An appeals court Wednesday upheld the constitutionality of a 2012 move by state lawmakers to limit fees paid to attorneys who represented a child severely injured at birth in a Southwest Florida hospital.
In a 2-1 ruling, a panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal said it was “sympathetic” to the arguments of the West Palm Beach-based law firm Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, P.A., which spent years representing the child, Aaron Edwards, and his parents in a legal fight against Lee Memorial Health System of Fort Myers and won a nearly $31 million jury verdict.
But with Lee Memorial a public entity protected by Florida’s sovereign-immunity laws, the family needed the Legislature to pass what is known as a “claim” bill to be able to collect more than $200,000 in the case. Lawmakers in 2012 directed Lee Memorial to pay $15 million — but also included a restriction that only $100,000 of that amount could go to attorneys.
After Lee Memorial paid an initial installment of $10 million into a trust for the child, Searcy Denney and other firms that worked on the case sought to collect $2.5 million, based, at least in part, on a contract with the family and a 25 percent fee-cap provision in part of state law. But a guardianship court involved in administering the money turned down the attorneys’ request because of the $100,000 fee limit in the claim bill.
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The majority of the appeals court Wednesday, while acknowledging that Searcy Denney had spent $500,000 in representing the Edwards family, upheld the guardianship-court decision. It pointed to Florida Supreme Court precedent.
“We are sympathetic to the fact that the legislatively enacted attorneys’ fees cap in this case failed to cover even the $500,000 in appellants’ [legal] costs advanced by Searcy Denney during their representation of the Edwards family,” said the opinion, written by Judge Alan Forst and joined by Judge Burton Conner. “But our responsibility in this matter is to ensure that the claims bill passed by the legislative branch of government meets constitutional muster. … [The] Florida Supreme Court, in no uncertain terms, has held that the limitation of attorneys’ fees in a private relief act/claims bill ‘is a constitutionally permissible exercise of legislative authority and does not constitute an impairment of contractual obligations.’”
But in a lengthy dissent, Chief Judge Cory Ciklin described the $100,000 limit as “draconian” and said it unconstitutionally impaired the contract between the Searcy Denney firm and the Edwards family. Ciklin also argued that limiting contingency fees for attorneys could restrict access to courts for many people who otherwise could not afford legal representation.
“Clearly, there are people, such as the Edwards family, who simply cannot afford to hire a counselor-at-law on an hourly rate, nor pay the out-of-pocket costs of malpractice litigation,’’ Ciklin wrote. “Thus, for those economically disadvantaged individuals who have been quantifiably injured at the hands of a clearly negligent party, an attorney who agrees to enter into a contingency fee agreement may be a victim’s only option. To that end, one would expect that contingency fee contracts are directly related to the constitutional right of access to courts together with ethical and moral obligations of lawyers. And in fact, they are.”
Aaron Edwards suffered brain injuries at birth in 1997 that left him with severe disabilities. A jury in 2007 found that negligence by Lee Memorial employees caused Edwards’ injuries, but the state’s sovereign-immunity laws shielded the hospital system from paying more than $200,000 without passage of a claim bill.
The bill drew widespread attention during the 2012 legislative session, with Lee Memorial lobbying against passage and arguing that the bill would take away money from caring for other children. Though the jury verdict called for the hospital system to pay nearly $31 million, the Legislature ultimately reduced that amount to $15 million and included the limit on attorneys’ fees and costs.