TALLAHASSEE — A state appeals court has stepped in and at least temporarily halted the release of thousands of death records to an embattled Broward County nursing home.
The 1st District Court of Appeal on Monday extended a stay of a lower-court ruling that would require the Florida Department of Health to quickly turn over death certificates from across the state to attorneys for The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.
The one-page order was largely procedural and did not explain the court’s reasoning. But it was the latest twist in a months-long records battle between the Florida Department of Health and the nursing home, which the state moved to shut down after residents died following Hurricane Irma.
The nursing home has been in a series of legal fights with Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, including about a state attempt to revoke the facility’s license. As part of those disputes, the nursing home filed a public-records lawsuit Jan. 31, alleging that the Department of Health had improperly refused to provide copies of death certificates for people across the state from Sept. 9 through Sept. 16 — a period that included Hurricane Irma and its immediate aftermath.
An attorney for the nursing home indicated last month that the facility is seeking the addresses of locations where other people died during and after the massive storm.
Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled in favor of the nursing home in April and last month, with a June 19 decision saying, in part, that the department is “specifically ordered to immediately (within 24 hours of receipt of this order) produce to petitioner electronic copies (e.g. via email, drop box, a flash drive, or other appropriate medium) all of the approximate 5,907 death certificate records that petitioner has requested.”
The Department of Health appealed the June decision to the Tallahassee-based appeals court, creating a short stay. Lewis issued another order June 29, rejecting a department request to extend the stay of his ruling until all appeals are finished — though he approved a 15-day stay to give the department time to quickly go back to the appeals court.
The appeals court Monday, however, quashed Lewis’ June 29 order and said a stay “shall remain in effect pending final disposition of the merits of this appeal.” The appeals court also said it will handle the case in an “expedited” fashion, though a schedule for filing briefs indicates a decision would not be issued until at least mid-August.
A key point of contention in the records dispute is the Department of Health’s position that it needs to review and redact information from death certificates before turning them over to the nursing home. In a document filed last month in circuit court, the department said release of the records poses a threat to private health information.
“The release of the private information belonging to individuals on each of the 5,907 death (records) constitutes irreparable harm, as each individual could be contacted by attorneys, press or other individuals seeking information regarding this high-profile matter,” the department argued in the document. “Once released, there is no effective way to retract this sensitive information.”
But attorneys for the nursing home say the death certificates are already public information and that Lewis correctly ruled that the department should turn them over.
“DOH’s speculative arguments ignore that anybody can walk into a vital statistics office anywhere in Florida and request this information, unredacted, and receive it the same day,” attorneys for the nursing home wrote in a court document last month. “DOH’s own website allows, through a third-party vendor, anyone in the world to request these records without even being physically present in Florida (or the United States). … The only difference is that Hollywood Hills is requesting these records by a date range, not by name.”
The Scott administration suspended the facility’s license — and moved to revoke the license — after the nursing home lost its air-conditioning system Sept. 10 as Hurricane Irma pounded the state. The outage created sweltering conditions that resulted in the facility being evacuated Sept. 13. Authorities have attributed 12 deaths to problems at the nursing home after the storm.