State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company appeals from an order granting a motion under Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.540(b) to vacate a stipulated judgment in an action to recover personal injury protection benefits brought by Loretta Statsick. Ms. Statsick filed the motion to vacate after a question regarding the res judicata effect of the judgment arose in subsequent litigation. Her motion alleged, and the trial court found, that there was no "meeting of the minds" as to whether the stipulated judgment would reach claims of the type brought in that subsequent litigation. As a result, the trial court concluded that the agreement underlying the judgment was void and vacated the judgment. Neither the motion nor the resulting order specified the subsection of rule 1.540(b) that warranted relief.
We reverse on two bases. First, to the extent the trial court determined that relief was warranted under rule 1.540(b)(4) because the stipulated judgment— having been entered pursuant to a void agreement—was itself void, that was legal error; a judgment entered pursuant to a void settlement agreement is merely voidable, not void, and therefore not within the scope of subsection (b)(4). Second, to the extent the trial court's "meeting of the minds" finding was intended to support some other basis for relief under rule 1.540(b)—such as mistake under subsection (b)(1)—it was not, and on this record could not have been, supported by competent substantial evidence. We therefore remand with instructions to reinstate the stipulated judgment.
Ms. Statsick is a former Michigan resident who now lives in Florida. She had automobile insurance under a State Farm policy issued in Michigan and, while visiting her former home state, was in a car accident there. A dispute later arose between Ms. Statsick and State Farm over the existence and extent of State Farm's obligation to pay PIP benefits to cover medical expenses Ms. Statsick claimed to have incurred as a result of the accident. In 2011, Ms. Statsick sued State Farm in circuit court in Pinellas County, Florida, to recover those benefits.
As the case proceeded toward trial, State Farm served Ms. Statsick with a written offer to stipulate to the entry of a judgment made pursuant to a Michigan rule of civil procedure.
At a hearing shortly thereafter, the parties agreed on the record to the language of a judgment for the court to enter. It provided simply that "judgment is entered" in favor of Ms. Statsick and against State Farm "in the amount of Thirty Thousand ($30,000.00) Dollars, [i]nclusive of attorney fees, [i]nterest and costs now accrued, pursuant to Stipulation of the parties under [the Michigan rule]." The trial court then entered the judgment to which the parties had agreed. State Farm paid, and Ms. Statsick accepted, the $30,000 payment required by the stipulated judgment.
In 2014, Ms. Statsick brought a second action against State Farm in Pinellas County for additional PIP benefits arising out of the same policy and accident but based on medical expenses incurred subsequent to the 2011 litigation. That case was assigned to the same trial judge who handled the 2011 case. State Farm moved for summary judgment arguing that Ms. Statsick's new complaint was barred by res judicata as a result of the stipulated judgment in the earlier case. Ms. Statsick argued that the preclusive effect of the stipulated judgment did not reach claims for PIP benefits based on expenses incurred subsequent to the operative complaint in the 2011 case and that the parties did not contemplate when they submitted the stipulated judgment that it would resolve claims for such medical expenses.
After a hearing at which both parties presented extensive argument, the trial court stated, apparently in view of the parties' significant divergence of opinion over whether the stipulated judgment barred Ms. Statsick's new claims, that the parties had not reached a "meeting of the minds" when they resolved the 2011 case. It later entered a written order denying State Farm's summary judgment motion, which purported to make an express "factual finding that there was no meeting of the minds regarding the Stipulated Judgment."
Ms. Statsick then filed a motion in the 2011 case pursuant to rule 1.540(b) to vacate the stipulated judgment, attaching as exhibits the stipulated judgment and the order denying State Farm's summary judgment motion in the 2014 case. Rule 1.540(b) provides for a trial court to relieve a party from an order or judgment in specified circumstances, such as where the order or judgment is void; where mistake, inadvertence, or excusable neglect warrants relief; or where there has been some newly discovered evidence that is important. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.540(b)(1), (2), (4). Ms. Statsick alleged that relief under rule 1.540(b) was warranted because the trial court's factual finding that the parties had no "meeting of the minds" in its order denying summary judgment in the 2014 case rendered the parties' agreement to stipulate to a judgment void and, as a result, rendered the stipulated judgment in the 2011 case unenforceable. Ms. Statsick's motion did not identify a specific ground of rule 1.540(b) under which she sought relief, although the content of the motion implied reliance on rule 1.540(b)(4), which provides for relief from void judgments.
The trial court agreed with Ms. Statsick concerning the "meeting of the minds," found that "the contractual settlement agreement underlying the Stipulated Judgment is void . . . as the parties failed to have a meeting of the minds on the essential terms of the agreement," and vacated the judgment. Like Ms. Statsick's motion, the trial court's order does not identify a particular rule 1.540(b) ground warranting relief, although it too implies that the trial court found the stipulated judgment void and ordered relief accordingly. State Farm timely appeals.
We ordinarily review an order granting a motion under rule 1.540(b) for abuse of discretion.
The most obvious candidate in terms of a basis for relief in view of the trial court's determination that the agreement leading to the stipulated judgment was void is that the judgment itself is void under rule 1.540(b)(4). A determination that relief under rule 1.540(b)(4) was warranted on that basis depended, in turn, on the legal conclusion that when a settlement agreement forming the basis for a stipulated judgment is void, the resultant judgment itself is void. That conclusion presents a pure question of law, which we evaluate de novo.
A judgment is void when it is entered by a court lacking jurisdiction over the subject matter of the case or jurisdiction over the person of the defendant or where there is a violation of due process.
Instead, Ms. Statsick appears to have alleged and sought to prove that the stipulated judgment was void because the underlying agreement was void for want of a meeting of the minds. Florida courts have held, however, that this kind of problem in a settlement agreement renders a resultant judgment merely voidable, not void.
The parties, however, also argue that the trial court's decision may have rested on other provisions of rule 1.540(b), such as mistake under subsection (b)(1), fraud under subsection (b)(3), or that prospective application of the judgment is no longer equitable under subsection (b)(5). The abuse of discretion standard applicable under rule 1.540(b), although deferential, requires that the decision to exercise discretion and afford relief under any of these subsections be supported by competent substantial evidence.
Relief under any of these subsections of rule 1.540(b) hinges on the trial court's factual finding that there was no meeting of the minds as to whether the stipulated judgment would bar a suit for medical expenses incurred after the operative complaint in the 2011 case. That was the only factual allegation made in the motion to vacate, that is the only factual issue tethered to the record, and that is the only factual finding the trial court made. The problem is that this record lacks any evidence to support a finding that there was no meeting of the minds. The hearing on Ms. Statsick's motion to vacate the stipulated judgment was limited to argument of counsel. No evidence was presented either through witnesses or documents that would have permitted the trial court to make the factual finding that it did.
Ms. Statsick relied on the trial court's separate factual finding in the 2014 case to provide evidence that there was no meeting of the minds, but that finding is pure surplusage without legal effect in this case. It was made in an order denying State Farm's motion for summary judgment in the 2014 case, which argued that the stipulated judgment was res judicata as to Ms. Statsick's claims in the 2014 case. The legal issues the trial court had to resolve in deciding whether to award summary judgment to State Farm were two: (1) whether State Farm had shown that there was no genuine issue as to any material fact concerning its res judicata defense (and, if so, whether Ms. Statsick had rebutted State Farm's showing) and (2) whether State Farm was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Given the limited scope of the summary judgment inquiry and record, the trial court was not in a position to make a finding of fact that conclusively resolved whether a meeting of the minds supported the stipulated judgment.
Having determined that the trial court's order on the motion to vacate must be reversed, we further conclude that remand to determine whether the stipulated judgment was the product of a meeting of the minds is unnecessary.
The question of whether the stipulated judgment reaches claims for medical expenses incurred subsequent to the operative complaint in the 2011 case is not a question of whether the parties agreed to the judgment in the 2011 case—they did—but rather is a question of what the preclusive effect of that judgment is. Put differently, whether the stipulated judgment to which the parties agreed reaches Ms. Statsick's claims in the 2014 complaint is a matter of preclusion law, not contract law.
For the foregoing reasons, we reverse the order granting Ms. Statsick's motion to vacate the stipulated judgment and remand the case to the trial court with instructions to reinstate that judgment.
Reversed and remanded.
WALLACE and SLEET, JJ., Concur.
NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED.