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Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal


Court OKs open records exemption for insurance claim disputes

An appellate court on Thursday unanimously upheld a public records exemption covering the names and addresses of consumers who challenge the disposition of claims against homeowner or sinkhole insurance claims.

Two law firms — Danahy & Murray, of Tampa, and Bennett Dennison, of Bradenton — had persuaded Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson to strike down the exemption.

But a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Judge Clay Roberts, said Dodson went too far. He ruled that the exemption both fulfills a public interest and was not overly broad.

“While the trial court may have disagreed that prohibiting disclosure of name and address information furthered the public necessity of fraud and identity theft prevention, that inquiry was not in its purview,” Roberts wrote.

“In order to be constitutional … , the Legislature had to articulate a specific purpose justifying the exemption. The Legislature did just that; therefore, (the exemption) satisfies the first prong for constitutionality.”

As for the exemption’s breadth, the Legislature had specified that it covered “personal financial and health information” including the “existence, identification, nature, or value of a consumer’s interest in any insurance policy, annuity contract, or trust,” the court said.

“(T)he scope of the exemption here is limited as to content, with the relevant terms and circumstances being defined,” Roberts wrote.

The exemption covers consumers participating in a mediation program for holders of residential property insurance policies, and the “neutral evaluations” system for sinkhole damage insurance. The consolidated legal challenges named the Department of Financial Services and CFO Jimmy Patronis as defendants.

The case arose from a policy shift one year ago. Previously, the department released spreadsheets including the names of policyholders, their addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, type of insurance, reasons for contacting the department, and insurance company information.

But officials decided they’d been misinterpreting the exemption. They began to limit access to the information — initially, regardless of whether an insured or insurer had initiated the mediation or evaluation; and ultimately, only when the consumer did so.

“We decline the plaintiffs’ invitation to speculate as to the reason for the disparate treatment of information when a consumer requests to participate in the programs as opposed to when the request comes from an insurer. If anything, this supports the argument that the Legislature intentionally drafted the exemption no broader than necessary,” the court said.

“It is logical that disclosure of personal identifying information could be used for fraud or identity theft, especially when disclosed in this context where the entity requesting the information also knows that a consumer has an insurance policy and has been involved in a dispute with an insurance company,” the opinion added.

Written By

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.

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