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Insurance records dispute goes to Supreme Court

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Two law firms are asking the Florida Supreme Court to take up a dispute about the constitutionality of a law that created a public-records exemption for insurance information in two programs overseen by the state Department of Financial Services.

The law firms, Danahy & Murray, P.A., and Bennett Dennison, PLLC, filed an initial brief Thursday as they seek to have the Supreme Court overturn a ruling last month by the 1st District Court of Appeal.

The case centers on information about participants in a program that involves mediation of residential property-insurance claim disputes and a program that involves neutral evaluations of disputed sinkhole-insurance claims, according to the appeals-court ruling.

The law firms routinely filed public-records requests seeking information about participants.

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.

But in the brief filed Thursday, the law firms said the records should be available.

“If public access to the names and addresses of consumers requesting to participate in the department’s mediation program is prohibited, Florida’s insurance consumers will be impeded from learning they have the option to obtain assistance and representation by legal professionals skilled in matters of insurance -- thereby ‘leveling the playing field,’ ” the brief said. “Failure to disclose such information will shield insurance companies from scrutiny over their claims handling conduct when it results in the denial of insurance benefits to Florida consumers.”