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Florida Second DCA rules that whether Sarasota County had unwritten contract with private hospitals and thereby waived sovereign immunity from liability for reimbursement of the costs of indigent care is a jury question not subject to summary judgment

On June 16, 2021, in Sarasota County Public Hospital District and Sarasota County v. Venice HMA, LLC, et al., No. 2D19-3745, the Florida Second DCAdenied the defendant County’s certiorari petition for relief from the trial court’s denial of its summary judgment motion in a case in which private hospitals in Sarasota County have sued the County for millions of dollars in unpaid reimbursements for indigent patient care since 2008. In 2003, the Florida Legislature repealed numerous special and local acts enacted between 1949 and 2000 and recodified them as a single Special Act that recreated and provided for the governing of the Sarasota County Public Hospital District (District). See ch. 2003-359, § 2, Laws of Fla. Under the Special Act, an independent special district contiguous with the County is governed by a hospital board, which in turn is authorized to certify to the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) a list of medically indigent persons treated by Board-managed (i.e., public) hospitals during the previous month, together with the itemized charges for those persons' care. The BOCC is then required to remit back to the Board the amount requested and is authorized to impose an ad valorem tax throughout the County to pay for the reimbursement. However, the reimbursement provisions do not apply to public hospitals alone. Private hospitals can also receive reimbursement for indigent care through a certification process. Although the plaintiff private hospitals allegedly submitted over half a billion dollars in invoices for indigent care since 2008, the County never paid any of the reimbursement requests. Years of litigation ensured, culminating in a 2015 Florida Supreme Court decision upholding the Special Act against the County’s challenge that it granted an unconstitutional special privilege to Sarasota County private hospitals. See Venice HMA, LLC v. Sarasota County, 228 So. 3d 76 (Fla. 2017). On remand, the County raised a new argument, i.e., that although the Special Act may be constitutional, it could not be lawfully enforced against the County because the Special Act is not a general law or express written contract and therefore cannot serve to waive the County’s sovereign immunity. The trial Court rejected this argument, and the County petitioned the Second DCA for a writ of certiorari. The Second DCA denied the petition on the basis that the denial of the County's motion for summary judgment does not constitute irreparable harm of the type that would entitle the County to a writ of certiorari. The Second DCA also rejected the County’s argument that an express contract requires an actual written contract, agreeing with the plaintiffs that a jury issue not subject to summary judgment exists in this case based on the plaintiff’s allegation that the County's sovereign immunity was waived by an express contract formed through the enactment of a special act of legislation and the subsequent incorporation of that statute as a county ordinance, coupled with the Hospitals' provision of indigent healthcare services and remittance of bills.

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