Sepulveda v. Westport Recovery Corp, 39 Fla. L. Weekly D1433

Sepulveda v. Westport involves the always tricky second-tier certiorari review process. Consequently, for decades the appellate courts have wrestled with what is, and what is not, proper second-tier certiorari review. Further, because certiorari review is discretionary, the Florida district appellate courts can outright refuse to review a first or second-tier certiorari petition. In Sepulveda, the appellate court granted second-tier certiorari review and Judge Leslie Rothenberg, writing for the 3rd District Court of Appeal, brought home which court has homestead jurisdiction.

 Three Courts – Two Jurisprudential Approaches

Years ago, a plaintiff obtained a $9,000 county court judgment against Sepulveda. Many years after the judgment was entered and recorded, Sepulveda obtained real property. After the plaintiff reopened the county court case and sought to levy against the property, but before the levy sale, Sepulveda recorded a “Notice of Claim of Homestead” under § 222.02, Fla. Stat. (2013). Sepulveda then sought dismissal of the county court action based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Sepulveda maintained that the circuit court held exclusive jurisdiction based on § 222.10.  The county court judge denied dismissal reasoning that the case was a lien priority issue rather than a homestead exemption issue.

Undeterred, Sepulveda sought first-tier certiorari review in the circuit court’s Appellate Division.  The circuit court, agreeing with the county court judge, denied Sepulveda’s petition. The 3rd DCA then took second-tier certiorari review. The 3rd DCA opinion framed the issue succinctly: Did the county court exceed its jurisdiction when it determined that the property was exempt from levy under § 222.10?

Judge Rothenberg’s opinion clearly delineated the boundaries between a first-tier and second-tier review. The law, actually, is almost bright line: When determining a second-tier review: “[T]he inquiry is limited to whether the circuit court afforded procedural due process and whether the circuit court applied the correct law.” Haines City Cmty. Dev. v. Heggs, 658 So. 2d 523 (Fla. 1995). So, the 3rd DCA mined the issue for a legal error founded in law rather than fact. This gives an appellate court carte blanche to conduct de novo review.

In its de novo review, the appellate court grounded its opinion on the jurisdictional issue by zeroing in on § 222.10 instead of lien priority. The Court determined that both lower courts improperly viewed the case as a lien priority issue, giving the homestead issue, “incidental impact, if any.” Thus, by focusing on § 222.10, rather than lien priority, the appellate court’s analysis changed the legal landscape of the case.

Appellate Legal Analysis

The appellate court started with § 222.10 which states that:

“The circuit courts have equity jurisdiction…to determine whether any property…claimed to be exempt, is so exempt…”

By using this language as the opinion’s boundary line, the appellate court determined that: “The circuit court has exclusive jurisdiction to determine the validity of a claimed homestead exemption.”

The appellate court went on to say that the limited equity jurisdiction of the county courts must give way to the equitable jurisdiction granted to the circuit courts. The opinion noted that while county court judges have equity jurisdiction, it is constrained by the State Constitution and laws of the State. Clearly, the opinion put emphasis on the legislature’s expressed statutory jurisdictional pronouncement in § 222.10. Consequently, the appellate decision, by focusing on § 222.10 and not lien priority, found that the county court exceeded its jurisdiction.

Tension Between Legal Principles

This case delineates the tension between applying two very different principles of law to the same fact scenario. Without a doubt, if the case were viewed under the lens of a lien priority case, both tiers of the trial court ruled correctly on the law. Further, if the appellate court viewed Sepulveda’s case as a lien priority case, it would have denied second-tier certiorari review, or reviewed the case and denied certiorari “on the merits.”

This case is a perfect example that illustrates how different courts can look at the same case and come out with different results depending on what legal principle to apply. It also shows that judges look at cases individualistically, utilizing their own legal point-of-view, to arrive at a legal conclusion.

What is Answered

Because the appellate court viewed Sepulveda’s case as a homestead case, the 3rd DCA answered a jurisdictional question. That answer: only the circuit courts can hear § 222.10 cases.