Defenses to a Foreign Judgment – Is Ineffective Service a Defense to the Domestication and Enforcement of an Out of Country Foreign Judgment
Section 55.601, Florida Statutes, is Florida’s Uniform Out-of-Country Foreign Money-Judgment Recognition Act (the “Act”), and it governs the recognition of out-of-country foreign money judgments. The Act provides that an out-of-country foreign judgment that is final, conclusive and enforceable where rendered is conclusive between the parties to the extent that it grants or denies recovery of a sum of money. See Fla. Stat. § 55.604. There are, however, certain mandatory and permissive exceptions. Specifically, an out-of-country foreign judgment is not conclusive if the judgment was rendered in a system which does not provide impartial tribunals or due process, the foreign court lacked personal jurisdiction or the foreign court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. See Fla. Stat. § 55.605(1). In contrast, a Florida court may exercise its discretion to refuse to recognize an out-of-country foreign judgment if: (i) the defendant did not receive notice of the foreign proceedings in sufficient time to enable it to present a defense; (ii) the judgment was obtained by fraud; (iii) claim for relief is repugnant to Florida’s public policy; (iv) the judgment conflicts with another final order; (v) the foreign proceeding was contrary to an agreement between the parties to settle the dispute out of court – i.e. an arbitration agreement; (vi) the foreign proceedings a seriously inconvenient forum; (vi) the foreign jurisdiction would not recognize a Florida judgment; or (vii) the foreign judgment is one for defamation under laws that do not provide much protection for freedom of speech and press in that case as would be provided by the United States. See Fla. Stat. §§ 55.605(2).
Insufficiency of service of process is not expressly listed as a grounds for non-recognition of an out of country foreign judgment. Moreover, the Act provides that a “foreign judgment shall not be refused recognition for lack of personal jurisdiction if the defendant was served personally in the foreign state.” Fla. Stat. 55.606(1). Nevertheless, ineffectual service in a location other than the foreign state may still serve as a defense to a foreign judgment by forming the basis for an argument that the foreign court lacked personal jurisdiction. See Fla. Stat. § 55.605 (1)(b) (“An out of country foreign judgment is not conclusive if…. the foreign court did not have personal jurisdiction over the defendant.”).
In Florida, a court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction is dependent on strict compliance with the requirements of service of process. See Kolenski v. Flaherty, 116 So. 2d 767, 769 (Fla. 1959) (“[I]t is the fact of valid service–or the fact of invalid service–as shown by the evidence, that is controlling insofar as the question of jurisdiction over the person of the defendant is concerned…”); Abbate v. Provident Nat’l Bank, 631 So. 2d 312, 315 (Fla. 5th DCA 1994) (“Absent strict compliance with the statutes governing service of process, the court lacks personal jurisdiction over the defendant.”). Importantly, when analyzing personal jurisdiction, a Florida Court should conduct its own analysis of a foreign court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction, irrespective of the foreign court’s conclusions. See Restatement (Third) of Foreign Relations Law § 482 (1987) (“Even if the rendering court had jurisdiction under the laws of its own state, a court in the United States asked to recognize a foreign judgment should scrutinize the basis for asserting jurisdiction in the light of international concepts of jurisdiction to adjudicate.”); Wellington v. Dept. of Revenue ex rel. Kober, 708 So.2d 1040 (Fla. 4th DCA 1998) (holding Iowa court’s statement about personal service was not determinative where judgment was entered by default). As a result, where a there is ineffective service of process, a foreign court should lack personal jurisdiction providing a defense to the enforcement of the judgment in Florida.
Nevertheless, in a 2008 opinion, the Third District Court of Appeals held that insufficiency of service of process did not provide a defense to enforcement under the Act. See Israel v. Flick Mortgage Investors, Inc., 23 So. 3d 1196 (Fla. 3d DCA 2008). In Flick, the defendant argued that the foreign court lacked jurisdiction because it was notified of the foreign lawsuit by registered mail. The Court rejected that argument holding that “[o]n the particular facts and circumstances of this case, this claim must fail.” Flick, 23 So. 3d at 1198 (emphasis added). In reaching that conclusion, the court reasoned that: (i) Section (2)(a) of the Florida Act is the only provision potentially authorizing an attack on a foreign money-judgment due to insufficiency of service of process; (ii) Section (2)(a) focuses not the manner in which a defendant received notice of a foreign lawsuit, but on whether the defendant received notice in sufficient time to present a defense; (iii) the defendant actually appeared in the foreign proceedings and presented a defense; and (iv) the defendant challenged the foreign court’s personal jurisdiction in the foreign proceedings, but did not raise insufficiency of service of process as a basis for the foreign court’s lack of personal jurisdiction and therefore, waived that defense. As explained below, the reasoning underlying the Flick opinion is flawed.
First, the Flick court’s holding rests on the faulty premise that Section (2)(a) is the only provision of the Florida Act that relates to insufficiency of service of process. See id. at 1198. Florida law requires effective service of process as a prerequisite to the exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant, see Kolenski, 116 So. 2d at 769; Abbate, 631 So. 2d at 315, and Section (1)(b) of the Florida Act provides that “[a]n out of country foreign judgment is not conclusive if…. the foreign court did not have personal jurisdiction over the defendant.” Fla. Stat. § 55.605(1)(b). Thus, Section (1)(b) of the Act relates to the sufficiency of service of process. See also Restatement (Third) of Foreign Relations § 482 (“Even if the rendering court had jurisdiction under the laws of its own state, a court in the United States asked to recognize a foreign judgment should scrutinize the basis for asserting jurisdiction in the light of international concepts of jurisdiction to adjudicate.”). As a result, the Flick court mistakenly failed to consider whether ineffective service of process precluded a foreign court from obtaining personal jurisdiction and therefore is a ground for non-recognition of a foreign judgment under Section (1)(b) of the Florida Act.
More importantly, however, the Flick court reasoned that actual notice of a foreign lawsuit, as opposed to strict compliance with Florida Statutes governing service of process, is all that is required for recognition of a foreign judgment under the Florida Act. Flick, 23 So. 3d at 1198. That reasoning is contrary to Florida law, which requires valid service of process, not actual notice, for a court to acquire personal jurisdiction over a defendant. See Abbate, 631 So. 2d at 315 (“The plaintiff asserts a harmless error argument, that service of process is designed to assure that a defendant is given notice of the institution of civil proceedings against him and that this was done here. This argument, however, runs counter to the overwhelming law in Florida that strict compliance with the statutes governing service of process is required. Absent strict compliance with the statutes governing service of process, the court lacks personal jurisdiction over the defendant.”) (internal citations omitted).
Finally, the Flick court’s ultimate holding did not rest on the sufficiency or insufficiency of the plaintiff’s service of process rested on the defendant’s waiver of any argument related to ineffective service of process. See id. at 1199.
While Flick is the only Florida Court to squarely address the question of whether ineffective service of process is a defense to enforcement of a foreign judgment, the Fourth District has indicated that a lack of service may provide a defense to enforcement due to a lack of personal jurisdiction. See Chabert v. Bacquie, 694 So.2d 805 (4th DCA 1997). In Chabert the defendant objected to the recognition of a French judgment arguing that the French court lacked personal jurisdiction over him due to “improper or inadequate service of notice.” Chabert, 694 So. 2d at 811. Considering the defendant’s argument, the Fourth District stated that:
[S]ubsection (1) of section 55.605 of the Act is phrased in mandatory terms: if any of the grounds listed in subsection (1) are found to exist, then the foreign judgment is not conclusive, and a Florida court cannot recognize it. This contrasts with subsection (2) of section 55.605 which is phrased in permissive terms. Hence if Chabert is correct that the French court lacked personal jurisdiction over him under the Hague Service Convention, then under section 55.605(1)(b) we may not accord recognition to the French judgment.
Id. at 811 (emphasis added). The court ultimately overruled the defendant’s objection finding that he had been personally served at the commencement of the foreign suit and therefore the Court could not refuse to recognize the judgment pursuant to Section 55.606, Florida Statutes. Id. at 812. Nevertheless, the Court’s dicta indicated a willingness to consider and accept an argument that the foreign judgment was unenforceable because the court lacked personal jurisdiction due to ineffective service of process.
Courts interpreting other states’ versions of the Uniform Out-of-country Foreign Money-Judgment Recognition Act have reached the same result. In Franco v. Dow Chem. Co., 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26639, Case No. CV 03-5094 NM (PJWx) (C.D. Cal. Oct. 20, 2003) foreign plaintiffs attempted to domesticate a foreign judgment against Dow Chemical Company (“Dow”). In the foreign lawsuit, the plaintiffs attempted to serve Dow, but mistakenly served an affiliated corporation, Dow Agro Sciences. See Franco, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26639 at *5. The District Court held that the judgment was unenforceable because the foreign court lacked personal jurisdiction. Id at *26-27.
A natural reading of the Act and the Fourth District’s opinion in Chabert support the argument that ineffective service in a foreign litigation is a defense to the enforcement of a foreign judgment in Florida. Notwithstanding the opinion in Flick, a party facing domestication of an out of country judgment in Florida should carefully scrutinize service of process in the underlying lawsuit to determine whether it was defective.