In the days leading up to HB 837 becoming law, the number of civil case filings surged in Pasco County Clerk & Comptroller Nikki Avlarez-Sowles’ office.
During the month of March of 2022, the clerk’s office received 911 civil case filings, compared to 3,572 during March of this year, according to clerk office figures. That represents a 292% increase.
“I don’t think anyone could have anticipated that law firms had so many cases pending that weren’t filed yet,” Alvarez-Sowles said.
She doesn’t think anyone — the legislators, the governor, the clerks or judiciary — would have expected that “there would have been such an influx of cases” in anticipation of the legislation becoming law.
“The numbers are astronomical,” Alvarez-Sowles said.
A legislative analysis of HB 837 describes it as tort reform, which will have impacts in numerous areas. Those impacts include: Reducing the statute of limitations for negligence actions from four years to two years; providing for distribution of proceeds where two or more third-party claims arise out of a single claim, exceeding policy limits; limiting applicability of provisions relating to attorney fees in certain actions against insurers; and, other changes.
The avalanche of filings occurred, as attorneys took actions to preserve rights that were enshrined in the previous law.
Even after the initial surge, delays are expected as the new cases generate pleadings and result in an uptick in trials, the clerk said.
Processing these cases as they work their way through the system is expected to create too much work for existing staff to handle.
She’s already tapped into her overtime budget and there’s a limit to how much is available, she said.
“With a circuit civil case, the lifespan is usually two to five years. So, this amount of cases coming in, in a brief period of time, is going to impact not just my office, but also the judicial system,” Alvarez-Sowles said.
“Once the case is created and the case moves on, there’s going to be a lot of pleadings that are going to be filed in that case. That’s going to create additional work, as the case moves through, to conclusion. So that workload is going to last for the next two to five years.”
“It’s a lot larger of a workload than we typically see,” Alvarez-Sowles said.
On average, her office typically gets about 12 circuit civil filings a day. But during the recent surge, on one day alone, there were 828 filings.
Beyond having her employees work overtime, the clerk said she’s also looking at the possibility of redeploying staff within her office.
“We can utilize and move teammates from our criminal department and from our records department and train them on the civil processes to docket subsequent pleadings, and that’s something that we are talking about as a team, in my office,” Alvarez-Sowles said.
But that, too, has its limits.
“That has a domino effect,” she explained, noting care must be taken to avoid creating backlogs elsewhere.
Clerks across the state, as well as the judiciary, are facing the same problem, she said.
She said she understands the chief judges have met to talk through the situation.
“They won’t feel it just yet, because my office is the one creating the case, but they’re going to feel it really soon.
“We only have a certain number of civil judges and those cases will be divided amongst those judges, and their workload will probably be too much for each one to manage, until those cases run their course, in our system,” she said.
She said the judiciary and clerks are going to need to work together to determine what the influx of cases means throughout the system, and how it can be addressed.
“It’s kind of too early to tell, just yet, what the impact is on all of our offices. “We’ve got to do a little legwork (to do) on our end, first,” she said.
The clerks and judiciary faced a similar situation when there was a flurry of filings during the foreclosure crisis, Alvarez-Sowles said.
“When we had the foreclosures, they brought in senior judges — which are judges who are retired — and they brought them in to process some of those foreclosure cases.
“We may need to seek appropriations from the state — (for) maybe hiring some temporary employees to help us process these cases through the system,” she added.
The judiciary may need extra funding, too.
She expects the clerks and judiciary to work together to seek a solution.
“We’ll be able to show what it is that we’re going to need, and I think the legislators and the governor are going to be very supportive of that,” Alvarez-Sowles said.
Alvarez-Sowles said she’s not sure what to expect next because the new law also reduced the statute of limitations in these civil cases from four years to two years.
It’s too early to know how that change will affect the volume of cases, she said.
The Pasco clerk said her primary message is a request to the public to be patient, as efforts are made to resolve this issue.
“We’re working through it,” Alvarez-Sowles said. “But delays are going to be inevitable, at least until we can get a handle on everything.”
Published April 05, 2023