In the first case of its kind in Florida, the Fourth District Court of Appeal recently held that a commercial landlord who evicts a tenant following the statutory eviction procedures is insulated from liability for damages to the tenant for wrongful eviction even if the eviction is later reversed on appeal. In LK Group Holding Co. v. Spurrier Investments, Inc., the landlord filed an eviction against the tenant for nonpayment of rent. The tenant sought a rent determination hearing pursuant to Fla. Stat. 83.232.
The trial court denied the request because the tenant had not filed an answer to the complaint and, as a result, it entered a default judgment of possession. The tenant was evicted from the premises. The tenant appealed the entry of the judgment of possession and prevailed on the appeal. Thereafter, the tenant filed a counterclaim for wrongful eviction arguing that the eviction was improper and, therefore, it was entitled to damages for wrongful eviction.
While there was no Florida case ever interpreting this issue, several foreign cases have held that once the judgment of eviction is reversed, the landlord is estopped to argue that the eviction was proper and, therefore, the eviction was ipso facto wrongful. The Fourth District Court of Appeal disagreed with the foreign authority. The court used the existence of the reversed judgment of eviction to justify the eviction even though it was reversed. The Court also held that a tenant must also prove that the landlord engaged in some form of "wrongful conduct" such as acting in bad faith or asserting a frivolous legal argument to obtain the judgment of eviction which is later reversed.
The Court's determination is the first time that a Florida court has held in a case of actual (as opposed to constructive) eviction that something other than disposing the tenant (such as bad motive of intent) from the premises is required to support a claim of wrongful eviction.
The ruling appears to be inconsistent with other matters where damages are permitted against a plaintiff who obtains relief and the judgment is later reversed. For example, damages are permitted against a plaintiff who obtains an injunction which is later reversed without the showing of bad faith or frivolous legal arguments by the plaintiff. The opinion also appears to ignore the well-established concept that a judgment, once reversed, has no existence at all.
The good news for commercial landlords, however, is that so long as they act in good faith to pursue an eviction, even though the court commits legal error in entering a judgment of possession, they should be insulated from liability for damages caused to the evicted tenant.