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Court Backs State In Death Records Dispute

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
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The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

An appeals court Friday sided with the Florida Department of Health in a battle about turning over thousands of death records to a Broward County nursing home that was shut down by the state after residents died following Hurricane Irma.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned a decision by a Leon County circuit judge who in June directed the department to quickly turn over to The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills death certificates from across the state. The requested death certificates were from around the time of Hurricane Irma, which hit the state Sept. 10, 2017.

After residents of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died, Gov. Rick Scott’s administration suspended the nursing home’s license and its participation in the Medicaid program and ultimately moved to revoke the facility’s license. The nursing home has challenged the revocation in the state Division of Administrative Hearings, and a decision in that case is pending.

In seeking 5,907 death certificates, an attorney for the nursing home indicated during a June hearing that the facility is seeking the addresses of locations where other people died during and after the massive storm. The nursing home wants to be able to analyze the data.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis in April issued a final judgment ordering the Department of Health to turn over the death certificates, citing Florida’s broad public-records law. Lewis in June found the Department of Health in contempt and ordered it to immediately release the records, shielding only information about causes of death.

The Department of Health filed an appeal after the contempt ruling, putting on hold the release of the records. The department has contended that it needs to be able to redact confidential information before releasing the death certificates.

The appeals court Friday ruled in favor of the department, finding that Lewis erred in requiring immediate disclosure of the records and in holding the department in contempt because his April judgment “was silent with regard to the department’s duty to redact confidential or exempt information from the requested records.”

“After review of the record in this case, we conclude that the trial court erred in holding the department in contempt because the final judgment was not sufficiently clear and precise as to how the department was to comply with the court’s order,” said the six-page ruling by appeals-court judges Lori Rowe, Ross Bilbrey and Allen Winsor. “A party cannot be held in contempt for violating a court order that is not clear and definite as to how a party should comply with the court’s command. Here, the trial court erred when it held the department in contempt for failing to comply with the final judgment because the final judgment did not address whether the department was to produce the death certificates without redacting confidential or exempt information.”

In the April judgment, Lewis wrote that the department could not force the nursing home to request each death certificate by the names of the people who died. He wrote that the nursing home may “request these records with the information it has, which may only include a date range, and respondent (the department) must produce the applicable, responsive records.”

Lewis’ contempt order in June more directly addressed the issue of the department redacting information before releasing the records. He ordered the department to immediately release the records “all without any review or redaction of any information or fields on the death certificates, except the ‘cause of death’ field, which should not be included in any of the death certificate records produced.”

But the appeals court said nothing in the underlying April judgment “addressed whether any portions of the requested records were subject to review and redaction for confidential information or information made exempt from disclosure.” It also pointed to parts of state laws that require the department to keep confidential information such as Social Security numbers and personal information about government employees including law-enforcement officers and firefighters.

The records issue is part of a series of legal disputes between The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills and the state after Hurricane Irma knocked out the facility’s air conditioning. The sweltering nursing home was evacuated three days after the storm, with authorities attributing as many as 12 deaths to problems at the facility.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.