In litigation, oftentimes the judge will issue an oral ruling from the bench before issuing a written order. In many cases, the trial judge will ask the parties to submit a draft written order that conforms to the judge’s verbal ruling. A Florida appellate court, in Grommers v. Correa, 3D23-0274 (3rd DCA 2023), held that after a hearing on a number of motions in a guardianship proceeding wherein the trial court issued verbal rulings, the voluntary dismissal of the action by the petitioner divested the trial court of jurisdiction to enter its written orders.
Apparently, the hearing was held and the judge issued verbal rulings adverse to the petitioner. Shortly after the hearing but before the trial court judge issued written rulings, the petitioner dismissed his actions. The trial court nevertheless issued its written rulings, and the petitioner sought to quash the trial court’s orders.
Florida law is pretty well established that verbal rulings have no weight in Florida – only the written orders have effect. And the voluntary dismissal of action does truly end most, if not all, of the court’s jurisdiction over a matter.
Even where a plaintiff or petitioner files a notice of voluntary dismissal after the trial court orally announces a ruling at a hearing, the trial court acts in excess of its jurisdiction when it subsequently enters a written order of its ruling. wo Islands Dev. Corp., 239 So.3d at 125; Semerena, 248 So.3d at 231. Thus, Grommers’ voluntary dismissal terminated his action, and the trial court was thereafter divested of jurisdiction to “memorialize” its December 22nd rulings in the January 25th order.
Although not mentioned by the appellate court, the situation is similar to that where the trial court judge issues his or her verbal ruling from the bench, but dies, resigns, or is removed from the bench before issuing the written opinion. In Carr v. Byers, 578 So.2d 347 (1st DCA 1991), a bench trial was held where the judge issued a verbal ruling, and asked one of the litigants to prepare a proposed final judgment. Before signing the final judgment, the trial court judge was killed in an airplane crash. The new judge signed the proposal final judgment.
While there are no Florida cases which involve these exact circumstances, we hold that until rendered, the decision of a trial judge is not a judgment, and the above cited rule applies. Here, the predecessor judge did not render final judgment. A “proposed” final judgment was reduced to writing by the predecessor judge, but it was not signed by him, recorded or filed, or publicly announced. The successor judge therefore erred in signing and filing the proposed final judgment without hearing the evidence.
Here, however, it is entirely possible the judge who heard the evidence could have changed his mind before rendering his order. In any event, it would be speculative to assume the first judge would have written substantially the same order as that fashioned by his successor. See Silvern v. Silvern, 252 So.2d 865 (Fla. 3d DCA 1971), wherein a judgment, written by one judge after he left office and signed by his successor, was held invalid.
Apparently, Florida appellate courts have fairly consistently held that verbal rulings issued from the bench are essentially without much if any, legal force. Therefore, the act of dismissing a pending action after an adverse oral ruling but prior to the written decision, is allowed.