Attorney Fees

Florida Supreme Court asked to decide if legislature can limit attorney fees in cases against state

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The Florida Supreme Court has been asked decide whether the state legislature can constitutionally limit the amount of attorney fees awarded in cases against the state government, the Palm Beach Post reported Wednesday.

The case grows out of a sovereign immunity provision of state law. Whenever a plaintiff wins a tort case against a Florida state agency, state law caps damages at $200,000. To lift that cap, the legislature must agree to the higher payment.

That process worked in the case of Aaron Edwards, who suffered a catastrophic brain injury when he was born at a Fort Myers, Florida, public hospital in 1997. In 2012, the Legislature approved a total of $15 million for Edwards—more than the $200,000 cap but less than the $30.6 million the jury had awarded.

But the outcome wasn’t so great for the Edwards family’s attorneys at the West Palm Beach law firm of Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley. Although the attorneys had originally negotiated a 40 percent contingency fee, the legislature’s bill limited the firm’s fees to $100,000.

The firm petitioned a guardianship court to award it $2.5 million, applying a 25 percent cap in state law to the $10 million not put into a special needs trust for Edwards. It argued that the legislature’s fees order was an unconstitutional impairment of their contract with the Edwards family. It said it had put more than 7,000 hours into the case and lobbying for the legislative bill and incurred $500,000 in costs.

The guardianship court ruled that it lacked authority to change the fee. In July, a divided Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld that ruling. Dissenting Chief Appeals Court Judge Cory Ciklin argued that these fee limits would make it impossible for plaintiffs like Edwards to find an attorney. The law firm asked the court to reconsider.

After reconsideration, the appeals court granted a motion Wednesday to formally ask Florida’s highest court to determine the issue as a matter of “great public importance.”

Searcy Denney has made the news before, with a recent lawsuit alleging the Florida Bar’s online advertising rules violate their First Amendment rights.

Corrected at 4:19 p.m. to state that the Florida Supreme Court has been asked to decide the issue.

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