Florida’s Fourth DCA affirmed a county court’s final judgment foreclosing a lien in favor of Deer Run Property Owners’ Association (the “Association”) awarding over $87,000 for delinquent assessments, interest, late charges, costs, and attorneys’ fees. Belkova v. Deer Run Prop. Owners’ Ass’n, Inc., No. 4D21-2924, 2023 WL 5419586, at *3 (Fla. 4th DCA August 23, 2023). In Belkova, the Association initiated foreclosure proceedings in 2017 due to delinquent assessments totaling $3,857.07.[i] Belkova delayed the proceedings for years by evading service of process, petitioning three times for bankruptcy protection, and moving for multiple continuances based on “numerous physical problems.”[ii]
Eventually, Belkova filed a pro se answer and affirmative defenses and in March 2021 the matter was set for a summary judgment hearing on April 23, 2021. Belkova sought an extended continuance through June 2021, due to a horseback riding injury, but received a six-day continuance (to April 28, 2021) instead.[iii] The day of the hearing, through newly retained counsel, Belkova moved for a second continuance and filed an amended answer and affirmative defenses without leave of court. The county denied the continuance, found the last-minute filing untimely, and granted summary judgment in favor of the Association. The clerk set a foreclosure sale for October 13, 2021. The day before the sale Belkova appealed the judgment, but the sale proceeded, and a third party purchased the property for $180,100.
On appeal, Belkova argued that the county court lacked jurisdiction to enter a $87,000 judgment due to the monetary limitations[iv] on cases filed in county court and lacked the jurisdiction to foreclose a lien on homestead property under the homestead exemption established by the Florida Constitution.[v] The Fourth DCA rejected both arguments. The Court first explained that “the payment of taxes and assessments” was an exception to the homestead exemption which prevented the forced sale of homestead property and that the $15,000 limitation for matters brought in county court was “exclusive of interest, costs, and attorneys’ fees.”[vi] The Court elaborated that even though “a claim of lien for assessments may include reasonable attorney’s fees,” they are “not part of the ‘matter in controversy’ under section 34.01(1)(c).”[vii]
Interestingly, the Court also found that the county court had jurisdiction to award attorneys’ fees “for work performed in bankruptcy court.” The Court explained that since the bankruptcy stay was lifted and there was no disposition of the property which was subject to the Association’s lien in the bankruptcy proceedings, the property “remained the appellant’s property and returned to the county court’s jurisdiction.”[viii]
Lastly, the Court rejected Belkova’s argument that the county court abused its discretion when it denied her second requested continuance of the summary judgment proceedings.[ix] The Court acknowledged that when a physical condition prevents a party from fairly and adequately presenting their case denial of a requested continuance usually constitutes reversible error. However, the Court noted reversal was not mandated in “all circumstances” and outlined five factors to be considered when reviewing the denial of a continuance: The length of the requested continuance, whether another attorney could cover the matter, prior requests for continuance, inconvenience to others, and any other unique circumstances.
The Fourth DCA quoted extensively from the county court’s findings which demonstrated Belkova’s second request for a continuance was intended to delay the proceedings and that Belkova’s repeated “dilatory practices” throughout the proceedings prejudiced the Association. The Fourth DCA concluded the county court did not abuse its discretion by denying yet another requested continuance. The Court affirmed all aspects of the final judgment entered in favor of the Association.
[i] Belkova, at *1.
[ii] Belkova, at *1, *5. The Fourth DCA, quoting the trial court, included a list of the ailments which included “exhaustion caused by exposure to ‘microwave radiation from Internet routers and cell phones,’ two separate automobile accidents causing a herniated disc and ‘significant neck injuries’ respectively, muscle cramps from hunching over a desk in front of a computer, unspecified ‘serious illnesses,’ an unspecified ‘catastrophic injury,’ and ‘chronic mercury and lead poisoning.’ ”
[iii] Belkova, at *1. Future reference or quotations to this case are to this citation until noted otherwise.
[iv] The jurisdiction of county courts is limited to those actions at law “in which the matter in controversy does not exceed the sum of $15,000, exclusive of interest, costs, and attorney’s fees.” Belkova, at *3 (quoting § 34.01(1)(c), Florida Statutes) (emphasis omitted).
[v] Belkova, at *2. Future reference or quotations to this case are to this citation until noted otherwise.
[vi] Belkova, at *2-3. Future reference or quotations to this case are to this citation until noted otherwise.
[vii] Belkova, at *3. Future reference or quotations to this case are to this citation until noted otherwise.
[viii] Belkova, at *4. Future reference or quotations to this case are to this citation until noted otherwise. Notably, the Fourth DCA certified conflict between the Third, Fourth and Fifth districts on this issue.
[ix] Belkova, at *5.