TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Supreme Court has rejected a 5th District Court of Appeal decision concerning medical referrals that would break attorney-client privilege in a negligence case.
The plaintiff, Heather Worley, allegedly fell in a Central Florida YMCA parking lot and was transported to the Florida Hospital East emergency room. The hospital staff advised her to see a specialist after she expressed pain in her right knee, but Worley did not see a specialist for months because of her expenses and lack of health insurance, according to court records.
She was eventually treated by doctors from Sea Spine Orthopedic Institute, Underwood Surgery Center and Sanctuary Surgical & Anesthesia. Worley had hired Morgan & Morgan to represent her in a suit against YMCA alleging negligence and was seeking damages for the costs of her treatments in Worley v Central Florida Young Men’s Christian Ass’n, Inc.
The YMCA was skeptical of Worley’s relationship with Morgan & Morgan and asked about the law firm’s relationship with the health care providers, according to court records. The YMCA alleged there was an agreement between Morgan & Morgan and the physicians, who allegedly may have had an interest in the outcome of the case, and pointed to Worley’s medical bills as proof. At Worley’s deposition, the defendants asked whether was she referred to the doctors by her attorneys, to which Worley objected.
The YMCA filed a motion following a second deposition that required Worley to produce two types of discovery materials within 30 days, including all formal and informal documentation of her billing and referral information three years prior and six months after Dec. 4, 2012. Worley said that the information was under protection because of confidentiality between attorneys clients, court records state. In addition, the plaintiff filed a motion stating that it would be too expensive to produce that documentation.
The appeals court denied Worley's motion and stated it was fair for YMCA to ask about Worley and Morgan & Morgan’s relationship with the physicians.
The case went to Supreme Court because, “The issue before this Court is whether the attorney-client privilege protects a plaintiff from disclosing that an attorney referred him or her to a doctor for treatment, or a law firm from producing documents related to a possible referral relationship between the firm and its client’s treating physicians."
The court also considered whether a financial agreement between the law firm and the health care facilities is possible to prove.
Th appeals court had ruled that because the YMCA could not obtain the information by itself, it could ask the plaintiff directly for the documentation. But the Florida Supreme Court did not agree with that court’s decision to break the attorney-client confidential agreement out of necessity for the defendants. It also agreed with Worley that recovering the information would be burdensome and expensive.