Increased Jurisdictional Limit and New Appellate Right within Florida’s County Courts
Florida’s trial court system is divided into two tiers, the county courts and the circuit courts. For most civil cases, the dividing line between county and circuit court is the amount in controversy, with a $15,000 limit for county court established in 1992. §34.01, Fla. Stat. The momentum to revisit the jurisdictional limit intensified when the thinning of county court case dockets threatened to eliminate some county court judicial positions. The state legislature tackled this concern during its most recent session with Florida House of Representatives Bill 337, which was approved by Governor Ron DeSantis on May 24, 2019. House Bill 337 makes two key jurisdictional changes: (1) an increase in the jurisdictional limit for county court, and (2) the creation of a new appellate right from county court decisions when the amount in controversy exceeds the prior jurisdictional limit.
To increase the jurisdictional amount, House Bill 337 amends Florida Statutes, Section 34.01. If a county court action is filed on or before December 31, 2019, the jurisdictional limit will remain $15,000. Ch. 2019-58, § 9, Laws of Fla. Thereafter, the jurisdictional limit increases in two phases. The first phase increases the jurisdictional limit to $30,000, if the action is filed on or after January 1, 2020. Id. The second phase increases the jurisdictional limit again, this time from $30,000 to $50,000, if the action is filed on or after January 1, 2023. Id.
A second key change made by House Bill 337 relates to litigants’ appellate rights. Currently, pursuant to Florida Statutes, Section 26.012(1), appeals from a county court are heard by a circuit court sitting in its appellate capacity, unless the appeal is (1) from an order or judgment declaring a state statute or state Constitutional provision invalid, or (2) from an order or judgment that was certified by the county court to be of great public importance and accepted by a district court of appeal for review. If neither one of these two exceptions apply, a litigant cannot appeal a county court order or judgment to a district court. Art. V, § 4(b)(1) Fla. Const. House Bill 337 amends Section 26.012(1), and beginning January 1, 2020, litigants in county court will have a third avenue to appeal to a district court. All appeals of county court orders or judgments where the amount in controversy exceeds $15,000 are to be heard by a district court. Ch. 2019-58, § 1, Laws of Fla.; Art. V, § 4(b)(1) Fla. Const.
The amendment contains evidence that the legislature is uncertain about the consequences of the increased county court jurisdiction and the additional option for appealing county court decisions. For example, the amendment includes a sunset provision which automatically repeals, on January 1, 2023, the new third option for appealing a county court decision to a district court. Moreover, House Bill 337 requires the Office of the State Courts Administrator to produce a report analyzing the impact of the new jurisdictional limit for the Governor, President of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, by February 1, 2021. The report also must include an analysis of circuit court and district court appellate jurisdiction. Presumably, the legislature will use this report to decide further revisions to county court jurisdiction and the ability to appeal county court decisions to district court.