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Supreme Court: Attorneys can collect fees for claim bill work

The Legislature can’t limit the amount of attorney fees to be paid out of money it OKs for a claim bill, a narrowly divided Florida Supreme Court decided.

The 4-3 opinion was one of nine in an unusual out-of-calendar release from the court this Tuesday. The Supreme Court normally releases opinions 11 a.m. on Thursdays.

Senior Justice James E.C. Perry and Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy A. Quince were in the majority. Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga dissented.

Perry’s “senior” status after his December retirement was considered improper by conservative critics of the court. Perry was replaced last month by former state appellate Judge C. Alan Lawson, a conservative.

The Florida House of Representatives was even prepared to legally challenge Perry’s continued work on the court until he finally withdrew into full retirement this week.

In the claim bill opinion, the majority sided with the Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley law firm, which represented Aaron Edwards, a brain-damaged man who received a $15 million claim bill from the Legislature.

Edwards was born brain-damaged in 1997 because of medical malpractice at Lee Memorial Health System, according to briefs in the case.

Florida law limits local governments and other public bodies to paying no more than $200,000 per person in damages. To get more, lawmakers must pass a claim bill, also known as a relief act, for extra money.

The “contingency fee contract” between the firm and Edwards’ mother called for attorney fees of 25 percent.

The 2012 claim bill, however, says the “total amount paid for attorney’s fees, lobbying fees, costs, and other similar expenses relating to the claim may not exceed $100,000.”

The majority said lawmakers may approve or deny a claim bill but they can’t “impair an pre-existing contract” between an attorney and a client.

On the other hand, Polston noted in dissent that the firm’s fee agreement said, in part, that “Federal and Florida Law may limit the amount of attorney fees charged by [Searcy Denney], and in that event, I understand that the fees owed to [Searcy Denney] shall be the amount provided by law.”

“Because the fee agreement explicitly anticipates and agrees to an award of fees as limited by Florida law and in the amount provided by law, there is no impairment of contract,” Polston said.

Christian D. Searcy, the firm’s president, told the court during oral argument in June he took the case because no other firm wanted it and he believed Edwards needed to be compensated.

In emotional remarks to the court, he called the fee cap a “confiscatory limitation,” adding that “no seriously injured child will ever be able to get an attorney … or anybody with a serious claim.”

Searcy was not immediately available at his office Tuesday.

 

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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