Florida Probate Court Reversed For Failing To Follow New Summary Judgment Rule

In Jones v. Ervolino, a May 18, 2022 opinion from the Florida Third District Court of Appeal, the probate court was reversed for failing to comply with Florida’s new summary judgment rule enacted in May 2021.  The May 2021 new summary judgment rule applies to adjudication of any summary judgment motion decided on or after May 1, 2021.

The Facts of Jones v. Ervolino

Bernard Jones filed a petition for administration in Florida probate court after the death of Ronald David Scheffler.  Jones claimed he was the sole beneficiary under Scheffler’s will, and sought to be appointed as the personal representative of the estate.

Kathryn Ervolino, decedent’s niece, filed a separate petition for administration and sought to be appointed as the personal representative.  Ervolino claimed that decedent died without a valid will.

After discovery was conducted, Ervolino filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the will was invalid as a matter of law pursuant to section 732.502(1)(c), Fla. Stat., (the statute governing the execution of wills in Florida) and that the estate should proceed by intestate administration.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Ervolino, stating:

The Court having heard from all the parties, the Court grants the motion for summary judgment. The Court enters a final judgment denying the amended petition to probate will. The Court grants the petition for intestate administration. The Court appoints Kathryn Ervolino as personal representative of the estate.

The Florida probate court subsequently entered a written summary judgment order providing:

Kathryn Ervolino’s petition for intestate administration is granted. Kathryn Ervolino’s Motion for Summary Judgment is granted. Bernard Jones’s amended petition for testate administration and imposition of a constructive trust is respectfully denied.

This appeal followed.

What Is Required Under the New Florida Summary Judgment Rule?

New Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 was enacted in May 2021 and governs summary judgment proceedings in Florida.

The summary judgment rule has several new requirements that govern summary judgment in Florida, including the time to serve a motion (must be at least 40 days before the hearing) and a more liberal summary judgment standard in line with the federal rule.  For an in-depth discussion, read A Primer on Florida’s New Summary Judgment Standard.

In this case, the issue was the requirements for an order granting summary judgment.

Reasons For Granting Or Denying Summary Judgment Must Be Stated On the Record

The reasons for granting or denying summary judgment under the new Florida rule MUST be stated on the record.

Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510(a) provides that:

A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense-or the part of each claim or defense-on which summary judgment is sought. The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The court shall state on the record the reasons for granting or denying the motion. The summary judgment standard provided for in this rule shall be construed and applied in accordance with the federal summary judgment standard.

The Florida appellate court determined that the probate court did not comply with this requirement of the summary judgment rule:

“To comply with this requirement, it will not be enough for the court to make a conclusory statement that there is or is not a genuine dispute as to a material fact. The court must state the reasons for its decision with enough specificity to provide useful guidance to the parties and, if necessary, to allow for appellate review.” In re Amends. to Fla. R. of Civ. P. 1.510, 317 So. 3d at 77. A mere pronouncement the court has granted or denied such a motion fails to comply with the rule as it does not contain reasons for granting or denying the motion. Here, neither the trial court’s oral pronouncement nor its written order offer the necessary specificity to provide useful guidance or allow for appellate review. “On a systemic level . . . this requirement is critical to ensuring that Florida courts embrace the federal summary judgment standard in practice and not just on paper.” In re Amends. to Fla. R. of Civ. P. 1.510, 317 So. 3d at 77.

The appellate court reversed and remanded to the Florida probate court for entry of an order that complies with the amended summary judgment rule.  The new Florida summary judgment rule takes some getting used to, and this case is a good reminder for practitioners to make sure your summary judgment order complies with its requirements.

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