Hearing Officers and Magistrates are attorneys that the Circuit's Chief Judge appoints to perform certain quasi-judicial duties.
Hearing Officers are appointed to hear Family Division cases dealing with family support issues. The Findings and Recommendations entered by the Hearing Officer have the same force and effect as Orders entered by a Circuit Judge.
Cases that are heard by a Hearing Officer include the establishment, enforcement, and modification of child support, alimony connected to on-going child support, and uncontested paternity issues. These cases can be Title IV-D (Department of revenue/Child Support Enforcement) cases, or private cases with or without an attorney. There is no requirement that a special Order of Referral must be issued for a case to be heard by the Hearing Officer. A litigant cannot object to a Hearing Officer hearing an IV-D or Non IV-D case dealing with child support.
After a Hearing Officer enters the Findings and Recommendations, the Circuit Judge signs the Order immediately. There is no waiting period. If a litigant wishes to contest the Hearing Officer's findings, a Motion to Vacate must be filed within ten (10) days after the Judge enters the Order approving the Hearing Officer's findings. The party filing the Motion to Vacate must obtain a copy of the digital recording of the hearing and have it transcribed by an approved court reporter or transcriptionist. The transcript must then be filed with the Court.
After the hearing on the Motion to Vacate, if the Judge determines that the motion is unfounded, the original Order will stand. If not, the Judge may either enter his or her own Order based on the evidence, or refer the case back to the Hearing Officer for a re-hearing.
Magistrates are appointed to hear Family Division cases dealing with a variety of family issues. The issues include the establishment, enforcement, and modification of child support and alimony, dissolution of marriage, parental responsibility and time-sharing issues, property rights, debts, attorney's fees, contested paternity matters, Baker Acts, post judgment proceedings, and any other issue the Court refers to the Magistrate. The Magistrate can hear child support issues (just like a Hearing Officer) without an Order of Referral. The Magistrate also hears non-child support matters only after the Court enters an Order of Referral to the Magistrate.
The procedure for non-child support matters is:
Because the court docket (calendar) is so crowded, the Judges prefer to refer temporary and post judgment issues to the Magistrates.
After the hearing, a Magistrate’s Decision and Recommended Order will be issued that includes findings of fact, conclusions of law and a recommended Order. This recommended Order will be sent to the parties and to the Circuit Judge. The Judge will wait ten (10) days from the date of the recommended Order before entering an Order confirming the Magistrate’s Decision and Recommended Order. In the alternative, both parties may waive the ten-day exception period and consent to the court’s immediate entry of the Magistrate’s recommended Order.
If a party desires to contest the findings, he or she must file an exception to the Magistrate’s Decision and Recommended Order within the ten days. The party filing exceptions is required to send copies of the exceptions directly to the Judge assigned to the case, as well as to the magistrate. Additionally, the party filing exceptions must obtain a copy of the digital recording of the hearing and have it transcribed by an approved court reporter or transcriptionist. The transcript must then be filed with the Court. Failure to provide the transcript may result in the denial of the exceptions.
If exceptions to the Magistrate's Decision and Recommended Order are filed, the Court must hold a hearing on the exceptions. This hearing is similar to that of the Appellate Court; it is not a re-hearing. If the Circuit Judge determines that the exceptions are unfounded, the Judge will sign the Order approving the Magistrate's Decision and Recommended Order. If the Circuit Judge finds that the exceptions are valid, the case will be referred back to the Magistrate for a re-hearing.
For more information regarding Hearing Officers and Magistrates, see Florida Family Law rules of Procedures sections 12.490 and 12.491.
Manatee County Judicial Center
1051 Manatee Avenue West
Bradenton, FL 34206
Sarasota Justice Center
2071 Ringling Blvd
Sarasota, FL 34237