An appeals court Tuesday waded into a dispute about a Broward County nursing home’s request that the state hand over thousands of death certificates from around the time Hurricane Irma slammed into the state last year.
The dispute, which involves questions about how public records should be handled, has drawn particular attention because the request for death certificates was made by The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills — a facility where residents died after the hurricane.
Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis in April ordered the Florida Department of Health to turn over the 5,907 death certificates from across the state to the nursing home, citing Florida’s broad public records law. Lewis in June found the Department of Health in contempt and ordered it to immediately release the records, shielding only information about the causes of death.
The Department of Health filed an appeal after the contempt ruling, putting on hold the release of the records. During arguments Tuesday before a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, department attorney Christine Lamia said the release of the records should be governed by a law dealing with vital statistics and death certificates, not the broader public-records law.
Lamia said the records would be available under the vital-statistics law, but each would be reviewed to determine if information should be redacted before their release.
“We’re not disputing they can get them under (the vital statistics law) if they follow the procedures,” Lamia said.
But Timothy Elliott, an attorney for the nursing home, said the Department of Health was trying to draw a “dichotomy” between members of the public who can routinely request copies of death certificates and the nursing home’s request for records “en masse.”
The three-judge panel questioned both attorneys, with Judge Lori Rowe asking pointed questions of Elliott. For example, she questioned whether Lewis’ April ruling adequately shielded from release information about causes of death.
“How can the Department of Health be held in contempt for an order that is ambiguous on its face?” Rowe asked.
Appellate courts typically take weeks or months to issue rulings.
The records issue is part of a series of legal disputes between The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills and the state after the Sept. 10, 2017, hurricane knocked out the facility’s air conditioning. The sweltering nursing home was evacuated three days later, with authorities attributing as many as 12 deaths to problems at the nursing home after the storm.
Gov. Rick Scott’s administration suspended the nursing home’s license and its participation in the Medicaid program and ultimately moved to revoke the facility’s license. The nursing home has challenged the revocation in the state Division of Administrative Hearings, and a decision in that case is pending.
In seeking the death certificates, an attorney for the nursing home indicated during a June hearing that the facility is seeking the addresses of locations where other people died during and after the massive storm. Elliott said Tuesday that the nursing home wants experts to be able to analyze the data.
Regardless, Elliott said the Department of Health should be required to turn over the information.
“The point is, the motivation should not be questioned,” he said. “We are entitled to the records under (the public records law) as well as (the vital statistics law).”