatsoever of
subject matter jurisdiction.
On July 16, 2020, Appellant filed another motion to vacate/set aside
the final judgment and amended final judgment, specifically arguing that the
default final judgment and amended default final judgment were void due to
lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on the jurisdictional amount asserted
in the counterclaim. Appellee filed a response in opposition to Appellant’s
motion to vacate/set aside the final judgments, arguing that Appellant was
attempting to bring the same arguments previously addressed by the county
court. In his reply, Appellant argued that the June 15, 2020 order did not
address the jurisdictional issue and merely adjudicated the threshold issues
of excusable neglect and due diligence.
On November 9, 2020, the county court held a hearing on Appellant’s
second motion to vacate and Appellee’s motion for attorney’s fees during
which the county judge stated:
At the prior hearing, I found that there was no excusable
neglect. Since that time, there’s been no appeal to that ruling.
At the hearing, that last hearing that we had to vacate, the
issue of whether there was subject matter jurisdiction was raised.
It wasn’t just raised in passing, it was raised in detail during the
hearing, in closing arguments, and was raised by both parties.
So, although it’s not adjudicated in the order, it was discussed by
the parties and it was considered and was not a grounds for
going back on the order.
At the November 2020 hearing, the trial court orally scheduled the
judicial sale date for December 9, 2020, but the written order scheduling the
sale for December 9, 2020, was not entered until December 7, 2020. The
county court orally denied Appellant’s second motion to vacate the default
judgments during this hearing but did not enter a corresponding written order
until February 3, 2021. In its written order, the county court found that
Appellant’s second motion was barred by res judicata. The Property was
sold during that judicial sale to a third party.
Appellant moved to vacate the sale asserting irregularities in the
proceedings leading up to the sale and based on the county court’s lack of
subject matter jurisdiction. Once again, the county court ruled that
Appellant’s subject matter jurisdiction argument was barred by res judicata.
Appellant timely appealed both the order denying Appellant’s second motion
to vacate/set aside the default final judgment and amended default judgment
and the order denying Appellant’s motion to vacate the judicial sale of the
Subject Matter Jurisdiction
“Questions of subject matter jurisdiction are reviewed de novo.”
Stanek-Cousins v. State, 912 So. 2d 43, 48 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005). “[A] lack
of subject matter jurisdiction renders a judgment void, ‘and a void judgment
can be attacked at any time, even collaterally.’” Hardman v. Koslowski, 135
So. 3d 434, 436 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014) (quoting Strommen v. Strommen, 927
So. 2d 176, 179 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006)).
It is clear that at the time Appellee filed her counterclaim, it exceeded
the monetary subject matter jurisdictional limits of the county court. See §
34.011, Fla. Stat. (2019). Furthermore, Florida Rule of Civil Procedure
If the demand of any counterclaim . . . exceeds the jurisdiction of
the court in which the action is pending, the action must be
transferred immediately to the court of the same county having
jurisdiction of the demand in the counterclaim . . . . The court
must order the transfer of the action and the transmittal of all
documents in it to the proper court . . . .
Thus, the relief, transferring the case to circuit court, initially requested by
Appellant was appropriate, and his argument that the county court lacked
jurisdiction was well taken.
However, “even an erroneous determination on the question of subject
matter jurisdiction may become res judicata on that issue if the jurisdictional
question was actually litigated and decided, or if a party had an opportunity
to contest subject matter jurisdiction and failed to do so.” State, Dep’t of
Transp. v. Bailey, 603 So. 2d 1384, 1387 (Fla. 1st DCA 1992). Appellant did
not timely appeal the first order denying his motion to vacate the default
judgments; thus, if the matter was actually litigated or waived, then Appellant
would be barred by res judicata.
We find that the issue of subject matter jurisdiction was clearly not
litigated. When Appellant attempted to argue at the first hearing that the
county court lacked jurisdiction, the county court sustained Appellee’s
objection. The written order denying Appellant’s first motion to vacate
referred only to the court’s finding that there was a lack of excusable neglect
and a lack of due diligence. As noted above, the written order did not rule
on or even mention subject matter jurisdiction. Appellant certainly did not
waive the issue of subject matter jurisdiction, having requested the case to
be transferred to circuit court in his written motion, orally attempting to argue
the county court’s lack of jurisdiction during the hearing, and explicitly
arguing the lack of jurisdiction in his written closing arguments.
In Bailey, the appellee filed a motion for summary judgment which was
granted by the trial court. 603 So. 2d at 1385. A final judgment was entered
for the appellee, and no appeal was brought. Id. The appellant filed a motion
for relief from judgment, which was denied by the trial court. Id. at 1385–86.
The appellant did not appeal that order. Id. The appellant then filed a second
motion to set aside the award of prejudgment interest with a more detailed
subject matter jurisdiction argument. Id. After the second motion was denied,
the appellant appealed. Id. The First District held that res judicata did not
preclude the appellant’s argument because the subject matter jurisdiction
argument was raised but not argued before the trial court and the trial court’s
order was not sufficiently specific to indicate that the trial court ruled on the
merits of the jurisdictional question. Id. at 1387.
When analyzing whether res judicata bars Appellant from asserting a
lack of subject matter jurisdiction, we must consider the overall purpose of
res judicata, which is to “preclude parties from contesting matters that they
have had a full and fair opportunity to litigate [which] protects their
adversaries from the expense and vexation [of] attending multiple lawsuits,
conserves judicial resources, and fosters reliance on judicial action by
minimizing the possibility of inconsistent decisions.” Montana v. United
States, 440 U.S. 147, 153–54 (1979). Here, due to Appellee’s objection
being sustained, Appellant was not given a full opportunity to litigate the
issue of subject matter jurisdiction during the first hearing.
Furthermore, we agree with the principle that “the doctrine [of res
judicata] should not be so rigidly applied as to defeat the ends of justice.”
Neidhart v. Pioneer Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass’n, 498 So. 2d 594, 596 (Fla. 2d
DCA 1986). We likewise adhere to the concept that if there is any doubt as
to whether the parties have had their day in court, that doubt should be
resolved in favor of full consideration of the matter. Id.
Outcome: For the reasons set forth above, we find that Appellant’s subject matter
jurisdiction argument was not barred by res judicata. Accordingly, we
reverse the appealed orders, quash the default final judgment and amended
default final judgment, and remand this matter to the circuit court for further
proceedings consistent with our opinion including entry of an order setting
aside the sale of the Property.