Florida Appeals Court Upholds Insurance Records Exemption

Florida – An appeals court Friday upheld the constitutionality of a law creating a public-records exemption for certain insurance information, overturning a ruling by a circuit judge who said the law was overbroad and didn’t adequately detail a need for the exemption.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, in an eight-page decision, sided with the Florida Department of Financial Services. The case stemmed from information about participants in two programs overseen by the department. One of the programs involves mediation of residential property-insurance claim disputes, while the other involves neutral evaluations of disputed sinkhole-insurance claims, according to Friday’s decision.

Two law firms, Danahy & Murray, P.A., and Bennett Dennison, PLLC, routinely filed public-records requests seeking information about participants in the programs. The department in the past provided information but decided in 2016 that information identifying specific policyholders was confidential and exempt from disclosure, the appeals court wrote.

The law firms challenged the decision, with Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson ultimately ruling that a law cited by the department violated part of the Florida Constitution that provides a right of access to public records and meetings. But the appeals court overturned that ruling, in part saying that what is known as a “public necessity statement” was adequate to justify the records exemption.

“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,” said the decision, written by appeals-court Judge Clay Roberts and joined by judges Susan Kelsey and M. Kemmerly Thomas.

“The Legislature stated a specific justification — prevention of fraud and identity theft as well as protection of a person’s privacy — that justified denying public access to personal financial information. The public necessity statement also explained that disclosure of this information could be used for fraudulent and other illegal purposes, including identity theft, and could result in substantial financial harm.”

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