The Bank of New York Mellon, v. Condominium Association of La Mer Estates, Inc. | FL Supreme Court - default judgment is voidable when the complaint upon which a judgment is based on fails to state a cause of action

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The Bank of New York Mellon, v. Condo Assoc. La Mer Estates, Inc. | FL Supreme Court – default judgment is voidable when the complaint upon which a judgment is based on fails to state a cause of action

The Bank of New York Mellon, v. Condo Assoc. La Mer Estates, Inc. | FL Supreme Court – default judgment is voidable when the complaint upon which a judgment is based on fails to state a cause of action

Supreme Court of Florida
____________
No. SC14-1049
____________

THE BANK OF NEW YORK MELLON, etc.,
Petitioner,

vs.

CONDOMINIUM ASSOCIATION OF LA MER ESTATES, Inc.,
Respondent.

[September 17, 2015]

PERRY, J.
The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation (“BNY Mellon” or “the bank”)
seeks review of the decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in
Condominium Ass’n of La Mer Estates, Inc. v. Bank of New York Mellon Corp.,
137 So. 3d 396 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014), which certified conflict with Southeast Land
Developers, Inc. v. All Florida Site & Utilities, Inc., 28 So. 3d 166 (Fla. 1st DCA
2010), and Moynet v. Courtois, 8 So. 3d 377 (Fla. 3d DCA 2009), on the issue of
whether a default judgment is void when the complaint upon which a judgment is
based on fails to state a cause of action. We have jurisdiction. See art. V,
§ 3(b)(3), Fla. Const. For reasons provided below, we hold that a default judgment
is voidable, rather than void, when the complaint upon which the judgment is
based on fails to state a cause of action. We therefore approve the decision of the
Fourth District in La Mer Estates and disapprove of the conflict cases to the extent
they are inconsistent with this decision.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal summarized the case and underlying
facts as follows:
Owners of a condominium in La Mer Estates executed a
mortgage to BSM Financial in 2006. That mortgage went into default
in 2008, and the mortgagors also defaulted on their condominium
maintenance payments. Appellant, the Condominium Association of
La Mer Estates, recorded a claim of lien for the unpaid assessments,
filed an action to foreclose its lien, and obtained a final judgment of
foreclosure in July 2009. After the foreclosure judgment but before
the foreclosure sale, appellee, Bank of New York Mellon, was
assigned the mortgage securing the condominium unit. The
association was the only bidder at the sale and received a certificate of
title to the condominium unit.

Concerned about the continuing unpaid monthly assessments,
the association wrote to the bank offering to convey to it the title to
the condominium, but the bank did not respond. Several months later,
the association filed a complaint to quiet title to the property, alleging
its own title to the property; how it acquired its title; and that the
mortgage assigned to the bank constituted a cloud on the association’s
title. The association alleged that the bank had no bona fide interest
or claim to the property.

The association served the bank and obtained a default.
Although it also obtained a default final judgment, it moved to vacate
the final judgment because of concerns that service was not properly
made. The court vacated the judgment, and the complaint was served
again on the bank. Again the bank did not respond and the clerk
entered a new default. The association filed a new motion for entry of
final judgment quieting title. The bank was given notice and an
opportunity to be heard but failed to appear at the hearing. The court
entered a second judgment quieting title against the bank on February
10, 2011.

The bank took no action for over one and a half years. Finally,
on August 31, 2012, it moved pursuant to [Florida Rule of Civil
Procedure] 1.540(b) to vacate the quiet title judgment on grounds that
it was void because the complaint failed to state a cause of action to
quiet title. The bank argued that because it was void, the one year
limitation which applied to the other grounds for relief under rule
1.540(b), did not apply. The bank argued that a complaint to quiet
title must allege not only the association’s title to the property and
how it obtained title, but must also show why the bank’s claim of an
interest in the property is invalid and not well founded, citing Stark v.
Frayer, 67 So. 2d 237, 239 (Fla. 1953). The bank contended that it
had a title interest superior to that of the association and that the
association had not alleged facts which showed the bank’s title was
invalid.

The trial court conducted a hearing and granted the motion to
vacate on grounds that the judgment was void because the complaint
failed to state a cause of action.

La Mer Estates, 137 So. 3d at 397-98 (internal citations omitted). The
Condominium Association of La Mer Estates appealed to the Fourth District Court
of Appeal the order that vacated the final judgment.

The Fourth District reversed the order and remanded for the final judgment’s
reinstatement. In doing so, the district court followed this Court’s precedent and
receded from its own caselaw that adopted from the Third District the principle
that a default judgment based on a complaint that fails to state a cause of action is
void. Id. at 397, 400. The Fourth District held that although the complaint failed
to state a cause of action, the resulting default judgment was voidable, rather than
void. The district court explained that BNY Mellon was properly notified
throughout the proceedings and had ample opportunity to raise any pleading
defects, as well as an opportunity to raise the issue on direct appeal. Id. at 400-01.
“Because of the importance of this issue to the finality of judgments and the
stability of property titles,” id. at 401, the Fourth District certified conflict with the
Third District’s decision in Moynet and the First District’s decision in Southeast
Land Developers, which held that a default judgment is void and should be set
aside when the underlying complaint fails to state a cause of action. Se. Land
Developers, 28 So. 3d at 168; Moynet, 8 So. 3d at 378.

Construing and interpreting the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure and a trial
court’s inherent authority to protect judicial integrity in the litigation process is a
pure question of law, subject to de novo review. Pino v. Bank of N.Y., 121 So. 3d
23, 30-31 (Fla. 2013). We agree with the Fourth District that a default judgment,
which is based on a complaint that fails to state a cause of action, is voidable,
rather than void. See La Mer Estates, 137 So. 3d at 400. As we have previously
stated:

It is well settled that where a court is legally organized and has
jurisdiction of the subject matter and the adverse parties are given the
opportunity to be heard, then errors, irregularities or wrongdoing in
proceedings, short of illegal deprivation of opportunity to be heard,
will not render the judgment void.
Curbelo v. Ullman, 571 So. 2d 443, 445 (Fla. 1990).

First, the Fourth District properly recognized that the modern rules of civil
procedure, and particularly Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.540(b), do not
displace this Court’s prior caselaw that defines a judgment that is void. See
Curbelo, 571 So. 2d 443; State ex rel. Coleman v. Williams, 3 So. 2d 152 (Fla.
1941); Malone v. Meres, 109 So. 677 (Fla. 1926). Indeed, the purpose of rule
1.540(b) as recognized by this Court is to provide an exception to the rule of
absolute finality by allowing relief under a limited set of circumstances. See Bane
v. Bane, 775 So. 2d 938, 941 (Fla. 2000) (quoting Miller v. Fortune Ins. Co., 484
So. 2d 1221, 1223 (Fla. 1986)).

Second, failure to state a cause of action is a specific defense recognized by
Florida Rules of Civil Procedure 1.140(b) and (h)(1) and (2). Rule 1.140(h)
specifically provides in relevant part:
(1) A party waives all defenses and objections that the party
does not present either by motion under subdivisions (b), (e), or (f) of
this rule or, if the party has made no motion, in a responsive pleading
except as provided in subdivision (h)(2).
(2) The defenses of failure to state a cause of action . . . may be
raised . . . at the trial on the merits in addition to being raised either in
a motion under subdivision (b) or in the answer or reply.
Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.140(h). If a party is properly notified of pending proceedings, that
party has the opportunity to raise a defense, such as failure to state a cause of
action, in an answer, at trial, or at any time prior to final judgment. Otherwise, that
defense is deemed waived. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.140(h)(1).

In Southeast Land Developers and Moynet, the subject complaints failed to
state a cause of action. Se. Land Developers, 28 So. 3d at 168; Moynet, 8 So. 3d at
378. Relying on Becerra v. Equity Imports, Inc., 551 So. 2d 486 (Fla. 3d DCA
1989), the First District in Southeast Land Developers and the Third District in
Moynet declared the default judgments void and reversed the trial courts’ orders
that denied the motions to set aside or vacate those judgments. Se. Land
Developers, 28 So. 3d at 168; Moynet, 8 So. 3d at 378.

The Fourth District correctly noted that Becerra never explicitly states that a
default judgment based on a complaint that fails to state a cause of action is void,
La Mer Estates, 137 So. 3d at 399, even though Southeast Land Developers and
Moynet cited to Becerra for that precise principle. In addition, Southeast Land
Developers and Moynet failed to demonstrate how rule 1.540(b) replaces this
Court’s precedent that defines a judgment as void.

In the present case, BNY Mellon was properly notified of the proceedings,
the hearing on final judgment, and the entry of the final judgment. Id. at 400.
Indeed, BNY Mellon was twice notified of the default judgment and failed to
respond or appear at any hearings. As such, the bank had ample opportunity to
raise the failure to state a cause of action either in an answer or at any time prior to
final judgment pursuant to the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure and did not do so.

Thereafter, the bank “could have raised the issue on direct appeal,” but similarly
elected not to do so. Id. at 401.

Thus, the Fourth District properly reversed the trial court’s order that
rendered the default judgment in the present case void. Because we agree that the
default judgment was voidable, Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.540(b) was not
applicable, and therefore the default judgment could not be collaterally attacked
one and one-half years later when BNY Mellon finally decided to respond. See
Coleman, 3 So. 2d at 152-53 (“We do not think the judgment in this case was void.
The declaration had been upheld by the trial court and final judgment was entered
on the verdict of the jury after due notice and every opportunity the law affords
was given the defendants to amend, plead, or offer their defense. They did not
appear and let the time pass in which writ of error is available to them.”).
Accordingly, we approve the Fourth District’s decision in La Mer Estates
and disapprove Southeast Land Developers and Moynet to the extent that these
cases are inconsistent with this decision.

It is so ordered.

LABARGA, C.J., and PARIENTE, QUINCE, CANADY, and POLSTON, JJ.,
concur.

LEWIS, J., dissents with an opinion.

NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION, AND
IF FILED, DETERMINED.

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One Response to “The Bank of New York Mellon, v. Condo Assoc. La Mer Estates, Inc. | FL Supreme Court – default judgment is voidable when the complaint upon which a judgment is based on fails to state a cause of action”

  1. benny says:

    the Bergen country new jersey incompetent judge Gerald escalaa that rubber stamp all foreclosures for the banks even if they don’t own homeowners notes
    should be made forced to read cases like this and learn something

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