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Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, P.A., et al. v. State of Florida, No. 4D13-3497 (4th DCA)

In Searcy Denney, the Fourth District affirmed a guardianship court’s refusal to authorize the payment of $2.5 million in attorneys’ fees to the firms involved in litigating and trying a medical malpractice case, handling the appeal, and lobbying to secure a claims bill from the Legislature on behalf of their clients. The Fourth District explained that based on separation of powers principles, it must affirm the lower court’s order denying the firms’ request for fees above the $100,000 granted by the Legislature in the claims bill.

The case arose from a catastrophic brain injury suffered by Aaron Edwards at birth in 1997, which was caused by the negligence of employees at Lee Memorial Health System. After a five week trial, the jury awarded Aaron Edward $28.3 million, and $1.34 million to his mother and $1 million to his father. Pursuant to Fla. Stat. 768.28, the trial court entered judgment against Lee Memorial in the amount of $200,000. Searcy Denney submitted a claims bill to the Legislature. Many years later, in 2012, the Legislature passed a claims bill, directing Lee Memorial to appropriate $10 million, with an additional $5 million payable in annual installments, to the guardianship of Aaron Edwards, to be placed in a special needs trust for the exclusive benefit of Aaron Edwards. No monies were appropriated for the use or benefit of either parent, and the total amount paid for attorneys’ fees, lobbying fees, costs or other similar expenses was capped at $100,000. After the $10 million installment had been paid, Searcy Denney, with the support of the Edwards family, petitioned the guardianship court to approve a payment of $2.5 million for attorneys’ fees and costs. Searcy Denney showed the court that it had expended more than 7,000 hours representing the Edwards family and spent more than $500,000 in costs during the representation. The guardianship court rejected the request, and the firms appealed.

The Fourth District began with a detailed history of sovereign immunity as applied to the federal government and later the states. The Fourth District then explained that the claims bill, which is a validly passed law, is clothed with a presumption of constitutionality. The court further explained that a claims bill is “firmly entrenched in the sphere of legislative discretion.” “Parties cannot enter into a contract to bind the state in the exercise of its sovereign power . . . . The legislature was in no way bound to pass legislation conforming with the provisions of the prior contingent fee contract.” The Florida Supreme Court has previously held that the limitation of attorneys’ fees in a claims bill is a constitutionally permissible exercise of legislative authority and does not constitute an impairment of contractual obligations proscribed by Article I, section 10 of the Florida Constitution.

Accordingly, the Fourth District affirmed the Legislative decision to cap the fees awarded at $100,000.

Judge Ciklin wrote a detailed dissent, arguing at bottom:

“Because the claim bill’s limitation on attorneys’ fees and costs is an unconstitutional impairment on the Edwards family and firm’s right to contract, I would reverse. I have taken the liberty to also write to remind the readers of this dissent and all Florida lawyers, that contingency fee agreements are directly connected to every citizen’s right to access to our courts. I cite to the Florida Code of Professional Responsibility which contemplates the ethical and moral obligation of ‘us lawyers’ licensed to practice in this state, to always consider the contingency fee agreement as the ‘poor man’s key to the courthouse.’ Because of the enactment of section 768.28, which now requires that aggrieved individuals first invoke the civil process of law before even approaching the Legislature for sovereign immunity relief, the ‘key’ should be easily accessible. The right to this key is rich and deeply rooted in American history and it is a judicial time-honored duty and responsibility to protect the inalienable rights of our people in this regard.”

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