Supreme Court of Florida lets the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Ober Decision Stand

By: Amy L. Dilday & Starlett M. Massey

On September 6, 2017, the Supreme Court of Florida entered an opinion declining to accept jurisdiction and denying the Town of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea’s Petition for the supreme court to review the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s opinion on rehearing, which it released in Ober v. Town of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. Because the supreme court also ordered that it would not consider a Motion for Rehearing on its declination, the Court left the Fourth District Court’s final decision to be the controlling law in Florida on whether liens on property that are recorded between the entry of the final foreclosure judgment and the date of the foreclosure sale survive after the sale. For now.

Of course, another district court of appeal could issue an opinion that conflicts with the Fourth District’s decision or the legislature could revise section 48.23, Florida Statutes (the statute governing lis pendens). But unless and until that happens, a foreclosure sale will operate to discharge not only liens on property that were recorded after the lis pendens and before the final foreclosure judgment, but also those that were recorded between the foreclosure judgment and the foreclosure sale.

Throughout the convoluted history of the Ober decision, lenders and practitioners had cause for concern as they watched the dispute unfold. On August 24, 2016, the Fourth District Court released its original Ober opinion, in which it held that a lis pendens expires on the date that a court enters the final foreclosure judgment. Under that holding, liens recorded after the final judgment remained enforceable against the property after the foreclosure sale. This judicial construction of section 48.23 was contrary to the prevalent industry understanding and practice where a lis pendens protects the property from liens recorded between the date the lis pendens was recorded through the date of the foreclosure sale—unless the lienholder intervened in the foreclosure litigation.

In Mr. Ober’s case, the foreclosure sale occurred four years after the entry of the foreclosure judgment, and the Town had recorded seven liens for code violations in those four years. Thus, as soon as Mr. Ober bought the property at the sale, the property was encumbered by the Town’s liens for an amount that exceeded the property’s value. When Ober filed a suit to quiet title, the Town countered with a claim for foreclosure. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Town, and on appeal, the Fourth District’s original opinion affirmed the judgment.

Mr. Ober filed a motion for rehearing, asking the Fourth District to reconsider its original decision and to certify a question of great public importance to the supreme court. By the time the appellate court considered the motion for rehearing, several amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs had been filed, including briefs from other Florida cities (in favor of the Town’s position), briefs from several Florida Bar practice sections (some writing in favor of the Town’s position; some in favor of Ober’s position), and other industry associations (in favor of Ober’s position).

The Fourth District Court granted Mr. Ober’s motion, withdrew its original opinion, and on January 25, 2017, released an opinion in which it held that a foreclosure sale discharges all lower-priority liens against a property, whether they were recorded before or after the final foreclosure judgment. With the intent of seeking supreme court review and after the revised opinion was released, the Town asked the Fourth District Court to certify a question of great public importance—a request that the court granted. The court certified the following question:

WHETHER, PURSUANT TO SECTION 48.23(1)(D), FLORIDA STATUTES, THE FILING OF A NOTICE OF LIS PENDENS AT THE COMMENCEMENT OF A BANK’S FORECLOSURE ACTION PREVENTS A LOCAL GOVERNMENT FROM EXERCISING AUTHORITY GRANTED TO IT BY CHAPTER 162, FLORIDA STATUTES, TO ENFORCE CODE VIOLATIONS EXISTING ON THE FORECLOSED PROPERTY AFTER FINAL FORECLOSURE JUDGMENT AND BEFORE JUDICIAL SALE, WHERE THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT’S INTEREST OR LIEN ON THE PROPERTY ARISES AFTER FINAL JUDGMENT AND DID NOT EXIST WITHIN THIRTY (30) DAYS AFTER THE RECORDING OF THE NOTICE OF LIS PENDENS.

Once the Fourth District Court released its certified question, the Town filed its Notice of Intent to Seek the Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Both parties filed briefs on the supreme court’s jurisdiction (the Court must determine whether to accept jurisdiction before it permits the parties to file briefs on the merits of the case), and several of the amicus parties filed notices that they intended to participate in the supreme court proceedings. The supreme court’s September 6, 2017 declination to exercise its jurisdiction, to answer the certified question, or to consider the case, however, left the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Ober decision, released on rehearing, as the controlling law on this issue.

In Florida, the holding of one of the five district courts of appeal is not controlling over any other district court. For that reason, any of the other four district courts may decide this issue as the Fourth District did in its first opinion—and create conflicting law in the state. If that were to happen, the resulting conflict would give the supreme court an additional reason to accept jurisdiction: to resolve the conflicting opinions. Or, more likely, the legislature could act in the interim to amend section 48.23 to clarify its meaning. Either of these possibilities may change the law on this issue. But unless and until they do, Ober still controls and a notice of lis pendens continues to provide the standard protections expected by lenders and practitioners.

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