Third District Court of Appeal in Miami. (Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM)

Entitlement to attorney fees following rejected offers of judgment were clarified by Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal.

In an opinion authored by Judge Norma S. Lindsey, the appellate court ruled in favor of appellants Luis A. Ruiz, Ivett Corvaia and Premium Medical Group, all named as defendants by Venezuela-based medical company and appellee Policlinica Metropolitana in the underlying case.

The Sept. 26 ruling reversed the decision by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John W. Thornton Jr. denying Ruiz, Corvaia and Premium Medical Group’s motions for determination of entitlement to attorney fees against Policlinica.

Policlinica’s litigation against the three appellants stems from an originating lawsuit filed July 15, 2011, alleging a bribery scheme employees, the opinion said. Although the court ruled in favor of Ruiz, the company ultimately secured a favorable judgment against Corvaia and Premium.

Read the appeals court’s ruling: 

“Prior to trial, Ruiz, Corvaia, and Premium had each presented Policlinica with separate offers of judgment/proposals for settlement in the amount of $3,500. … Policlinica did not accept any of the offers,” Lindsey wrote. Ruiz subsequently filed his motion for attorney fees against Policlinica and was summarily denied by the trial court. Likewise, the court denied Corvaia and Premium’s motions for determination of entitlement to attorney fees.

The appeals court found the trial court erred in denying the fee motions because all statutory prerequisites had been met. Additionally, the opinion found Thornton failed to establish Corvaia and Premium’s proposed settlements “were not made in good faith or that they were made in bad faith,” one of the rare opportunities for an exception from entitlement to attorney fees.

The court found the appellants’ offers of judgment complied with both Section 768.79 of the Florida statutes and Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.442, which set conditions for entitlement to fees.

The state law dictates “if a defendant serves an offer which is not accepted by the plaintiff, and if the judgment obtained by the plaintiff is at least 25 percent less than the amount of the offer, the defendant shall be awarded reasonable costs, including investigative expenses, and attorney’s fees, calculated in accordance with the guidelines promulgated by the Supreme Court, incurred from the date the offer was served,” Lindsey wrote. Likewise, the rule on settlement offer requirements “supersedes all other provisions of the rules and statutes that may be inconsistent with this rule.”

“The trial court expressly found in Ruiz’s Entitlement Order that Ruiz’s offer was made in good faith,” the opinion said. “In Premium and Corvaia’s Entitlement Order, the trial court did not make a finding as to the faith of either Premium’s offer or Corvaia’s offer, whether good or bad. Instead, the trial court provided several other reasons in support of its ruling in Premium and Corvaia’s Entitlement Order, including that sanctioning Policlinica by awarding fees ‘would lead to an absurd result and not further the purposes of the offer of judgment statute.’ ”

The appellate panel remanded the case with instructions to “ enter orders awarding entitlement to attorney’s fees in favor of Ruiz, Corvaia, and Premium and against Policlinica and to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine the amount.”

Policlinica’s counsel, Holland & Knight attorneys Rebecca M. Plasencia, Alex M. Gonzalez and Israel J. Encinosa, did not reply to requests for comment by deadline.

Jorge L. Piedra, managing partner with Piedra & Associates. Jorge L. Piedra, managing partner with Piedra & Associates.

Jorge L. Piedra of Piedra & Associates represented the appellants in the lower and appellate courts. He told the Daily Business Review that he and his clients are “very pleased with the decision.”

“Offers of judgment are meant to encourage parties to settle. And they should be enforced when someone serves a proper offer of judgment that meets the proper criteria,” Piedra said.

However, he acknowledged, “There’s still a bit of a ways to go in this case” and that substantial proceedings are still ahead.

“Everything in this case has been heavily contested, and we don’t think the determination of the amount of attorney fees to be any different,” he noted, adding that beyond the ruling’s effect his own clients’ case, Lindsey’s opinion was ”very well-reasoned.”

“I think it’s going to be an important precedent because it carefully explains … very narrow exceptions in the enforcement of offers of judgment,” Piedra said. “And the judge does a great job of distinguishing those cases so that future courts have a much better road map of what they need to look at when someone’s trying to enforce the offer of judgment.”