Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal (“Fifth DCA”) upheld a denial of certification in a putative class action seeking refunds of fines paid under a red light camera ordinance, ruling that the application of the voluntary payment defense precluded findings of commonality, typicality, predominance, and superiority. At issue was the City of Orlando’s (“City”) issuance of fines pursuant to an ordinance that allowed for the use of cameras to record vehicles failing to stop at red lights. The City issued almost 50,000 citations under the ordinance, with an overwhelming majority of those cited simply paying the fine and, only 378 individuals appealing.
In April 2010, the City sent the named plaintiff, Easter, a notice of infraction under the ordinance, which he appealed. The City upheld the infraction, and Easter ultimately paid the fine. Easter proceeded to file a class action against the City in which he sought, on behalf of himself and others, refunds of fines paid. While Easter’s case was pending, the Florida Supreme Court found that ordinances, such as the City’s, were preempted by state law. Thereafter, Easter moved for class certification.
In denying certification, the trial court applied the voluntary payment defense to Easter’s claims. In Florida, the voluntary payment defense bars recovery of funds “where payment was made under a claim of right and with full knowledge of the facts,” but the defense may be overcome on a showing of compulsion or coercion to pay. Therefore, if the fines assessed by the City were paid voluntarily, absent a showing of compulsion or coercion, Easter, and others like him, would not receive a refund. Based on the applicability of the voluntary payment defense, the trial court found that Easter could not establish commonality, typicality, predominance, or superiority, and denied certification. Easter appealed.
At the outset, the Fifth DCA noted that the “primary issue [was] whether the City was required to refund monies paid, notwithstanding the fact that fines had been improperly imposed in the first place,” given the Florida Supreme Court’s preemption ruling. The Fifth DCA then explained that the trial court properly determined there was a lack of commonality and typicality because Easter’s payment under protest after raising a legal challenge was different from virtually all others who simply paid the fine. The Fifth DCA also found that determining whether class members were compelled or coerced to pay fines would require highly individualized assessments, thereby defeating predominance. Finally, the Fifth DCA acknowledged that certifying a class, only to notify class members they were not entitled to relief because they voluntarily paid the fine, would be time-consuming, expensive, and fruitless, and would not meet the superiority requirement.
Easter v. City of Orlando, No. 5D17-276 (Fla. 5th DCA June 8, 2018)