Offer of Judgment for Non-Monetary Claims

In Palm Beach Polo Holdings, Inc. v. Equestrian Club Estates Property Owners Assoc., Inc., 22 So. 3d 140 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009), the appellate court was faced with a case of first impression as to whether an offer of judgment which seeks to settle both monetary damage claims and non-monetary claims can be effective. In this case, the defendant owned a private road and the plaintiff owned a piece of landlocked property which was accessible by that road. Plaintiff brought suit alleging entitlement to 300 votes in the election of the Board of Directors of the defendant’s property owner’s association, a tortious interference action with respect to plaintiff’s attempts to sell the landlocked property because defendant had denied it access to the road and a declaratory judgment action asking that the defendant recognize the plaintiff’s right to an implied grant of way of necessity to use the private road. In a bench trial the circuit court ruled in favor of the defendant on all counts. The case went up on appeal and was affirmed without opinion. Defendants then sought attorney’s fees under the offer of judgment statute because it had filed multiple offers of judgment to “settle all claims” for the sum of a little over $1,000.00. The trial buy case study online court granted the motion and assessed a judgment for attorney’s fees and the Fourth District reversed. The Court pointed out that the offer of judgment statute is only applicable to an action for damages and at 143 the Court framed the issue as follows:

“In the instant case, the complaint contained

two independent, significant claims, such that it

could be characterized only as an action for both

damages and non-monetary, declaratory relief.

In order to determine whether the trial court erred

in finding that the defendant is entitled to attorney’s

fees pursuant to the offer of settlement, it must be

determined whether a general offer applying to

an entire case that includes both claims do my homework for money for

damages and other claims can be binding upon

the unsuccessful party. This issue has not yet

been addressed by this court. (Emphasis by

the court).

The Court reviewed a number of cases which went both ways on the issue of whether the offer of judgment statute applies with respect to potential non-monetary claims. The deciding factor in those cases centered on whether or not the “real issue” in the cases was for damages or for non-monetary awards. The Court seems to create a bright line rule that under no circumstances can the offer of judgment statute apply to non-monetary claims. At 144 the Court holds:

Similarly, strict construction of the statute and

rule should not allow application of a general

offer of settlement, sought to be applied to claims

seeking non-monetary relief as well as actions for

damages. In this case, each offer of settlement

filed was general, such that it applied to all

claims contained within the complaint which, of

course, included both a claim for damages and

non-economic claims. Strict construction of the

statute leads to the conclusion that when an

action seeks non-monetary relief, such as a

pure declaration of rights spy on my girlfriends phone free or injunctive relief,

then the fact that it also seeks damages does

not bring it within the offer of judgment statute.

(Emphasis supplied by the Court.)

That seemingly clear holding could be questioned by the remainder of the Court’s holding. The Court reviewed cases in which the offer of judgment was unclear and relying on those cases seemed to conclude that the language of the offer of judgment in this case was deficient because it didn’t clearly indicate whether the defendant was willing to accept an injunction or declaratory judgment requiring plaintiff’s non-economic relief. At 145, the Court states:

Here, the proposals for settlement did not

state whether the association was agreeing

to entry of any injunctions, or declaration of

Palm Beach Polo’s grant of way of necessity,

yet it claimed to be a proposal to settle all

claims. If the statute were read to permit a

proposal for settlement to apply to a case

in which there were claims for non-economic

relief as well as for damages, the offeree

would be forced either to accept the proposal

and continue to litigate the request for

injunctive and non-economic relief or to give

up their non-damage claims. The purposes

of section 768.79 include the early

termination of litigation. A proposal for

settlement in a case such as this one does

not satisfy that purpose, as it is acceptance

would not terminate the litigation nor resolve

those claims not seeking damages. Because

the proposals for settlement addressed a

complaint that included non-damages claims,

they do not comply with the statute, and we

find them invalid and reverse the trial

court’s order awarding fees.

While the holding in this case still seems arguable, the lesson to be learned is that in any offer of judgment a party must be mindful that the statute is going to be strictly construed in derogation of the common law and every “i” must be dotted and every “t” must be crossed if there is any hope of attorney’s fees to be awarded. In all likelihood, an offer of judgment in a case seeking non-monetary relief is invalid. Originally published in March 2010

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