The Circuit Court handles cases to settle legal disputes among parties where the dollar amount involved is greater than $30,000, excluding costs, interest, and attorneys’ fees. In addition, there are some issues that must always be filed in Circuit Court, without concern about the amount at issue. Some such cases include probate and guardianship matters, family law cases, cases in equity actions of ejectment, and all actions involving the title and boundaries of real property.
In the future, the $30,000 threshold dollar amount to file in Circuit Court will change.For the most current dollar amounts, find the Circuit Court statute online, here.
There are 20 Circuits in the state of Florida, and each of these areas are served by at least one Circuit Court. Find a list of Florida’s Circuit courts online at the official Florida Courts website.
WHAT ARE YOUR RIGHTS?
A civil action begins by filing a Complaint (a document that states who you are suing and why) and other required documents with the clerk in the appropriate county.
You must be at least 18 years of age. You may be an individual, a person Doing Business As (also known as, “d/b/a”) or a corporation. A minor child must have a parent or legal guardian file on their behalf.
Filing fees for civil lawsuits are established in the Florida Statutes and local county ordinances.
The clerk of court may be able to provide information on filing fees.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO?
These are the general steps to how to file a civil lawsuit in Circuit Court.
Determine where to sue. This is known as the “Venue.”
The law gives the person or company that files a lawsuit the right to file in any one of these places:
- Where the contract was entered into;
If the suit is on an unsecured promissory note, where the note is signed or where the maker resides;
- If the suit is to recover property or to foreclose a lien, where the property is located;
- Where the event giving rise to the suit occurred;
- Where any one or more of the defendants sued reside;
- Any location agreed to in a contract; or
- In an action for money due, if there is no agreement as to where suit may be filed, where payment is to be made.
First, file the Complaint. A Complaint is a court document that sets out the parties and the reason for the lawsuit, including the amount due or the property you want returned. The person who starts the case is called the “plaintiff”; the person being sued is called the “defendant.” If you want a jury trial it must be requested in the Complaint.
You will also need to complete a Civil Cover Sheet to file with the Complaint. This is a form that explains what type of case is being filed.
Finally, you must file a Summons. You will need to issue a Summons for each Defendant. Please fill in the caption by clearly printing your name, the Defendants’ names, and the Case Number. Make as many copies of the Summons as you will need for service on each Defendant.
You must file the Complaint, Civil Cover Sheet, and Summons at the Clerk’s office.
The sheriff or private process server will serve a copy of the documents on each Defendant. You are responsible for delivery of the Summons, a copy of the Complaint with Attachments, and any Exhibits to the appropriate Sheriff’s Office for service. “Service” is an impartial third party person officially delivers the legal documents on your behalf.
After being served, the Defendant will have 20 days to respond. If they do not respond, you may ask the Court for a Default Judgment.
If the Defendant files a response to the Complaint, you can file discovery requests. These are written questions that request the Defendant answer questions or provide documents.
After Discovery has been completed, you can request a final hearing or trial.
At the trial or final hearing, you will present evidence and witnesses that support your position. The Defendant will also be given the opportunity to present their own evidence and witnesses.
If you win your lawsuit, you will need to take steps to collect the money the court has awarded to you through the court case.
The next sections will explain the general steps you will need to take if you want to collect on a judgment.
The first step in enforcing a judgment is to investigate the collectible assets of the opposing party against whom you obtained a judgment (the “debtor”). Just because you win a certain amount of money does not guarantee that you will be able to actually collect it.
The law provides the successful party in a lawsuit (the “creditor”) with certain procedural tools to gain information from the debtor regarding his or her collectible assets. This process is known as “discovery in aid of execution.”
For example, a creditor may take the deposition of the debtor or propound interrogatories (questions). The debtor must provide sworn answers to the questions. If they fail to cooperate, the creditor may move the court to compel them to attend a deposition or answer interrogatories. The court has the ability to impose fines or jail time in egregious circumstances.
The next step is to execute the judgment upon the debtor’s collectible assets.
One simple and effective means of doing this is to record a certified copy of the judgment in the official records of the county in which the real property is located, causing the judgment to become a lien upon the property in certain circumstances.
With the lien in place, you can then levy and execute upon the real property to satisfy the judgment amount (subject to any superior liens upon the property).
This method is not available if the real property is homestead property of the judgment debtor. Article X, Section 4, of the Florida Constitution exempts homestead property from judgment liens or forced sale.
It is important to note that the homestead status of property for tax purposes does not determine whether the property is considered homestead for purposes of the constitutional exemption against creditors.
Additionally, it is usually unrealistic to seek a lien on a property that is subject to a mortgage that exceeds the value of the property, or other superior liens that may reduce the proceeds available from the sale of the property.
You can also seek certain other assets to satisfy a judgment:
- Garnishing wages or bank accounts. This option is not available if the funds to be garnished qualify as the wages or salary of a head of household and the debtor has not consented in writing to waive the head of household exemption.
- Attaching liens to personal property. Personal property of the judgment debtor may be executed upon subject to the debtor’s ability to claim an exemption of up to $4,000 if he or she is not already claiming a homestead exemption. Florida Statute § 222.25 (2015). A judgment debtor may claim an exemption of up to $1,000 equity in a personal motor vehicle.
Please note that the above options may be subject to the applicability of additional exemptions under state and federal law.
WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE TAKING ACTION?
You must know the name and address of the person you want to sue or you will not be able to serve the Complaint.
Does the person you want to sue have assets that are not exempt from collection? If all their assets are protected, you will not collect anything even if you win the case.