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Judge Backs Nursing Home On Death Records

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Ruling against the Florida Department of Health, a circuit judge Friday said an embattled Broward County nursing home is entitled to receive copies of death certificates for people who died across the state around the time of Hurricane Irma.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled that the death certificates are public records under a state open-government law. In doing so, he sided with arguments made by The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, a Broward County nursing where residents died in sweltering conditions after the September hurricane.

“The records requested by petitioner (the nursing home) are subject to Florida’s Public Record Act … and there is no applicable statutory exemption to permit their withholding from release,” wrote Lewis, who held a hearing in the case this week.

The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills filed the public-records lawsuit Jan. 31, alleging that the department had improperly refused to provide copies of death certificates for people across the state from Sept. 9 through Sept. 16 --- a week-long period that included Hurricane Irma and its immediate aftermath. The lawsuit said the Department of Health responded to the public-records request by requiring the nursing home to request each death certificate by the name of the person who had died and to use a department form. Attorneys for the nursing home alleged that such requirements violate the public-records law. 

But in a motion to dismiss the case filed last month, the Department of Health contended that the nursing home’s large request fell under part of state law dealing with “vital records or data” and that the nursing home’s request didn’t meet legal standards for releasing such information.

“Whereas anyone may request and receive a redacted death certificate (under part of state law), only certain people and entities may receive the type of general data that would allow research to be conducted,” the motion said. “Such data … is far more broad than simply one or two specifically requested death certificates. The only possible purpose for this subsection (of law) is to regulate who may obtain large swaths of data derived from death certificates and other such records.” The motion said the nursing home is “not the type of entity which may receive this data.” 

Lewis wrote that the department could require the nursing home to use a form to request the records, but “it cannot require that petitioner request each death certificate by name. Petitioner, using the prescribed form, may request these records with the information it has, which may only include a date range, and respondent (the Department of Health) must produce the applicable, responsive records.”

The lawsuit and a document filed April 4 by lawyers for the nursing home do not detail why The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills wants the death certificates from across the state.

But the nursing home has been locked in legal battles over the state’s attempt to revoke its license. Hurricane Irma knocked out the home’s air conditioning on Sept. 10, and residents were evacuated from the facility on Sept. 13. Authorities have attributed 12 deaths to the problems at the nursing home.

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News Service of Florida
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