Florida Supreme Court Archives - Page 3 of 57 - Florida Politics

Sign on dotted line: Appeals court upholds assignment of benefits ruling

A state appeals court has upheld insurance policy language barring policyholders from signing assignment of benefits agreements without the approval of co-insureds, including financial institutions holding mortgages on the property.

The ruling Wednesday, written by Judge Alan Forst for a unanimous three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal, contradicts a finding by the 5th District reached in December.

Both rulings cited a more-than-100-year-old Florida Supreme Court precedent striking down policy language giving insurers a veto over assignments of benefits.

“We begin with the premise that, generally, absent ‘some great prejudice to the dominant public interest’ or specific pronouncement by the Florida Legislature, courts strive to uphold the parties’ freedom of contract,” Forst wrote.

“The contract here does not prohibit assignment — it imposes a condition, requiring the approval of all insureds and the mortgagee. We cannot say that this restriction … creates ‘some great prejudice to the dominant public interest.’”

The opinion arose from a lawsuit filed by Restoration 1, a Port St. Lucie contractor, against Ark Royal Insurance Co. for refusing to pay more than $20,000 in repairs to water damage.

John and Lisa Squitieri owned the insurance policy. Lisa signed an assignment of benefits, or AOB, agreement but John did not. Neither did their bank.

In West Florida Grocery Co. v. Teutonia Fire Insurance Co., the Supreme Court in 1917 upheld a “well-settled rule that the provision in a policy relative to the consent of the insurer to the transfer of an interest therein does not apply to an assignment after loss.”

In its own ruling, the 5th DCA cited that precedent plus a Florida Office of Insurance Regulation policy “restricting the ability of policyholders to assign post-loss benefits absent the consent of all insureds, all additional insureds, and all mortgagees named in their policies” — language essentially the same as for Ark Royal.

However, its sister court misread the precedents, the 4th DCA concluded.

“By its plain terms, West Florida Grocery does not stand for the pronouncement that any restriction is per se invalid,” Forst wrote.

“Instead, the Supreme Court addressed and invalidated only a provision requiring the consent of the insurer, with the court concluding that it is ‘superfluous’ who the insurer ultimately pays as the insurer will still have to cover the insured loss,” he continued.

“In the instant case … it is impossible to brand the contested provision as superfluous — as both of the insureds, as well as the mortgagee, have a vested interest that a reputable, legitimate third-party contractor perform repairs on the home.”

Florida Supreme Court hears arguments over Amendments 6, 8

A critic of Florida’s proposed victims’ right amendment suggested Wednesday that the Florida Supreme Court should block the Constitution Revision Commission from combining multiple proposals into single revisions to place before the voters.

Such “bundling” gives voters a choice to swallow provisions they don’t like to enact those that they do, litigator Harvey Sepler said during oral arguments before the justices.

“That is contrary to what we think of as a free and meaningful vote,” Sepler said.

The high court has long recognized the CRC’s authority to bundle proposed amendments, although a “single-subject rule” applies to revisions proposed by the Legislature and through citizens’ initiatives.

“I have difficulty, in a conceptual way, understanding what that is and why that should be,” Sepler said.

CRC authority to bundle is central to the state’s arguments in favor of Amendment 6, the so-called “Marsy’s Law” amendment, and the separate Amendment 8, which would take away local school boards’ authority to supervise new charter schools and give it to the state.

Tallahassee litigator Barry Richard, arguing for Marsy’s Law for Florida, which is defending Amendment 6 along with lawyers from the Office of the Attorney General, said the court is well within its authority to allow bundling by the CRC.

“It’s a political issue that’s left to the states,” Richard said. “This state has made the decision, and this court has recognized it for many years, and that’s the end of the story.”

The court presided over nearly two hours of argument on the two amendments in the 4th District Court of Appeal’s courthouse in West Palm Beach. Challengers in both cases argue that the title and summary language that would appear on the ballots would confuse voters to the stakes before them.

Regarding Amendment 8, its critics have argued the language doesn’t make clear that the provision would strip school boards of authority over charter schools “established” by the state or some other party.

The measure also would impose eight-year term limits on school board members and would require the promotion of “civic literacy” in public schools. The charter school language — representing a significant change to public policy — comprises the summary’s final clause.

“As a voter, I would find that really hiding the ball,” Justice Barbara Pariente told deputy solicitor general Daniel Bell.

“Not that you can’t bundle unrelated things,” she said. “But the way this is placed is further reason it’s misleading.”

Chief Justice Charles Canady said the language seemed clear to him, and that the challengers’ real beef is with the underlying policy proposal.

“That’s not a reason to keep the people of Florida from having an opportunity to vote on this,” Canaday said.

“The question is whether they’re going to be somehow fooled about what they’re voting on,” he said. “I’m still struggling to understand why they aren’t going to get the main point here — that the school boards are going to lose some authority.”

Arguments over Amendment 8 centered on the degree to which the newly enumerated victims’ rights would infringe on the rights of criminal defendants. Tallahassee litigator Mark Herron split the challengers’ time with Sepler.

Nothing in the ballot language suggests any diminution of defense rights, Richard argued.

“It does do what it says — it creates victims’ rights — and it does not repeal or abrogate any existing rights,” he said.

Pariente did not openly challenge the CRC’s authority to bundle, but still objected that marrying victims’ rights with changes to the judiciary was a bit of a stretch.

“There is something about this — it’s multiple, unconnected subjects,” she said. “It’s almost like it’s worse than logrolling, because the three are just completely unrelated.”

Richard replied: “The very fact that they are so unrelated makes it easier for the voter to distinguish among them. It’s not confusing. And we have to assume that the voter has enough intelligence to see that there are three subjects here.”

Unpaid fee endangers Supreme Court appeal in candidate disqualification

An appeal before the Florida Supreme Court, testing the leeway county supervisors of elections afford candidates in meeting filing deadlines, was in jeopardy Wednesday for failure to pay a filing fee.

In a notice to aspiring Clay County Court candidate Lucy Ann Hoover, high court clerk John Tomasino warned of the impending consequences.

“Failure to file the above-referenced documents with this court within 15 days from the date of this order could result in the imposition of sanctions, including dismissal of the petition,” Tomasino wrote.

“Please understand that once this case is dismissed, it may not be subject to reinstatement,” he added.

Find the case docket here.

Last month, the 1st District Court of Appeal rejected Hoover’s bid for a place on the Aug. 28 primary ballot, finding “no special circumstance” that would justify her failure to file her candidate oath and financial disclosure form ahead of the noon, May 4, deadline.

“This is simply a case of a prospective candidate missing the qualifying deadline because she waited until too late to complete the necessary paperwork,” the intermediate appeal court said.

The county supervisor of elections initially accepted Hoover’s paperwork, notwithstanding the deadline, reasoning that she was physically in the office and filling out the paperwork.

However, incumbent Judge Kristina Mobley, placed on the bench by Gov. Rick Scott in 2015, challenged Hoover’s candidacy.

Hoover is a visiting professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida. She filed written arguments with the Supreme Court, over her own signature, on Aug. 24, mere days ahead of the election.

The pleading argues the case is worth the justices’ attention as a matter of “great public importance” that “expressly affects” Florida’s 67 supervisors of election, all of whom follow the same policy as Clay County.

“Accepting jurisdiction of this case would allow the decisions below to be corrected,” the brief argues.

“More to the point, it would give the citizenry of the state of Florida confidence in their reliance on the decisions and declarations provided by their respective constitutional state officers, as well as clarify, for the 67 (supervisors of elections) in the state, the parameters of their authority.”

Whoa, dog: State says greyhound kennel tours aren’t allowed

Gambling regulators on Tuesday warned racing greyhound owners and others that public tours of kennels at Florida greyhound tracks may violate state regulations.

A representative of the industry soon shot back that the prohibition was “outrageous!”

Last month, the National Greyhound Association said it would offer tours of “three Florida greyhound tracks and their on-site kennels.”

The two-hour guided tours, free with advance registration, were “designed to promote transparency and educate the public about the care of greyhounds at the track, as well as stewardship of the breed,” according to a press release.

The Florida Supreme Court will soon issue a ruling on whether general election voters will get to see a constitutional amendment aimed at ending live greyhound racing. Circuit Judge Karen Gievers already struck the measure after a challenge from the Florida Greyhound Association, calling its ballot title and summary “outright ‘trickeration.’ 

A spokeswoman for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates dog racing and other gambling in the state, told Florida Politics it “has not taken a position related to tours of racetrack facilities.”

But, added Suellen Wilkins, “certain areas of pari-mutuel facilities are restricted access,” specifically “the backside where racing animals are kept.”

Wilkins referred to department regulations that do allow “sworn law enforcement and corrections officers,” “firefighters” and EMTs, “persons working for a vendor … providing supplies,” and several others to visit kennels.

“If the individuals do not fall into these categories, they are prohibited from accessing the backside of the track,” Wilkins said.

Jack Cory, lobbyist and spokesman for the Florida Greyhound Association, said the state is “stopping the people of the state of Florida from getting the truth and facts about live greyhound racing by hiding behind a rule.”

“This is outrageous!” he said. If regulators wanted to, “they could file an amendment to their own rule – today – to permit the citizens of Florida to visit the greyhounds.”

The Protect Dogs-Yes on 13 campaign, which is promoting passage of Amendment 13, in a statement called the planned tours “staged political photo opportunities.”

“Although we welcome the opportunity for the public to see the deplorable conditions greyhounds are subjected to, these events were nothing more than …  photo ops aimed at whitewashing the industry,” the campaign said.

Moreover, “the registration (form) included screening questions to oust animal welfare advocates. The event waiver gave the Florida Greyhound Association the right to use video footage of participants in political advertisements, but at the same time prohibited participants from photographing or videotaping the events themselves.”

The campaign said “although we did not have input in this state decision, it is another example of how the greyhound industry can’t play by the rules. Dog racers apparently believe they are above the law, whether it’s the state drug testing program or state laws about racetrack security.”

Cory disagreed, filing a public records request with the department last week for – among other things – “any and all complaints filed either in writing, or all of the notes from any complaints filed over the telephone during the last 30 days, about permitting the citizens of the state of Florida (to visit) greyhound kennels at greyhound tracks.”

Cory’s request names Carey Theil, executive director of GREY2K USA Worldwide, and Christine Dorchak, the organization’s president and general counsel.

“Please be advised that this (request) will be noticed with the Florida (news) media,” Cory wrote.

Derby Lane, located in St. Petersburg, and the Palm Beach Kennel Club, located in West Palm Beach, were selected to be the first two tracks to open their doors.

The amendment, slotted for the ballot by the 2017-18 Constitution Revision Commission, would need at least 60 percent approval to be added to the state constitution, like other proposed changes to the state’s governing document. 

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Featured photo courtesy of Van Abernethy.

Give voters some credit to decide Amendment 6, state argues

The state government’s written arguments in the Florida Supreme Court test of the Constitution Revision Commission’s Amendment 6 victim’s rights proposal emphasize the “sanctified” nature of the amendment process.

They also underscore that the amendment process counts on voters to be reasonably well-informed about our constitutional system — especially given the strict word limits on the ballot title and summary language at issue.

“Voters have the common sense to understand that criminal and juvenile procedure are the subject of statutes and procedural rules, and the state Constitution will supersede any conflicting statute or rule,” the brief, filed Thursday over Attorney General Pam Bondi’s signature, reads.

“Indeed, requiring disclosure of every form of sub-constitutional law that an amendment might abrogate would not only be unnecessary but also would place an inordinately high burden on the drafters of ballot summaries by making it impossible to comply with the 75-word limit,” the brief says.

The limit for ballot titles is 15 words.

The document, reiterating many of the arguments offered earlier by attorneys for Marsy’s Law for Florida, a victim’s rights organization also defending the proposed amendment, attempts to refute Tallahassee Circuit Judge Karen Gievers, who ordered the amendment off the Nov. 6 ballot last week on the ground the title and ballot summary to be placed before voters were misleading.

The proposal would raise judges’ mandatory retirement age from 70 to 75 and reduce the deference they must give to agencies’ interpretation of their regulations.

The measure, also known as “Marsy’s Law,” after a California crime victim, also would enshrine a raft of victims’ rights, including to proceedings “free of unreasonable delay” — in addition to the existing rights to “be informed,” “be present,” and “be heard.”

The government brief calls the constitutional amendment process “the most sanctified area in which a court can exercise power,” and underscores the high bar set by the justices’ own legal precedents for intervening.

“Under the Florida Constitution, ‘sovereignty resides in the people, and the electors have a right to approve or reject a proposed amendment to the organic law of the state, limited only by those instances where there is an entire failure to comply with a plain and essential requirement of the organic law in proposing the amendment,’” It says.

“If ‘any reasonable theory’ can support an amendment’s placement on the ballot, it should be upheld.”

Gievers wrote that the title and summary do not make clear that the revision would eliminate some rights for criminal defendants. Neither, she added, does it “tell voters that years of settled law and provisions that comprise the criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system will be significantly changed.”

The government argued that the “chief purpose” of the amendment is indeed clear — “to create new rights for victims, not to repeal those currently set forth in (the Constitution), nor to significantly change the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems. The ballot summary accurately discloses the chief purpose related to victims’ rights.”

The document adds:

“A need for expeditious justice is associated with victims and falls within the range of victims’ rights that a voter would reasonably expect to be included in Revision 6. A voter with common sense would easily surmise that the conclusion of judicial proceedings at the trial level or on appeal without unnecessary delay would bring closure to crime victims, and it is within the scope of victims’ rights created in (Amendment) 6.”

As for the rights of defendants, they “would not be altered or infringed by Revision 6. Nor could they,” the brief argues.

“The same rights of the accused which are guaranteed in Article 1, Section 16(a) of the Florida Constitution are also protected by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. … A state constitution need not explicitly state that its provisions do not supersede federal constitutional requirements, as they cannot do so.”

In another development, the justices accepted a petition from The Florida Public Defender Association, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Innocence Project of Florida for permission to file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the amendment’s critics.

Opening briefs land in test of Amendment 6 ballot language

Proponents of the Constitution Revision Commission’s victims’ rights proposal have filed the first written arguments in a Florida Supreme Court case testing whether the ballot language would mislead the voters.

The brief appeared shortly after the high court accepted a request by the Criminal Law Section of the Florida Bar to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the proposed amendment’s critics.

“The lower court erroneously stated that the amendment curtails defendants’ constitutional rights without disclosing it in the summary,” the brief argues.

“The amendment does not curtail any defendants’ rights. Those rights are set forth in Article I, sections 14, 15, and 16 of the Florida Constitution. A review of each of the rights listed in those sections clearly demonstrates that nothing in the amendment would adversely affect them.”

The Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for next Wednesday.

Barry Richard, the celebrated Tallahassee litigator who represents Marsy’s Law for Florida, a victim’s rights group defending the proposal along with attorneys from the Office of the Attorney General, signed the brief.

The proposal is sometimes known as “Marsy’s Law,” after a California crime victim. In addition to victims’ rights, the measure would raise judges’ retirement age from 70 to 75 and require them to defer less to agencies’ interpretation of regulations.

A Tallahassee trial judge ordered the amendment off the Nov. 6 ballot last week on the ground the title and ballot summary to be placed before voters were misleading.

“Because the title and summary do not meet the requirements of Florida laws … in fully, fairly, and accurately telling the voters the chief purpose of the proposed amendment, and because the title and summary are, in addition, misleading, the CRC’s proposal … does not meet ‘truth in packaging’ requirements for submission to the voters and must be removed from the ballot,” Circuit Judge Karen Gievers wrote.

Richard’s brief includes an itemized refutation of Gievers’ findings. For example, she ruled that the language doesn’t make clear that victims already have rights under Florida law.

“The summary accurately states that the amendment ‘creates rights for victims of crime,’” the brief says. “The amendment creates nine new rights that do not currently exist. There is nothing about the creation of new rights that implies that no other rights currently exist.”

Additionally, Gievers concluded the language was opaque as to the measure’s implications for defendants in juvenile proceedings.

Richard’s rebuttal: “The summary states that the amendment creates constitutional rights for victims and ‘authorizes victims to enforce their rights throughout the criminal and juvenile justice processes.’” (Emphasis in the original.)

Gievers also ruled that the title language doesn’t make clear its elimination of the “Chevron” doctrine — the presumption that judges must defer to agencies’ interpretations of their rules.

“This court has held that a ballot title cannot be read in isolation but must be read together with the summary,” Richards wrote, referring to the Supreme Court, itself. “The summary clearly explains the significance of the amendment’s repeal of the Chevron doctrine.”

The Bar’s criminal section includes more than 2,300 judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, law professors, and students.

“The Criminal Law Section has a direct interest in ensuring that this proposal is fairly presented to the voters, as it will place significant new burdens on prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges,” the organization wrote in its motion.

Supreme Court rejects death penalty appeals

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected appeals by three Death Row inmates in decades-old cases, including the 1991 murder of a Fort Pierce police officer.

The rulings were part of a long line of similar decisions in cases rooted in a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In one of Thursday’s cases, justices turned down an appeal by Death Row inmate Billy Leon Kearse, who was convicted in the murder of Fort Pierce police officer Danny Parrish during a traffic stop, according to court records.

In another case, justices rejected an appeal by Death Row inmate Stephen Todd Booker, who was convicted in the 1977 murder of 94-year-old Lorine Demoss Harmon in Alachua County.

In the third case, justices denied an appeal by Ian Deco Lightbourne, who was convicted in the 1981 sexual battery and murder of Nancy O’Farrell in Marion County.

Each of the appeals related to a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Hurst v. Florida and a subsequent Florida Supreme Court decision. The 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system was unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries.

The subsequent Florida Supreme Court ruling said juries must unanimously agree on critical findings before judges can impose death sentences and must unanimously recommend the death penalty.

But the Florida Supreme Court made the new sentencing requirements apply to cases since June 2002. That is when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling known as Ring v. Arizona that was a premise for striking down Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system in 2016.

In each of the cases Thursday, the Death Row inmates had been sentenced to death before the Ring decision and argued that the new requirements should also apply to their cases. But the Supreme Court said the Hurst requirements should not retroactively apply to the inmates.

Confidential records plan turned down

Pointing to a legal-system rule and the state Constitution, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a move by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission to keep some records confidential.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission investigates alleged misconduct by judges and makes disciplinary recommendations to the Supreme Court.

The commission approved changes to two of its rules that would have allowed the commission’s investigative panel and hearing panel to designate certain filings with the Supreme Court to be confidential. Those filings would have involved such things as medical information.

But the Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously repealed the changes to the commission’s rules, citing the Constitution and a rule of judicial administration dealing with public access to records.

“This (Supreme) Court does not question that the commission’s attempt to protect such sensitive medical and personal information from public view is made with good intentions,” the decision said. “However, this court must repeal the confidentiality amendments because neither the commission nor its panels have authority to designate filings in this court confidential under (the rule of judicial administration) or the Florida Constitution, and the commission does not have authority to adopt a rule of procedure purporting to grant such authority.”

Fast track rejected in conservation funding case

An appeals court this week turned down a request by environmental groups to quickly move a major conservation-funding case to the Florida Supreme Court.

Attorneys for the state House and Senate last month appealed a Leon County circuit judge’s ruling that said lawmakers did not properly carry out a 2014 constitutional amendment that requires spending on land and water conservation.

Environmental groups, which began the legal battle in 2015, asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to “certify” the case to the Supreme Court — a request that could bypass the usual appellate review and go to the Supreme Court.

But the 1st District Court of Appeal on Wednesday denied the request.

“This litigation began in 2015 and involves appropriations that expired two years ago,” the appeals court said. “No immediacy exists, and the normal appellate process is adequate; to the extent a true exigency arises, the appellate process in this (1st District) Court can be expedited upon a proper showing.”

The 2014 voter-approved constitutional amendment requires using money from a real-estate tax to bolster land and water conservation. The Florida Wildlife Federation and the Florida Defenders of the Environment filed legal challenges contending that lawmakers had improperly diverted portions of the money to other expenses.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson last month ruled in favor of the groups, prompting the state to appeal.

Florida Supreme Court to review suit over Miami Beach minimum wage

The Florida Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to review a case over whether the city of Miami Beach is permitted to pass its own local minimum wage ordinance, in seeming conflict with state law.

The Miami Beach City Commission passed an ordinance in 2016 that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $13.31 per hour by 2021.

At the time, the number sat at $8.05, which was then the state’s minimum wage. For Miami Beach residents, that number was scheduled to steadily rise each year until reaching the $13.31 mark.

But the ordinance was challenged and subsequently struck down by a series of lower court decisions last year. That led the city to appeal to Florida’s highest court, which has now agreed to hear the case.

Whether Miami Beach is permitted to pass such an ordinance comes down to two main issues.

The first is a ballot initiative which passed in 2004, called the Florida Minimum Wage Amendment. The amendment created a statewide minimum wage about the federal floor, which would then be reviewed each year and adjusted accordingly.

The text also states that the amendment “shall not be construed to preempt or otherwise limit the authority of the state legislature or any other public body to adopt or enforce any other law, regulation, requirement, policy or standard that provides for payment of higher or supplemental wages or benefits.”

Miami Beach argues that language permits the city to pay a “higher” wage.

But a state law, passed in 2003, does preempt local governments from deviating from the statewide minimum wage. The relevant portion reads, “Except as otherwise provided … a political subdivision may not establish, mandate, or otherwise require an employer to pay a minimum wage, other than a state or federal minimum wage….”

The amendment text simply states that the amendment itself does not bar localities from raising the minimum wage above the state level. But the 2003 law does.

Attorneys defending Miami Beach’s ordinance argue the 2004 amendment overrode the 2003 law, rendering it null. That would make the language in the amendment controlling. But so far, courts have disagreed.

The Florida Supreme Court will now have a say on the matter. Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled in the case.

Philip Levine, who was mayor of Miami Beach when the ordinance was passed, was one of several gubernatorial candidates to speak out against pre-emption at a forum earlier this month. He was joined by Andrew Gillum, who secured the Democratic nomination Tuesday night.

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