Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 7 of 53

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

PSC approves new area code in Central Florida

Central Florida, get ready for a new area code.

The Public Service Commission voted Tuesday to authorize the debut of 689 code for new customers, perhaps as soon as May 2019.

The North American Numbering Plan Administrator, or NANPA, which oversees the area code system, will figure out the precise timing.

“They’ll get back with us, and then we’ll issue an order cementing that date,” said Gary Fogleman, an analyst with the PSC.

The 689 will overlay the 407 and 321 area codes in Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties, and parts of Lake and Volusia counties, where demand will exhaust the supply of open numbers.

Existing customers won’t be affected. Regulators see the overlay system as a better alternative to splitting an existing area code — as last happened in Florida in 1999, when 321 was split from 407.

“Then, you have to physically change everything,” Fogelman said. “We’re not doing that.”

NANPA first projected the need for the new code in 2001, but carriers and regulators managed to conserve phone numbers by forcing carriers to give up unused numbers.

Now, such gambits have run their course, Fogelman explained.

“Conservation measures had a good impact as far as trying to stretch it out,” he said. “But we’ve seen a big uptick in the number of demands from VOIP providers.

“And, of course, think about what’s happening in the cellular industry — it’s not just that you have one cell number for your house; it’s everybody in your family has a cell number. And some people have a cell number that’s personal and another one for business.”

Those same pressures are building in the 813 area code, he said, but it wasn’t clear when the PSC would need to act there.

In other action:

The PSC approved a settlement requiring Florida Power & Light Co. to return nearly $27.7 million to ratepayers. The money represents the difference between what the utility charged customers for hurricane response and the amount it spent to repair Hurricane Matthew damage.

The rebate will run around $3 per customer, on average. Large customers had objected to being excluded from settlement talks between FPL and the Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers before the PSC, when the commission first reviewed the agreement in June. But commissioners quickly OK’d the deal Tuesday.

Harassment, unpaid money feature in lawsuit against Citizens Insurance

A convoluted defamation lawsuit against Citizens Property Insurance Corp., involving a dispute over reimbursement of expenses and a harassment accusation by a female employee, has landed in Leon County after a transfer from Miami-Dade.

Citizens sought the transfer on the ground that lawsuits against the state-sponsored insurer of last resort are supposed to be litigated in Tallahassee, spokesman Michael Peltier said.

The plaintiff is Terry Houthoofd, described in the complaint as a former worker in Citizens’ Jacksonville office. He had sought damages of more than $15,000 in the 11th Judicial Circuit of Miami-Dade.

But Houthoofd never worked directly for Citizens, Peltier explained, but rather for NCA Group, a vendor providing adjuster and inspection services.

“He worked for a company that did business with Citizens,” Peltier said. He declined to comment on the merits of the pending case, but did say: “I can confirm that we requested (of) the company that he no longer do Citizens’ work.”

The dispute initially involved his employer’s refusal to reimburse him fully for hotel, travel, and meal expenses he racked up while litigating lawsuits arising from damage to neighboring properties following an explosion at a marijuana grow house in Miami-Dade, according to the complaint.

But, the complaint said, it escalated when a co-worker with whom Houthoofd had developed “close to more than a working relationship” accused him of sexual harassment, later changed to “simple harassment.”

He later learned, the complaint adds, that a second co-worker had referred to him as a “sexual pervert” in the office.

“Defendant caused Plaintiff to be humiliated by forcing him to be escorted out of the office building in front of all of his co-workers,” the complaint says.

The document, filed June 25, 2017, lists Daniel Espinosa of the Espinosa Law Group in Miami as the plaintiff’s attorney of record, but also uses the first person — “I” and “my work schedule” — in describing the allegations. Citizens is the sole listed defendant. The transfer of jurisdiction happened late last month.

Other than defamation, the complaint alleges negligent infliction of emotional distress and failure to pay all of the wages and reimbursable expenses owed.

Here’s what happened, according to the complaint:

Citizens hired Houthoofd in August 2012 to work in the same office as chief executive officer Barry Gilway and other top corporate brass. In late April 2014, he was assigned to work on a group of lawsuits referred to in-house as the “explosion cases,” arising from exploding butane tanks at that grow house.

“During the 2015 trials, plaintiff incurred thousands of dollars of his own money in hotel, travel, and meal expenses, which defendant deliberately failed to reimburse him for,” the complaint says.

Around Aug. 25, a co-worker informed Houthoofd that Citizens wouldn’t cover his weekend stay in Miami in advance of a trial that would end the next Monday. The company reconsidered after he threatened that he “was not going to do any further trial work for defendant.”

He was fired the next day.

As for the relationship with the co-worker, who was a manager initially in Houthoofd’s office, they developed “an amicable relationship and became close friends,” the complaint says.

“At one point, plaintiff’s and (the co-worker’s) relationship began to escalate close to more than a working relationship,” the complaint continues. “In fact, toward the last few months of plaintiff’s employment, plaintiff and (the co-worker) frequently communicated even though they began working in different offices.”

The day of his firing, Houthoofd visited the woman in her office and told her that, “although it pained him, he nonetheless thought it best for them to extinguish any relationship between them.”

She “did not agree with plaintiff’s request,” but they were interrupted before they could resolve the matter. Later that afternoon, she sent him an email “stating that she basically agreed with with plaintiff’s request” and that they could cut off communications.

He wrote back, saying that he “would be returning to her office to finish their meeting.” A short time later, the owner of NCA Group called him to say Citizens had ordered him to fire Houthoofd and escort him from the premises.

Asked for a reason, the owner cited a sexual harassment complaint by the co-worker. Later, he said she’d changed her complaint to simple harassment. Court records show that the woman sought a protection order against Houthoodf in 2015 but withdrew her request following a “stipulation of the parties and petitioner’s attorney.”

“Plaintiff was denied access to and precluded from taking the paperwork necessary to get reimbursed for his out-of-pocket expenses,” the complaint alleges, in the knowledge “such an intentional act would interfere with plaintiff’s personal property.”

The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge John Cooper, court dockets show. Andy Bardos, a lawyer with the GrayRobinson law firm in Tallahassee, has been listed as the attorney for Citizens. Bardos has often represented state agencies in Tallahassee-based litigation.

Citizens Insurance board delays vote on new rates until year’s end

Citizens Property Insurance Corp.’s board of governors is putting off until December a decision on whether to seek premium increases of an average 7.9 percent on residential policies and 8.9 percent on commercial lines.

Board members said Tuesday that they wanted to give Citizens staff time to resolve a large number of Hurricane Irma claims and update efforts to steer policyholders toward its list of approved contractors.

“I feel very strongly that our state is still under some duress from this last storm,” Governor Bette Brown said. “Statewide, but specifically also in South Dade and the Keys.”

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, whose department includes the state’s Office of Insurance Regulation, agreed “that we might want to consider postponing this,” Brown said.

The new rates would take effect in February 2019. The delay would leave plenty of time to secure OIR approval, corporation chairman Barry Gilway said.

It also would leave the Legislature time to again consider assignment of benefits reform, which Gilway said contributed to a 24 percent increase in litigation against the company during the first quarter of 2018, as compared to the same period last year.

“I think that would be a great idea,” Governor John Wortman said.

“The CFO’s office, as well as the governor’s office, has indicated a strong desire to work with all the stakeholders in the AOB controversy, in an attempt to work that out,” said Governor Jim Holton. Legislative leaders, he said, have indicated “they are going to take a very good look at AOB.”

The Legislature failed to agree on AOB reform during each of the past two legislative sessions.

A staff analysis suggests Citizens’ residential insurance lines should increase by 26.5 percent next year, and commercial lines by 54.6 percent. However, state law limits premium hikes for Citizens’ customers to no more than 10 percent. (Details on rates proposal here.)

Such figures represent averages, and individual premiums could vary widely.

Citizens manages its risk by maintaining a $65 billion surplus and investments in the reinsurance market.

AOB agreements allow policyholders to cede their legal rights to third parties including contractors, often to get repairs started expeditiously and relieve themselves of the burden of working with their insurers or waging any litigation.

Such litigation, mostly involving non-storm-related water damage claims, long was centered in the “Tri-County Region” — Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties — but increasingly is spreading out statewide, Gilway said.

Irma-related lawsuits represent 60 percent of new litigation filed against Citizens, he said. in 47 percent of those cases, policyholders hadn’t disputed Citizens position on their claims — a “staggering number,” Gilway said.

Defending such claims will cost Citizens and plaintiffs attorneys each more than $70 million this year, consuming 17 percent of premiums paid. “There’s no question that those numbers are consistent with the industry,” he said.

“The answer is not to simply increase the payout on water damage claims. That is what the plaintiffs’ counsel would have you believe — just pay more and you will reduce your litigation,” Gilway said.

“It works the opposite — you pay more, as we did in the early years,” he said. “We did pay more, we did settle more, and litigation was increasing.”

Citizens created a managed repair program to encourage policyholders to call the company for a referral to approved repair vendors, but the voluntary program was not terribly successful.

In response, Citizens plans to offer inducements, including multiple opportunities to enroll. The company will pay $3,000 to immediately dry out any damage, to discourage policyholders from resorting to AOB agreements with unsanctioned contactors. The total for non-storm water repairs would be limited to $10,000. The new language would take effect on Aug. 1.

Update: Patronis later issued the following written statement:

“I am glad the Citizens Property Insurance Corporation Board of Governors did not vote to raise rates today. Passing along a costly burden to policyholders while many are still recovering from an active hurricane season is not a solution. As I stated in my letter to the Board of Governors, we must find an alternative resolution to the underlying problem. Systemic abuse of assignment of benefits (AOB) and excessive litigation is the problem. I remain committed to working with stakeholders from now until the December meeting to come up with better solutions to address the AOB epidemic while keeping policyholders’ best interest at the forefront.”

 

 

Hurricane Irma produced a litigation wave at Citizens Insurance, committee told

Hurricane Irma-related lawsuits surged at Citizens Property Insurance Corp. early this year, representing a nearly 50 percent increase in the company’s litigation load compared to the same period in 2017.

More than 90 percent of those lawsuits originated in South Florida.

The state’s insurer of last resort fielded 4,287 legal claims in January through April, the vast majority involving residential policies. Irma claims represented 60 percent of that litigation, according to a report delivered to Citizens’ claims committee during a telephone conference call Wednesday.

The Category 4 storm hit the Florida Keys in September 2017 and then ran up the state’s spine. It had generated 924,439 insurance claims in all as of April 6, of which 91 percent have been resolved, according to the state Office of Insurance Regulation. The monetary value exceeded $8.6 billion,

In nearly half of the lawsuits, policyholders hadn’t disputed Citizens’ adjustment decisions before filing, even though the company encourages them to update claims based on emerging information about the scope of their damage.

“These insured are just giving over the option and opportunity to further adjust the claim with us and just going straight to sue,” Elaina Paskalakis, Citizens’ vice president for claim litigation, told the committee.

Even so, more than half of the claims arrived within six months of a reported loss, a 9 percent increase compared to pre-Irma litigation.

“This is trending up despite the fact that insureds who filed suit and had representation at first notice of loss has decreased by almost 22 percent (currently 61 percent as compared to 83 percent pre-Irma) as many insureds reported their own losses,” the report says.

Vendors holding assignment of benefits agreements filed 9 percent of the lawsuits. Citizens — along with other insurers, business more broadly, and officials in the insurance office — blame abusive AOB practices for inflating monetary demands and litigation.

Judge: Nursing home to pay ‘reasonable fee’ for records

The state can’t charge the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills anywhere close to $30,000 to produce the records of deaths occurring statewide during and immediately following Hurricane Irma, a judge said Tuesday.

The Department of Health wanted the Broward County nursing home, where 12 people died because of sweltering conditions when the power failed, to pay $5 each for paper records of the nearly 6,000 deaths that occurred across the state at the same time.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis in Tallahassee told an attorney representing the state to produce electronic copies instead, and to charge only reasonable costs of preserving the records on a computer disk or flash drive.

“They don’t even want paper copies,” Lewis told assistant general counsel Michael Williams.

Williams argued that state law required extensive redactions of the records to shield the causes of death. However, Timothy Elliott, of Smith & Associates’ Tallahassee office, representing the nursing home, said officials routinely produce such redacted records at minimal cost.

In light of that, the state’s demand is “inherently unreasonable,” Elliott said. “There has to be a reasonable fee.”

Lewis agreed: “That would make it silly to me, and illogical, to require your department to spend all that time, and have them pay all that money, to redact something that’s not necessary and that the public can get otherwise,” he said.

“If all they want is take that information and put it on a disc, that shouldn’t take that much,” Lewis added.

Lewis also ruled that the nursing home is entitled to recover its costs in litigating its records demand against the state. He told the parties to confer on language summing up his ruling from the bench and return it for review.

The state went after the home’s license following the tragedy, but staff responded that they’d tried phoning Gov. Rick Scott and received no answer. Meanwhile, the Legislature passed a law requiring homes to acquire electric generators, but many remain out of compliance.

Lewis ordered the agency to turn over the records in April, provoking the fresh litigation over its fee demand. Earlier court documents had placed the amount at around $6,000, but the larger figure emerged during Tuesday’s hearing.

The nursing home hopes to establish that its staff acted reasonably in declining to evacuate its residents. The law firm’s Geoffrey Smith said research suggests evacuating frail elderly ahead of a natural disaster can cause more deaths than sheltering in place.

“It’s important to place the whole thing in some perspective,” Smith said. “When we get away from the sensationalism, most people would see it was pretty reasonable to do what they did.”

Growth pushes Florida Retirement System above $163 billion in assets

The State Retirement System earned a clean bill of health during its regular checkup Monday by overseers on the Florida Investment Advisory Council.

Assets have grown by 10.5 percent since the start of the fiscal year, reaching a balance of $163.3 billion — $9.8 billion ahead of last year.

The state distributes benefits worth between $600 million and $800 million per month, said Ash Williams, executive director and chief investment officer for the State Board of Administration. That panel, comprising the governor, attorney general, and chief financial officer, oversees the council.

Furthermore, the council is managing as much as 44 percent of its assets in-house, the result of a decade’s efforts to contain management costs, Williams said.

“The pension plan in the state of Florida is in pretty good shape, being well managed,” said Gary Wendt, the former chief executive of G.E. Capital, who formally became the council’s chairman during the meeting in Tallahassee.

“We rank very highly versus our peers, and we’re beating all the benchmarks. We’re very happy, very pleased with what’s happening,” Wendt said.

The council meets quarterly to review the governance of the funds under its authority, including the Florida Retirement System; the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, which promotes child health and welfare; the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, a state-sponsored reinsurance pool; and Florida Prime, an investment pool for local governments.

The Prime fund was valued at $11.6 billion as of March 31, according to a consultant report delivered to the council.

An earlier iteration of the fund tanked during the financial crisis, forcing state leaders to freeze $2 billion in asset-backed securities in November 2007. The Legislature also suspended one month’s interest distributions to local governments.

“Which has been a huge sore spot with those local governments ever since,” Williams said.

Florida Prime replaced that fund, and is running on much firmer footing, he said.

“We were able to take that $2 billion pool that was originally perceived to be lost money and return all of it to the local governments that invested it,” Williams said.

“We were able to not only give their money back that they thought they had lost, but we have given them roughly half of what their November interest would have been back in 2007,” he said. Additionally, the fund waived one year’s fees for participating local governments.

“The local governments, I think, finally have put their pitchforks and torches away,” Williams said.

Florida Supreme Court

Supreme Court hears arguments over judge’s Facebook friendship with attorney

Florida Supreme Court justices on Thursday parsed the question of how being Facebook friends with an attorney involved in a lawsuit differs from actual human interactions between judges and members of the Bar.

The justices suggested the wisest course is steer clear of the social media site — as they do themselves.

“It’s fraught with danger,” Justice Barbara Pariente said.

“We’re not saying judges shouldn’t be on Facebook,” attorney Maury Udell said. “Just don’t be Facebook friends with lawyers who appear in front of you. It goes back to the word I came up with at the beginning — optics. It just doesn’t look right.”

The Miami attorney represents the Herssein Law Group, which wants to disqualify Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko from a dispute over attorney fees, on the ground that she was Facebook friends with Israel Reyes, an attorney representing the U.S. Automobile Association, the company on the other side of the case.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal refused, concluding that “a ‘friend’ on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word.”

Ethics rules don’t forbid judges from having personal relationships with attorneys as long as there’s no appearance of undue influence, Suzanne Labrit, representing the association, argued.

“There isn’t really, I would submit respectfully, any difference” between that and Facebook friendships,” she said.

Many of the justices’ questions — Justice Ricky Polston did not participate — centered on the difficulty of maintaining the appearance of impartiality in the often closely knit legal community. Judges and litigants know each other well enough to sit down to lunch occasionally — especially in small towns.

The court’s not about to tell judges never to dine with lawyers, but obviously they shouldn’t with an active litigating attorney, or one who frequently appears in the judge’s court, Pariente said.

“There’s something different about what may happen before a case, and then what happens during a case,” she said.

“I think in this case you’re on solid ground,” Pariente told Labrit. But she still suggested the wiser course is to not have “lawyers as friends.”

The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee ruled in 2009 that a social media connection “conveys the impression that the lawyer is in a position to influence the judge” and was therefore “is not permitted,” Pariente said.

And in 2012, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled — before the 3rd District acted — that such friendships could be ground for recusal, she said.

Pariente opted against opening a Facebook page for that very reason, she said. Other justices also said they avoided the platform.

The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee didn’t go so far as to suggest judges purge lawyer Facebook friends, Labrit said. And those relationships range from intimate to distant strangers.

“LeBron James and I are friends on Facebook. He probably couldn’t pick me out in a lineup,” she said.

She pointed to 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Rosemary Barkett’s warning that failure to observe the distinction would be “infinite motions to disqualify based on the fact that a lawyer may be friends” with a judge.

“You run the risk of having multiple motions for disqualification for any number of people,” Justice Peggy Quince said.

“Facebook friends frequently are friends of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend,” Justice Charles Canady said.

“The idea that somehow participating in that network arrangement somehow establishes the kind of relationship with anybody who happens to come into it that would result in disqualification just is not consistent with what our case law has said about traditional friendship,” he said.

The difference, Udell said, is that one needs to affirmatively ask to friend someone on Facebook. And, unless a judge accepts their requests, they can never know nature of his or her other Facebook relationships absent an extensive discovery process.

“To avoid the appearance of impropriety, you cannot make that connection to the exclusion of the other side,” he said.

The call would be easy if a judge included an attorney among a very small number of Facebook friends, Canady suggested. “But we don’t have any suggestion in this case that there’s a circumstance like that.”

Justice Fred Lewis warned against the appearance of impropriety.

“If all judges were saints, then we wouldn’t be having all the cases we have coming over from the (Judicial Qualifications Commission). And they’re coming over on a weekly basis, my friend,” he said.

PSC delays vote on FPL rebate agreement involving Hurricane Matthew response fund

Florida Power & Light Co. customers will have to wait for their average $3 rebates from a hurricane response fund, but the delay will allow a group of heavy power users to express qualms about a settlement agreement involving the account.

The Public Service Commission gave Jon Moyle, an attorney for the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, until June 28 to deliver a brief outlining the group’s position, preparatory to a vote by the commission on Aug. 7.

The earliest the rebate checks could go out would be Sept. 1.

During around 3 1/2 hours of testimony on the agreement between FPL and the Office of Public Counsel, Moyle pressed executives for details about what they paid utilities in other states to send workers and equipment to Florida following Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.

But he also wants to look into whether a decade’s investment in storm hardening the state’s utilities’ infrastructure might justify returning more of their hurricane contingency funds to ratepayers.

“We think it supports an argument that these storm reserve dollars be reduced significantly because we’re spending all these dollars to make the system harder,” Moyle said following the hearing.

“This issue is larger than today’s case. They’re going to have to continue to wrestle with what adjustments get made going forward with respect to storm reserves and how those numbers get set,” he said.

The agreement, signed May 15 by FPL and the office that represents customers before the PSC, involves the utility’s plan to “true up” its hurricane fund to account for its response to Matthew.

The document stipulates that FPL is entitled to charge ratepayers nearly $316.5 million to build the fund back up to levels the PSC approved in 2012. It also provides for a refund to its 4.9 million ratepayers of nearly $27.7 million that it collected but didn’t spend.

Large customers often participate in rate settlement negotiations before the PSC, but not this time. Attorney Robert Scheffel Wright, representing the Florida Retail Federation, complained about being frozen out after having participated in nearly every major settlement during the past 20 years.

“In light of our long-standing history of constructive participation in settlement agreements, as compared to our total exclusion from this process, we simply cannot and do not support the proposed settlement,” Wright told the commission.

During a break in the proceedings, he had no objection to any particular provision of the agreement.

“It appeared to split the difference between the litigation positions in a way that was more favorable to FPL than to customers. But in terms of any specific cost component, no — I can’t say we object to anything specific.”

Public Counsel J.R. Kelley said his office and FPL were the only interested parties who filed briefs in the true-up process. Then FPL came to his office in early May with a proposal, and they quickly reached a “very, very reasonable deal,” he said.

“This was the fastest settlement we have ever done in our office — less than 36 hours. You have the back and forth, and we put an offer out to FPL and they accepted it,” he said.

Neither Moyle nor Wright committed to outright opposing the deal. Moyle said he was mostly interested in the broader discussion.

“You don’t get all of the (utility) storm people here at a hearing under oath every day,” he said. “Today was an opportunity to ask questions related to that. I think we got some good information that storm hardening is working.”

Appeal could prove pivotal to auto-glass litigation in Florida

The outcomes of 18 lawsuits — and potentially many more — rest on State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.’s appeal of a court order to reveal how it decides on a fair price to replace a shattered auto windscreen.

State Farm v. Shazam Auto Glass may be the first test of whether the insurer’s “system pricing” mechanism qualifies as a protected trade secret.

At least, it’s the first that plaintiff’s attorney Rob Haynes, of Christopher Ligori & Associates in Tampa, knows of.

But, in a state where auto glass claims have risen markedly during the past decade, the dispute could prove an important test case.

“We have close to 900 total auto glass cases, and similar firms are doing the same volume,” Haynes said in a telephone interview. “Not all of those are State Farm. But, absolutely, it’s going to come up in the future. That’s why we’re pushing so hard to try to get a positive result in this one. Because if we can get it here, we’ll be able to use it in all the others.”

Hillsborough County Judge Herbert Berkowitz, after reviewing State Farm’s information, ordered it turned over. State Farm appealed. Those 18 cases are set for trial in July, Haynes said — presuming the appeal is resolved by then.

Shazam, armed with an assignment of benefits agreement, is standing in for a State Farm customer in the litigation.

Under the pricing mechanism, the insurer solicits competitive bids, but only from shops within its preferred vendor network, which tend to offer “extremely low” bids, Haynes said.

“But they’ll never pay lower than their system price,” he said. “They won’t let us know how they came up with that pricing — was it generated through software? Was it a separate bid?”

If State Farm wants to argue its system pricing is fair, the company needs to explain the system, Haynes argued. State Farm, by contrast, argues the information is a protected trade secret — and that disclosure would “cause irreparable harm by effectively compelling production of ‘cat out of the bag’ materials.”

Shazam bases its prices on the National Auto Glass Specification standards. Other insurers apply separate industry or internal standards. “They each tend to have their own ways of dealing with glass claims,” Haynes said.

He wasn’t aware of any other insurance companies confronting similar challenges.

“Normally, these cases were resolved via settlements — we were able to work them out,” he said. “Since State Farm insisted on going to trial, we had to take the next step and do our best to protect our clients.”

Not to say that State Farm is more aggressive than its competitors in litigation, he added — just that any trade secrets they asserted were not dispositive.

State Farm fighting disclosure order in AOB-linked auto glass repair dispute

State Farm is fighting a Hillsborough County judge’s order to turn over details of its claims-handling process to an auto glass repair shop that argues the insurer short-changed it for replacing a policyholder’s damaged windscreen.

State Farm claims the information the judge ordered turned over during the spring comprises legally protected trade secrets. Disclosure, it argues in a petition for a writ of certiorari filed on May 9, would “cause irreparable harm by effectively compelling production of ‘cat out of the bag’ materials.”

At the very least, the company argues, the court should order protective measures for the documents — for example, turning it over to the shop’s attorneys only, and forbidding them to share the details with their clients.

“By rejecting State Farm’s trade-secrets and work-product objections, the county court has effectively declared ‘open season’ on these otherwise immune materials,” the motion argues.

The dispute involves a difference of opinion worth more than $400 on Shazam Auto Glass LLC’s bill for fixing State Farm policyholder Christine Jennings’ 2013 Kia Optima. The shop billed at $984.40; State Farm, applying its internal claims practices, including solicitation of competing bids from other shops, paid $568.67. Shazam, which held an assignment of benefits agreement signed by Jennings, filed suit for breach of contract.

Shazam says it needs to see details of State Farm’s national glass program to determine whether the insurer’s adjustment of the claim was biased and the reimbursement amount was reasonable.

State Farm insists: “The sole breach of contract issue framed in Shazam’s complaint is whether State Farm timely paid the claim. This issue can be resolved without information regarding the proprietary business contracts or the methodology and data used by State Farm, in its investigation and adjustment of a claim, to determine payment amounts.”

The Tampa Bay area has become a hotbed of litigation filed by auto glass shots armed with AOB agreements. Statewide, the number of such claims increased from nearly 400 in 2006 to almost 20,000 just 10 years later. Most of those claims were filed in the Bay Area, although South Florida also was represented.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons