In Florida, a plaintiff can file suit and then wait 120 days to serve a defendant with the complaint. Additionally, trial courts are required to extend the time to serve a defendant past the 120 days if the plaintiff makes a reasonable showing why more time is needed.
What this means for religious organizations who find themselves in an adversary position with a claimant making demands for compensation is that, although the organization has not been served with a lawsuit, the organization may have already been sued. Because a claimant can take its time in serving a religious organization with a filed lawsuit, that claimant can trick an organization into continuing to communicate possibly damaging information under the organization’s mistaken belief that cooperation will avoid a lawsuit; all the while, the claimant is simply informally building their case against an organization that has already been sued.
The takeaway for religious organizations is the value in getting legal counsel involved as early as possible in disputes. Counsel can help religious organizations avoid being trapped into unknowingly helping adverse parties build their case, including uncovering whether a religious organization has been sued before the organization is served with the lawsuit.
If a religious organization is tricked into entering into a contract, Florida courts recognize that organization’s ability to sue the offending party under a claim titled fraudulent inducement. However, the organization’s reliance on the misrepresentations that fooled the organization must have been reasonable. In a recent Florida appellate opinion, the court adopted a “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” approach to find a claimant’s reliance on defendant’s misrepresentations unreasonable, resulting in the claim being dismissed.
The Court found:
If the plaintiffs were defrauded by an allegedly fraudulent inducement…to enter into the Merger Agreement in 2014, and the performance that was promised was not forthcoming, they certainly could not justifiably rely on further inducements to enter into the 2016 Share Issuance Agreement and its sweeping release. The principle is that “after the assertion of claims involving dishonesty, the claimant in negotiations culminating in a settlement and release cannot rely on oral representations made by the party already asserted to have been dishonest.”
This principle of law seems obvious. However, religious organizations’ desire to forgive the wrongful actions of others leaves open the possibility that an organization may wish to give a contracting party a second chance. Such an approach is dangerous. Should the organization be misled a second time resulting in damages to the organization, the religious organization may be prohibited from pursuing a lawsuit for fraudulent inducement into the second contract.