47 Fla. L. Weekly D633a
NANCY WARD HARRIS and WILLIAM LOUIS HARRIS, Appellants/Cross-Appellees, v. RICHARD TINER, Appellee/Cross-Appellant, and METROPOLITAN GENERAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Appellant/Cross-Appellee, v. RICHARD TINER, Appellee/Cross-Appellant. 2nd District. Case Nos. 2D20-2290 and 2D20-2313. (Consolidated) March 16, 2022. Appeal from the Circuit Court for Lee County; James R. Shenko, Judge. Counsel: Jesse R. Butler of Dickinson & Gibbons, P.A., Sarasota, for Appellants/Cross-Appellees Nancy Ward Harris and William Louis Harris. Mark Hicks, Sharon Vosseller, and Lindsey A. Hicks of Hicks, Porter, Ebenfeld & Stein, P.A., Miami, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee Metropolitan General Insurance Company. Nicole R. Ramirez of HD Law Partners, Tampa (withdrew after briefing); Raymond A. Haas of HD Law Partners, Tampa, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant Richard Tiner.
(NORTHCUTT, Judge.) Richard Tiner sued Nancy and William Harris for damages stemming from an automobile accident. Tiner served a statutory proposal for settlement directed to both Harrises in 2018, and in 2019 he served a proposal for settlement to Nancy Harris only. The Harrises rejected both proposals. Tiner eventually obtained an arbitration award in excess of 125% of each settlement offer. Pursuant to section 768.79, Florida Statutes (2018), the circuit court awarded him attorney’s fees from the date the 2018 proposal was served.
The Harrises and their insurer now appeal the circuit court’s ruling on Tiner’s entitlement to fees, arguing that both proposals for settlement were invalid. Tiner also cross-appeals the amount of the fee award. We find Tiner’s argument on cross-appeal to be without merit, but we agree with the Harrises that the 2018 proposal for settlement was invalid. We therefore reverse the fee award and remand for further proceedings.
Our review of Tiner’s entitlement to attorney’s fees under section 768.79 and rule 1.442 is de novo. See Bright House Networks, LLC v. Cassidy, 242 So. 3d 456, 458 (Fla. 2d DCA 2018) (first citing Anderson v. Hilton Hotels Corp., 202 So. 3d 846, 852 (Fla. 2016), and then citing Saterbo v. Markuson, 210 So. 3d 135, 138 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016)). Under the offer of judgment statute, a party who refuses to accept a reasonable settlement offer, thereby unnecessarily continuing litigation, is sanctioned in the form of an attorney’s fee award levied against the rejecting party from the time the offer was served. Sarkis v. Allstate Ins. Co., 863 So. 2d 210, 222 (Fla. 2003). Because the statute imposes a sanction and because statutory fee awards are in derogation of common law, the statute and rule are strictly construed. Id. at 218. For the same reasons, proposals must strictly conform to the requirements of the rule and statute to entitle the settlement proponent to fees. Cassidy, 242 So. 3d at 458-59 (citing Anderson, 202 So. 3d at 852).
One of those requirements is that a proposal for settlement must “state with particularity any relevant conditions.” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.442(c)(2)(C). As such, the rule “requires that the settlement proposal be sufficiently clear and definite to allow the offeree to make an informed decision without needing clarification. If [an] ambiguity within the proposal could reasonably affect the offeree’s decision, the proposal will not satisfy the particularity requirement.” State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Nichols, 932 So. 2d 1067, 1079 (Fla. 2006).
Here, Tiner’s 2018 “Proposal for Settlement/Offer of Judgment” was fatally amorphous. It stated simply that its amount was $100,000. It did not demand that the Harrises consent to a judgment in that amount, as contemplated in section 768.79(1), nor did it require them to pay that sum nor specify when payment must be made nor obligate Tiner to dismiss his claims upon receipt of payment. The only explicit obligation imposed upon the Harrises by the proposal’s terms required them to execute a stipulation for dismissal of Tiner’s claims.
A proposal for settlement is an offer to enter into a contract. Cf. Suarez Trucking FL Corp. v. Souders, 311 So. 3d 263, 267 (Fla. 2d DCA 2020) (“General contract principles apply to proposals for settlement and offers of judgment . . . .”). Obviously, a party’s decision whether to accept a contract offer would be affected by the offer’s failure to prescribe the parties’ obligations or expectations thereunder. “[I]f accepted, the proposal should be capable of execution without the need for judicial interpretation. Proposals for settlement are intended to end judicial labor, not create more.” Lucas v. Calhoun, 813 So. 2d 971, 973 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002). Tiner’s 2018 proposal did not clearly and definitely set forth terms that would permit the Harrises to make an informed decision without needing clarification. Their rejection of that proposal did not entitle Tiner to a fee award.
Tiner’s second proposal for settlement, served in 2019, lacked the ambiguities contained in the first, and we affirm the determination that Tiner was entitled to fees from the date it was served. We note that the 2019 proposal was served on and rejected by Nancy Harris only; no fees may be awarded against William Harris on its account.
Insofar as the circuit court awarded attorney’s fees to Tiner based on the Harrises’ rejection of his 2018 settlement proposal, we reverse. On remand, the court shall limit the award to fees incurred after service of the 2019 proposal, and it shall award them against Nancy Harris only. Otherwise, we affirm.
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. (SILBERMAN and SLEET, JJ., Concur.)* * *