An appeals court Wednesday upheld a ruling that a North Florida hospital authority violated the state's public-records law by placing unreasonable restrictions on a resident's access to documents.
A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with Columbia County resident Stewart Lilker, who filed a public-records lawsuit against the Lake Shore Hospital Authority in Lake City. A circuit judge ruled that the authority violated the law, in part, by restricting Lilker's right to inspect and copy records to one hour a day and requiring him to give a 24-hour notice.
"While the (records) custodian may reasonably restrict inspection to those hours during which his or her office is open to the public, appellants (the authority) have gone much further by limiting appellee's (Lilker's) access to a single hour on weekday mornings,'' said the appeals-court decision by judges Stephanie Ray, Ronald Swanson and Scott Makar.
"Clearly, this hampered appellee's right to inspect the records in appellants' custody 'at any reasonable time.' Moreover, there is no authority allowing appellants to automatically delay production of records for inspection by imposing a 24-hour notice requirement."
The ruling said the hospital authority also improperly referred Lilker to a website in response to a public-records request. While Lilker initially sought electronic access, he ultimately asked for paper copies. The appeals court quoted part of state law that said electronic access is an "additional means" of inspecting or copying records.
"This additional means of access, however, is insufficient where the person requesting the records specifies the traditional method of access via paper copies,'' the appeals court ruled.
COURT CLEARS WAY FOR LAWSUIT OVER WATER REPAIRS
In the latest ruling on a controversial issue in the insurance industry, the 1st District Court of Appeal on Wednesday said a repair company can pursue a lawsuit against State Farm Florida Insurance Co. to seek payment for work on a home that sustained water damage. The Duval County case deals with a practice known as "assignment of benefits," which often occurs when homeowners need repairs for problems such as water damage. In such cases, policyholders sign over benefits to contractors, who pursue payments from insurance companies. United Water Restoration Group Inc. filed the lawsuit after doing water-repair work on the home of State Farm customer Oran Walker. United Water Restoration Group submitted a $2,744 bill to State Farm, according to Wednesday's appeals-court ruling. But the insurer refused to pay, saying it denied coverage because the damage was caused by problems such as repeated leakage, rot and decay that were excluded from the insurance policy. A county judge dismissed the United Water Restoration lawsuit, ruling that such a case involving a coverage question would have to be brought by the policyholder. After the dismissal was upheld in circuit court, United Water Restoration took the issue to the 1st District Court of Appeal. A three-judge panel of the appeals court overturned the dismissal, clearing the way for the lawsuit to move forward. "Clearly established law permits United Water to bring suit to seek recovery under the State Farm policy, and if necessary, seek a coverage determination,'' said the ruling, written by Judge Scott Makar and joined by judges James Wolf and Timothy Osterhaus. "The dismissal order had the harsh effect of barring United Water's enforcement of its bargained-for right to pursue assigned benefits, which amounts to a miscarriage of justice." The ruling was the third recent appellate decision to go against insurers on assignment-of-benefits issues. The insurance industry argues that assignment of benefits can lead to inflated costs and fraud, while contractors argue that the practice helps homeowners quickly hire contractors for emergency repairs. Lawmakers this spring considered a pair of bills (HB 669 and SB 1064) that would have substantially restricted assignments of benefits in such cases, but the bills did not pass.
SUPREME COURT TO HEAR FLOWER-DELIVERY TAX FIGHT
The state Supreme Court will hear arguments in November in a dispute about whether it is constitutional for Florida to try to collect sales taxes from a Palm Beach County company that takes online orders for flowers delivered to out-of-state customers. Justices issued an order Tuesday scheduling oral arguments Nov. 5 in an appeal filed by the Florida Department of Revenue. The 4th District Court of Appeal last year sided with the company, American Business USA Corp., finding that Florida "impermissibly burdened interstate commerce when it taxed out-of-state customers for out-of-state deliveries" of flowers and other items such as gift baskets. In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, attorneys for the Department of Revenue argued that collecting sales taxes from the firm is legal. "(The) tax does not discriminate against interstate commerce because it does not favor in-state interests,'' said the brief, filed in March. "The in-state florist who receives the initial order is liable for the tax, regardless of whether the flowers are ultimately delivered in Florida or out-of-state." But attorneys for the company filed a brief in May urging the Supreme Court to uphold the appeals-court decision. "All the flowers at issue were grown, stored, purchased, and delivered outside the state of Florida,'' the brief said. "No flowers ever entered Florida. No consumers ever entered Florida. The DOR (Department of Revenue) does not contest these facts, but nonetheless characterizes the transactions as Florida-based."