Under Florida Law, A Proposal for Settlement May Be Invalid If the Complaint Seeks both Equitable and Legal Relief
In the circumstance where the complaint seeks legal relief (money damages) and equitable relief (e.g., replevin, grant of easement, injunctive relief or disgorgement), a general proposal for settlement may be invalid. §768.79, Florida Statutes is the proposal for settlement Statute which operates in conjunction with Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.442. The statutory proposal for settlement inapplicable to cases that seek both equitable relief and legal damages, as the Florida supreme court held in Diamond Aircraft Industries, Inc. v. Horowitch, 107 So. 3d 362 (Fla. 2013). Florida district courts have also held that when a plaintiff seeks both monetary and non-monetary relief, and a party makes a general offer of settlement, section 768.79 is not applicable. See Winter Park Imports, Inc. v. JM Family Enters., 66 So. 3d 336, 340 (Fla. 5th DCA 2011); Palm Beach Polo Holdings, Inc. v. Equestrian Club Estates Prop. Owners Ass'n, Inc., 22 So. 3d 140, 143-44 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009). The reasoning adopted in those decisions is that strict construction of the phrase "any civil action for damages" in the offer of judgment statute does not include a claim for equitable relief, or one that involves claims for both monetary and non-monetary relief. See Winter Park, 66 So. 3d at 338-42; Palm Beach Polo, 22 So. 3d at 143-45. However, the analysis also appears driven by the nature of relief sought, regardless of how styled in the complaint. The Diamond Aircraft court held (107 So. 3d at 374):
•We hold section 768.79 does not apply to an action in which a plaintiff seeks both damages and equitable relief, and in which the defendant has served a general offer of judgment that seeks release of all claims. We further conclude that there is no basis to establish an exception for instances in which the equitable claim lacks serious merit. As exemplified in Palm Beach Polo and Winter Park, strict construction of section 768.79 compels this result. More specifically, section 768.79(1) explicitly states that the offer of judgment statute applies to "any civil action for damages.” The statute does not state that it applies to actions in equity, or in an action, such as in this case, where a plaintiff seeks both monetary and nonmonetary relief. If the Legislature intended to authorize the recovery of attorney's fees under those circumstances, it could have and would have explicitly provided for them in section 768.79.
The Diamond Aircraft court noted that to calculate the amount of the judgment obtained in comparison to an offer, logic dictates the use of a monetary number that a court could use in calculating a mathematical formula which exists in a cause of action for damages. See id. § 768.79(6) ("For purposes of the determination required by paragraph (a), the term 'judgment obtained' means the amount of the net judgment entered, plus any post-offer collateral source payments received or due as of the date of the judgment, plus any post-offer settlement amounts by which the verdict was reduced."). Comparatively, section 768.79 does not provide a method by which this or any other court is to evaluate the amount of a nonmonetary judgment obtained against the amount provided in an offer of judgment. Id. Disgorgement of fees, replevin, specific performance, and injunctive relief are examples of equitable actions, each of which does not lend itself to the mathematical certainty required for application of the proposal statutes.
Lesson: Analyze the relief sought in the complaint to determine the applicability of the proposal for settlement statute and rule of procedure applicable to your particular case. Draft your proposal for settlement so that it satisfies the statute and rule.
If you have any questions on any particular matters involving these or similar issues, please do not hesitate to contact Gary R. Shendell at firstname.lastname@example.org or Diran V. Seropian at email@example.com.