The Third District Court of Appeal, in Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida v. Lewis Tein P.L., 44 Fla. L. Weekly D2094, Case No. 3D18 (Fla. 3rd DCA 2016), reversed the trial court’s decision which denied the Tribe’s motion for attorney’s fees on a rejected offer of judgment. The trial court had found the motion for attorney’s fees to be in bad faith because the Tribe’s initial offers of judgment were both nominal in amount and untimely as they were not made at the beginning of the lawsuit, but rather nine months into litigation. The Tribe appealed and won a reversal of the trial court ruling denying fees.
Suit against the Tribe was first filed in August of 2016. The Plaintiffs were seeking damages from the Tribe relating to the Tribe’s actions in prior lawsuits. The Miccosukee Tribe quickly moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis of lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the theory of Sovereign Immunity. The trial court denied the Tribe’s Motion. The Tribe appealed the trial court’s denial of its Motion to Dismiss, but subsequent to the denial and the Tribe’s appeal, the Tribe made offers of judgment to the Plaintiff totaling $7,500.00, offering each Plaintiff $2,500.00. The offers made by the Tribe were rejected. Thereafter, in 2017, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed the denial of the motion to dismiss and held “that the plaintiff’s claims against the Tribe were precluded by sovereign immunity.” Based on this successful result on appeal, the Tribe moved for attorneys fees pursuant to Florida Statute §768.79. The trial court denied this motion.
Reversing the trial court’s decision declining to award the Tribe attorney’s fees, the Third District Court of Appeal held: (1) the nominal nature of the offers of judgment does not automatically indicate a lack of good faith and (2) the offers were made well within the time restrictions as set out in Fla. Stat. §768.79. Regarding its first finding, the District Court of Appeal relied on Taylor Eng’g, Inc. v. Dickerson Fla., Inc., 221 So. 3d 719, 723 (Fla. 3d DCA 2017) which held “that an offer of judgment is not negated simply because the amount of the offer is nominal if the offeror had a reasonable basis to conclude that his/her exposure was nominal or minimal.” Further, citing Schmidt v. Fortner, 629 So. 2d 1036, 1039 (Fla. 4th DCA 1993), “the obligation of good faith merely insists that the offeror have some reasonable foundation on which to base an offer.” The Third District reversed the trial court’s finding regarding the nominal nature of the offer, relying on the entirety of the record. The appellate court further found that a Native American tribe may only be subject to suit where Congress has authorized the suit, or the tribe has waived its immunity, neither of which occurred. These findings, coupled with a reasonable basis for the offers, indicated that the Tribe acted reasonably and that the nominal offer of judgment amount did not indicate a lack of good faith.
The Third District Court of Appeal also reversed the trial court’s finding that the offers were not in good faith because the offers were made not at the inception of the case but rather nine months into litigation. The Court interpreted Fla. Stat. §768.79(6)(a) to allow offers of judgment throughout litigation because it awards fees not incurred at the beginning of the lawsuit, but fees “incurred from the date the offer was served.” In so holding, the appellate panel reasoned that because the offers made by the Tribe occurred immediately after a major event in the case that the circumstances do not support a finding of bad faith by the Tribe regarding the timing of the offers. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida v. Lewis Tein P.L., 44 Fla. L. Weekly D2094.