Breach of contract claims benefit from a relatively long statute of limitations. In Florida, a plaintiff has five years to assert a claim for breach of a written contract. Fla. Stat. § 95.11 (providing a five-year statute of limitations for written contracts). The statute of limitations begins to run when the contract is breached. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Lee, 678 So. 2d 818 (Fla. 1996) (“A cause of action on a contract accrues and the statute of limitations begins to run from the time of the breach of contract”). This is somewhat unique when contrasted against other claims under Florida law, where statutes of limitation generally begin running when the plaintiff knew or should have known the claim accrued. See, e.g., Wood v. Eli Lilly & Co., 701 So. 2d 344, 347 (Fla. 1997) (The “statute of limitations for DES negligence actions begins to run on the date the plaintiff knew or should have known of his or her injury”); Fla. Stat § 95.031 (“An action founded upon fraud… must be begun… with the period running from the time the facts giving rise to the cause of action were discovered or should have been discovered…”). Peter Mavrick is a Miami business litigation attorney, and represents clients in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach. The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment litigation, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.
Florida’s statute of limitation law seemingly creates a bright line rule for business litigation claims founded on a breach of contract. Five years after a contract is breached, the plaintiff is time-barred from asserting a claim on that contract. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 678 So. 2d 818. This is true even if damages do not result or become ascertained until some point in the future because the action is founded on the breach of duty and not the consequent injuries. Med. Jet, S.A. v. Signature Flight Support-Palm Beach, Inc., 941 So. 2d 576 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006) (“Florida has followed this general rule that a cause of action for breach of contract accrues at the time of the breach, ‘not from the time when consequential damages result or become ascertained.’”). Fradley v. Dade Cnty., 187 So. 2d 48 (Fla. 3d DCA 1966) (holding that the limitations period begins running from the date of the breach because the “action is founded on the breach of duty and not the consequent injuries”).
The 2008 mortgage foreclosure crisis blurred this bright line. During this period, many homeowners were financially underwater. They could not afford to pay their mortgages. Banks filed voluminous mortgage foreclosure complaints. This overwhelmed the judicial system and caused backlogs for the banks and the courts. See Kevin F. Jursinski, The Mortgage Foreclosure Crisis In Florida: A 21st Century Solution, 84 FL Bar Journal 91 (2010). As a result, many banks did not timely file their contractual foreclosure lawsuits. The judiciary seems to have rescued the banks by allowing them to file their contractual foreclosure actions outside the five-year window, so long as the bank changed the breach date to one that fit inside the limitations period. See Bartram v. U.S. Bank Nat. Ass’n, 211 So. 3d 1009 (Fla. 2016). In return, banks had to forego damages resulting from all unpaid mortgage payments that were owed before the statute of limitations expired. Id. (“As the Fourth District explained, under Singleton, a “new default, based on a different act or date of default not alleged in the dismissed action, creates a new cause of action.”). Id. The Supreme Court of Florida justified the rule because of “‘the unique nature of the mortgage obligation and the continuing obligations of the parties in that relationship,’ an ‘adjudication denying acceleration and foreclosure’ does not bar subsequent foreclosure actions based on separate and distinct defaults.” Id. (quoting Singleton v. Greymar Associates, 882 So. 2d 1004 (Fla. 2004)).
What does this mean for other business contracts and the application of the statute of limitation thereto? It depends. Most business contracts probably are not affected because they do not contain “unique” continuing payment obligations like those found in mortgage note contracts. However, if the contract contains such an obligation, the five-year statute of limitations might be extended to some longer period.
Peter Mavrick is a Miami business litigation lawyer, and represents clients in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach. This article does not serve as a substitute for legal advice tailored to a particular situation.