Creditor claims in Florida probate actions are often the topic of litigation, particularly when it comes to the timely filing of a statement of claim by a creditor. In United Bank v. Estate of Frazee, (4th DCA 2016), the Florida court of appeal ruled that even though a creditor claim was timely received for filing by the clerk of court in paper format, the creditor claim was untimely because the attorney did not e-file the creditor claim.
Under Florida probate law, creditors must file statements of claim within 3 months of the first publication of the notice to creditors or within thirty days of being served with notice, whichever is later. Any claim not timely filed within that time is barred unless the court grants an extension. Extensions can be granted based on three grounds: fraud, estoppel, or insufficient notice of the claims period.
E-filing became mandatory in Florida on April 1, 2013, requiring all documents filed by attorneys with the court to be filed electronically.
In this case, notice to creditors was published for Frazee’s estate for the first time on February 14, 2013. The Bank was served with actual notice by certified mail on April 11, 2013. Under section 733.702(1), the Bank’s deadline to file a claim was May 15, 2013. On May 10, 2013, the Bank’s counsel mailed two statements of claims to the clerk of court by certified mail. Although a member of the Florida Bar, the Bank’s attorney practiced in West Virginia, and was seemingly unaware of Florida’s recent mandatory e-filing requirement. The clerk received the claims via mail on May 14, 2013 (one day prior to the Bank’s deadline to file a statement of claim).
On May 23, 2013 the clerk notified the Bank that the claims had to be filed electronically. That same day the Bank submitted the claims through the e-filing portal. On June 10, 2013 the clerk notified the Bank that the claims had been improperly filed as a single filing. The next day the Bank properly filed the claims separately through the e-portal. On June 22, 2013 the claims were finally accepted as filed, listing a filing date of May 23, 2013. Based on the filing date of May 23, 2013 the claims were untimely.
Over a year later, the Bank moved the trial court to find that the claims were timely filed. The Bank argued that the claims should be considered to have been filed the day the paper filings were received by the clerk, May 14, 2013, basing its argument on 2.520(f) which states that “[n]o clerk of court shall refuse to file any document because of noncompliance with this rule.” The estate argued that e-filing became mandatory on April 1, 2013, and that the claims were required to be filed electronically. The estate argued that section (f) applies to formatting and technical issues, not “as a loophole allowing parties to circumvent the e-filing requirement.”
The Florida probate court refused to deem the claims timely filed. The Florida probate court concluded that “the failure to file was a result of the negligence and lack of knowledge of the attorney, who is licensed in Florida, despite working in another state, and those excuses did not amount to justice requiring the court to allow the late filing of the claims.”
On appeal, the Florida appellate court considered the proper interpretation of Rule 2.520(f) after the institution of mandatory electronic filing. Specifically, does section (f) only apply to formatting and technical issues, or does section (f) allow for the clerk to accept a document that has only been paper filed? The Florida appellate court agreed with the interpretation advanced by the Florida probate court, finding that the statement of claim was not timely filed because section (f) does not apply to attempts to file paper documents. The appellate court reasoned:
Rule 2.525(d) requires all documents to be filed electronically and sets forth a list of eight exceptions to mandatory e-filing requirement. The Bank’s interpretation of Rule 2.520(f) would essentially add another exception by allowing paper filing for everyone, so long as they later resubmitted the filing electronically. Such a broad exception is inconsistent with the mandatory nature of the e-filing requirement and the limited list of exceptions. When the requirements of Rule 2.520(f) are read in pari materia with the rest of the rules, it is apparent that they do not contemplate that a clerk must accept for filing paper documents other than those within the exceptions of Rule 2.525(d). To allow this would compel the clerk to convert these documents to electronic records, even though the clerk’s duty is limited to converting only those paper documents which fall under exceptions to the electronic filing rule. Thus, we agree with the trial court’s interpretation of the rule.
Judge Klingensmith authored a dissent, arguing that the majority’s reading of 2.520 is a “strained and reconstituted interpretation of rule 2.520(f)” that frustrates instead of furthers justice, stating:
In short, the court has never indicated any intention to eliminate or restrict the rule 2.520(f) safe-harbor provision, or to punish attorneys who fail to properly e-file documents by instructing the clerks to reject those filings. The fact that the court neither changed nor removed rule 2.520(f) when it amended the rules for e-filing, despite having ample opportunity to do so, provides clear support for the conclusion that it never intended to render noncompliant e-filings a legal nullity. Instead, by retaining rule 2.520(f), the Florida Supreme Court gave clear direction to the clerks of the state that they shall not “refuse to file any document because of noncompliance.” Fla. R. Jud. Admin. 2.520(f). This is precisely what the clerk did in this case….
The Florida appellate court’s decision operates as a warning to all practitioners across all practice areas, particularly those who practice predominantly in other jurisdictions and are unfamiliar with Florida’s e-filing requirements. The Bank in this case was represented by an attorney unfamiliar with the e-filing requirement. The Florida probate court and Florida appellate court were not swayed by the infancy of e-filing in Florida, or the Bank’s attorney’s lack of familiarity with Florida e-filing in determining that the Bank’s creditor claim was not timely filed.