Analysis and Interpretation by Michael A. Cassel
On April 13, 2016, the Fourth District Court of Appeals of the State of Florida (“4th DCA”) released their decision in MYD Marine Distrib., Inc., v. Int'l Paint Ltd., Case No. 4D13-2496, 4D13-2671, 4D13-3685, 4D13-4530, & 4D13-4779, (hereinafter “MYD” and “International Paint,” respectively). The opinion discusses the applicability of an offer of judgment (and, by extension, a proposal for settlement) in matters where the plaintiff files an action seeking either monetary and non-monetary relief, such as a declaration from the court or injunctive relief.
In MYD v. International Paint, MYD alleges that International Paint violated state antitrust laws by conspiring to remove MYD as a distributor of a specific brand of yacht paint. Additionally, MYD contends that, through its actions, International Paint “fixed” the market price of the paint. MYD filed lawsuits alleging several causes of action for conspiracy in restraint of trade and breach of contract seeking monetary damages, fees and costs, and permanent injunctive relief preventing International Paint from engaging in similar behavior in the future. Ultimately, International Paint obtained a final summary judgment and, on appeal, the 4th DCA upheld the lower court’s decision.
After the favorable results of the appeal, International Paint moved for attorney’s fees and costs based on rejected offers of judgment. Each offer of judgment filed contained language limiting the offer to the claims for monetary damages and specifically excluding the consideration for the claims for injunctive relief. Despite MYD’s argument that Section 768.79, Florida Statutes, controlling offers of judgments did not apply due to the claim for both monetary and non-monetary relief, the lower court opined that, due to the failure of MYD to pursue their injunctive relief, the offers of judgment were valid and entered an order for attorney’s fees and costs in favor of International Paint.
4th DCA Opinion
Upon review, the 4th DCA affirmed the lower court’s ruling applying a “true relief” analysis as set forth in Diamond Aircraft Indus., Inc. v. Horowitch, 107 So. 3d 362 (Fla. 2013) and Yacht Club on the Intracoastal Condo. Ass'n, Inc. v. Lexington Ins. Co., 599 Fed. Appx. 875, 883 (11th Cir. 2015). Because offers of judgment apply only to “civil action[s] for damages,” it has long been argued that any lawsuit involving a claim for non-monetary relief automatically defeats any offer of judgment. See § 768.79(1), Fla. Stat. (2015). In citing to Diamond Aircraft and Yacht Club, however, the MYD court affirmed that, in order to determine the applicability of an offer of judgment, “a court should look behind the procedural vehicle used in a complaint to discern what true relief is sought.” Yacht at 883 (11th Cir. 2015). Accordingly, where the “true relief” sought is actually monetary in nature, offers of judgment are enforceable regardless of any cause of action seeking non-monetary relief. It must be noted that, due to the outcome of “true relief” analysis, the MYD court decided not to opine on the applicability of the language limiting the offer of judgment to the monetary claim only.
Analysis, Impact, and Effect
As the MYD court did not address the language limiting the offer of judgment utilized by International Paint, the applicability and enforceability of similar provisions remains ambiguous and undecided in the State of Florida. The Diamond Aircraft court stated that “Florida courts have not decided whether a party may utilize section 768.79 when he or she has asserted separate claims for monetary and non-monetary relief in the same pleading and the opposing party has served an offer directed specifically to the monetary claim.” Id. at 374. As such, there are both pros and cons to including similar language to that utilized by International Paint to limit the offer of judgment to the claim for monetary relief only.
One argument for including limiting language boils down to the ultimate enforceability of an offer of judgment. If the application of the “true relief” analysis indicates that a lawsuit seeking both monetary and non-monetary relief does, in fact, seek both types of relief, a blanket offer of judgment will likely be summarily disposed of due to the clear violation of Section 768.79, Florida Statues. As such, it may be prudent to err on the side of caution and include the limiting language in the offer of judgment.
On the contrary, inclusion of limiting language would allow a plaintiff/petitioner to accept the offer of judgment and maintain its action for non-monetary relief. In situations with a questionable “true relief” analysis, this may result in exposure to additional fees and costs inherent with further litigation, especially in circumstances where statutory fees are available or the court awards fees under a prevailing party standard. As such, a defending party may be leveraged into offering more money in order to settle the entirety of the lawsuit outright instead of continuing with the uncertainty of litigation. In matters where it seems that the “true relief” sought is monetary in nature, arguments under the doctrines of res judicata or estoppel may result in a summary disposition of the “non-monetary” action. In the event of same, it would be prudent to file a motion for entitlement to fees under Section 57.105, Florida Statutes, in order to ensure an opportunity to recoup the attorney’s fees expended in defending the frivolous action. Regardless, defendants/respondents should assert as an affirmative defense that the relief sought in the “non-monetary” cause of action is illusory under a “true relief” analysis to preserve the ability to assert a dispositive motion regarding same.