Thursday, April 13, 2017
A divided Florida Supreme Court held that the attorney-privilege protects from disclosure the referral relationship between a law firm and treating doctors in a personal injury claim.
We have for review the decision of the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Worley v. Central Florida Young Men’s Christian Ass’n, Inc., 163 So. 3d 1240 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015), in which the district court certified conflict with Burt v. Government Employees Ins. Co., 603 So. 2d 125 (Fla. 2d DCA 1992), regarding whether the attorney-client privilege protects a party from being required to disclose that his or her attorney referred the party to a physician for treatment. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the question implicates a confidential communication between the attorney and the client and is therefore protected. Accordingly, we quash the decision of the Fifth District and approve the decision of the Second District Court of Appeal.
The case involves a slip-and-fall
During discovery of this “relatively routine trip-and fall case,” Central Florida Young Men’s Christian Association, Inc. (YMCA), repeatedly attempted to discover the relationship between Worley’s law firm, Morgan & Morgan, and her treating physicians.
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. However, resolution of this issue will require us to first consider another issue: whether the financial relationship between a plaintiff’s law firm and the plaintiff’s treating physician is discoverable. In its decision approving the order, the Fifth District relied on district court decisions that have held that the financial relationship between a law firm and a plaintiff’s treating physician is discoverable, pursuant to our decision in Boecher, if evidence of a referral relationship can be shown...
Allowing further discovery into a possible relationship between the physician and the plaintiff’s law firm would only serve to uncover evidence that, even if relevant, would require the production of communications and materials that are protected by attorney-client privilege. As mentioned previously, courts that have allowed this type of discovery have first required evidence of a referral relationship between the law firm and the treating physician...
Respondent argues that the lawyer’s act of referring a client to a treating physician is an underlying fact, not a communication. We disagree. That the plaintiff was treated by a particular doctor is an underlying fact. That the plaintiff received a referral to see a particular doctor is also an underlying fact. However, whether the plaintiff’s attorney requested that the client see a certain doctor requires the plaintiff to disclose a part of a communication that was held between the plaintiff and attorney, and we resist any attempts to separate the contents of communications to distinguish “facts” from privileged information. To hold otherwise would severely undermine the purpose of the privilege, which is to encourage the free flow of information between attorneys and their clients.
Justice Polston dissented
The majority holds that Central Florida YMCA is shielded, based on attorney-client privilege, from discovering whether Worley’s lawyers, Morgan & Morgan, referred her to treating medical providers. The discovery is directed to the referral relationship between Morgan & Morgan and the providers, including how much money the providers received from the firm and its clients. The financial relationship between a law firm and medical provider, including number of referrals, frequency, and financial benefit, is admissible evidence regarding the bias of a testifying medical provider. Accordingly, this information is relevant and subject to discovery.
The trial court ordered Worley to produce billing agreements between Morgan & Morgan and her treating medical providers and information from cases in which her firm referred other clients. On appeal, the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Worley v. Central Florida Young Men’s Christian Ass’n, Inc., 163 So. 3d 1240 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015), correctly allowed discovery of this information under the existing rules of discovery, as balanced with other interests. I would approve its excellent analysis.
A lawyer’s referral of a client to a treating medical provider is for the purpose of the client’s medical care, not in furtherance of legal services. Therefore, the referral itself is not protected as an attorney-client privileged communication.
Justices Canady and Lawson joined the dissent. (Mike Frisch)