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DeBiasi v. Snaith - 732 So. 2d 14 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1999)

Rule:

Mere "ambiguity of a rule" of procedure, without more, does not equate to the somewhat more amorphous realm of "fairly debatable" or "unsettled area of the law" to which the doctrine of judgmental immunity is applied. Even if it did, the lawyer who seeks the protection of judgmental immunity must have acted in good faith and made a diligent inquiry into that area of the law.

Facts:

Appellant, Mr. DeBiasi (DeBiasi) employed attorney, Phillip Snaith (Snaith) to prosecute an appeal from an adverse judgment entered against DeBiasi in a mechanics’ lien foreclosure. DeBiasi indicated to Snaith that he wanted to pursue an appeal to the Supreme Court of Florida, if possible. Snaith timely filed a motion for clarification, rehearing, and rehearing en banc, which the Supreme Court denied. Within 15 days of the order denying the motion for rehearing, but more than 15 days after the Court’s opinion had been issued, Snaith filed a motion for certification. When appellee moved to strike the motion for certification as being untimely, Snaith responded with the argument that Rule 9.330 permitted serial filing, i.e., a motion for certification may be filed within 15 days of the order denying his motion for rehearing. The motion for certification was denied as untimely.

Thereafter, DeBiasi brought a legal malpractice suit against Snaith, alleging that the latter’s untimely filing of the motion for certification caused DeBiasi to be deprived of the opportunity to have the court’s judgment overturned. Snaith moved for summary judgment, successfully arguing to the trial court that despite the court’s treatment of his motion for certification in the underlying appeal, the language of Rule 9.330 was sufficiently ambiguous to provide him with the protection of the doctrine of judgmental immunity as set forth in Crosby v. Jones. The trial court found as a matter of law that the appellate rule was sufficiently ambiguous to allow a reasonably prudent attorney to interpret it as permitting the serial filing of authorized post-decisional motions, and granted summary judgment in favor of Snaith. Thereafter, DeBiasi appealed.

Issue:

Was the language of Rule 9.330 sufficiently ambiguous to provide Snaith with the protection of the doctrine of judgmental immunity?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court noted that the language of Rule 9.330(b), when read literally, presented a degree of ambiguity. According to the Court, one undertaking to act as appellate counsel, and relying on a literal reading of the Rule without other inquiry, could be misled into viewing the Rule as permitting a motion for certification to be filed within 15 days following the court’s order denying a motion for rehearing. But the Court averred that the mere "ambiguity of a rule" of procedure, without more, did not equate to the somewhat more amorphous realm of "fairly debatable" or "unsettled area of the law" to which the doctrine of judgmental immunity was applied. Furthermore, the Court posited that even if it did, Crosby v. Jones held that the lawyer who was seeking the protection of judgmental immunity must have acted in good faith and made a diligent inquiry into that area of the law. In the case at bar, the Court held that Snaith had yet to show that he acted in good faith and made a diligent inquiry into that area of the law; thus, the Court reversed the decision of the trial court.

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