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Florida Second DCA reverses trial court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s legal malpractice lawsuit on statute of limitations grounds

On August 14, 2020, in Hurley v. Lifsey, No. 2D19-1438, the Florida Second DCA reversed a trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s legal malpractice case. The trial court had dismissed the case on statute of limitations (“SOL”) grounds.  Florida Statute § 95.11(4)(a) bars professional malpractice actions filed more than two years from when the cause of action was discovered or should have been discovered with the exercise of due diligence. In this case, the plaintiff did not file his professional negligence lawsuit until a little less than four years after his complaint in the underlying lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice by the trial court.  This was the apparent basis for the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint, which occurred following a status conference.  No answer had yet been filed admitting any pleading allegation, no factual stipulation was provided to the trial court, and no discovery had taken place.  The Second DCA rules that the trial court erred in two respects.  First, at that stage of the lawsuit, the trial court was required to look only at the four corners of the complaint in assessing whether the SOL had expired, but the complaint was silent regarding when the judgment became final in the underlying lawsuit, only reciting that the summary judgment was entered on a date that was more than two years prior to the filing of the professional negligence lawsuit.  The Second DCA noted that in Silvestrone v. Edell, 721 So. 2d 1173 (Fla. 1998) the Florida Supreme Court set a bright line rule that the SOL only commences in legal malpractice cases arising out of litigation that proceeded to final judgment when the judgment itself becomes final, which does not occur until after the period for appeals has expired.  Given this rule, the Second DCA concluded that the dismissal of the legal malpractice claim was erroneous since the complaint was itself silent about when the judgment became final within the meaning of Silvestrone.  The Second DCA also concluded that the trial court erred in dismissing two other causes of action in the complaint that involved allegations of fraud subject to a four-year SOL under Fla. Stat. § 95.11(3)(j).