Consolidating Lawsuits in Different Florida Judicial Circuits and the Impact of Res Judicata on Non-Consolidated Actions
Occasionally we represent a bank that has multiple parcels of property to foreclose upon in order to obtain pledged collateral on a non-performing loan. Regretfully, we often have to maintain separate actions and are unable to consolidate those actions because the parcels are in different counties which lie in different judicial circuits. Pursuant to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.270 and case law, actions may not be consolidated if they are pending in different circuits. It is beyond the scope of a trial judge’s authority to consolidate actions in those circumstances. Thus, in a North Florida pending action, we could consolidate a case that is pending in Duval County with one in Clay County (neighboring counties)because those counties are part of the Fourth Judicial Circuit, but we could not consolidate a case that is pending in Duval County with one in St. Johns County (neighboring counties) because St. Johns County is part of the Seventh Judicial Circuit.
Pursuant to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.270(a), “[w]hen actions involving a common question of law or fact are pending before the court, it may order a joint hearing or trial of any or all the matters in issue in the actions; it may order all the actions consolidated; and it may make such orders concerning proceedings therein as may tend to avoid unnecessary costs or delay." Under this rule, the actions must be pending in the same jurisdiction in order to consolidate. See e.g., Wetherington, v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 661 So. 2d 1276 (Fla. 2d DCA 1995) (A pending case in the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit could not be consolidated with a pending case in the Eighth Judicial Circuit); Y.H. v. F.L.H., et al., 784 So. 2d 565 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001) (Trial judge had no authority to consolidate the case with a case pending in another circuit). Thus, in order to consolidate cases pending, the cases must have been brought in the same circuit.
If you are unable to consolidate the actions, it is of paramount concern to understand the impact of res judicata on the concurrent proceedings. While in the commercial foreclosure context it is prevalent to simply obtain a stay of one proceeding pending adjudication of the primary contested action pending in a different court, sometimes a stay may not be plausible or practical. If you aren’t able to obtain a stay, so long as you meet the test required to apply the res judicata doctrine, you need not worry about one judgment in an action with identical parties, causes of action and underlying facts obtaining different treatment in a different action that is pending in a different judicial circuit.
To determine whether res judicata applies to two pending actions in separate circuits, the Florida Supreme Court has listed four identities: “(1) identity of thing sued for, (2) identity of cause of action, (3) identity of persons and parties to the action, and (4) identity of quality or capacity of persons for or against whom the claim is made." Leahy, v. Batmasian, 960 So. 2d 14, 17 (Fla. 2007). The court went on to state “[i]dentity of the causes of action is established when the facts or evidence necessary to maintain the suit are the same in both actions." Id.
When res judicata properly applies to multiple pending actions, a judgment on the merits rendered in the former suit between the same parties, “upon the same cause of action, by a court of competent jurisdiction, is conclusive not only as to every matter which was offered and received to sustain or defeat the claim, but as to every other matter which might with propriety have been litigated and determined in that action." Id. Furthermore, the court stated “a new suit on the same cause of action cannot be maintained between the same parties." Id. Thus, in our example above, if the Duval County court were to render a judgment on the merits before the St. Johns action renders a judgment, the Duval judgment will be the conclusive judgment as to the St. Johns County action as well. Thereafter, neither party will be able to bring any additional suits on the same cause of action in the future.
In sum, an action pending in different circuits, regardless of the similarity between the two, cannot be consolidated. Furthermore, the first judgment rendered will suffice as the judgment in both pending cases.