Pursuant to family law rules of procedure, family matters may be referred to general magistrates if the parties do not file a timely objection. Following an evidentiary hearing before the magistrate, a report and recommendation is issued to the circuit judge, which contains findings of fact, conclusions of law, and recommendations.
If no exceptions to the magistrate’s report are filed within the time allotted, the court shall take appropriate action on the report. The Florida Supreme Court defined appropriate action to mean that a judge has carefully considered whether the evidence and facts as fully set forth in a magistrate’s report support the recommendations of the magistrate; whether the recommendations are justified under the law. If such a review is performed, and no exceptions were filed, it is adequate. If exceptions are timely filed, the circuit judge must hold a hearing before acting on the magistrate’s report and recommendation.
The record shall consist of the court file, including the transcript of the relevant proceedings before the general magistrate and all depositions and evidence presented to the general magistrate. The record shall consist of the court file, including the transcript of the relevant proceedings before the general magistrate and all depositions and evidence presented to the general magistrate. At the hearing on a party’s exceptions, the trial court is bound by the general magistrate’s factual findings unless they are not supported by competent substantial evidence or are clearly erroneous. This is because once a trial court appoints a magistrate to take testimony and make findings, it loses the prerogative of substituting its judgment with that of the magistrate. Further, since the circuit judge can only consider the evidence that was previously presented to the magistrate, a party cannot introduce new evidence to support their exception.
An appeal of a circuit judge’s order on the exceptions has a dual standard of review. First, the appellate court reviews “De Novo” the trial court’s decision that the findings of fact are supported by competent, substantial evidence and are not clearly erroneous or giving both the magistrate and the trial court the benefit of the presumption of correctness.
Support Enforcement Hearing Officers
Pursuant to Florida family law rules of procedure, child support matters may be heard by support enforcement hearing officers when specifically invoked by administrative order or the chief justice for use in a particular county or circuit. If use of support enforcement hearing officers is authorized, the applicable proceedings shall be referred to them pursuant to procedures to be established by administrative order of the chief judge. Unlike hearings before general magistrates, if the case only involves child support issues, the parties cannot object to the referral.
After an evidentiary hearing before a support enforcement hearing officer, a recommended order with findings of facts shall be issued to the circuit court. The court shall enter the order promptly unless good cause appears to amend the order, conduct further proceedings, or refer the matter back to the hearing officer to conduct further proceedings. Thus, a recommended order cannot be rejected by the circuit court, but instead one of the listed alternatives must be chosen.
Rather than rejecting the entire order, the trial court should amend the order, conduct further proceedings, or refer the matter back to the hearing officer to conduct further proceedings. The Florida Supreme Court clarified that the rules requirement that an order be promptly entered does not mean that the trial court is to merely rubber-stamp the hearing officer’s recommendation without first independently reviewing the hearing officer’s findings of fact. Instead, the court stated that under Rule 12.491, a trial judge must carefully consider whether the evidence and findings are fact, as fully as set forth in the hearing officer’s recommended order, support the hearing officer’s recommendations.
General Magistrates Approval
Once the recommended order has been approved, either party may file a motion to vacate the order. If such a motion is filed, the trial judge must review the entire record of the proceedings. The record includes “the court file, including the transcript of the proceedings before the hearing officer, if filed, and all depositions and evidence presented to the hearing officer.” Thus, no new evidence may be considered by the circuit court in deciding whether to grant a party’s motion to vacate. If a hearing on the motion is requested, that hearing shall be held within ten days of such request. However, there is no time limit imposed on a request to modify the order, as that can be done at any time.
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