Judge backs Moody in opioid settlement fight
Photo by James Yarema on Unsplash
By Jim Saunders
News Service of Florida
May 31, 2023
TALLAHASSEE — Rejecting arguments by public hospital districts and school boards, a Leon County circuit judge has backed Attorney General Ashley Moody in a battle about opioid-epidemic settlements with the pharmaceutical industry.
Judge John Cooper, in a 15-page decision, ruled that Moody had the authority to enter a series of settlements that effectively trumped lawsuits pursued by the hospital districts and school boards. The Miami-Dade County School Board and the Putnam County School Board quickly filed a notice of appeal after Friday’s ruling.
The ruling said the Legislature “specifically granted the attorney general authority to enforce consumer protection laws” and that Moody had the power to enter settlements that prevented separate claims by local government agencies. A filing by Moody’s office said the state settlements will lead to companies paying about $3 billion over a number of years.
“Allowing defendants (the hospital districts and school districts) to continue pursuing their subordinate opioid claims threatens Florida’s sovereign interest in vindicating its citizens’ rights — all of its citizens’ rights — when confronted with societal harms such as the opioid crisis,” Cooper’s ruling said. “These are collective harms. They do not flow in an insular fashion to individual (political) subdivisions — the harms cross city and county lines. Indeed the opioid settlements consider the pervasive harms caused by the opioid crisis and apply a mixture of statewide and local solutions. … Defendants’ continued pursuit of their opioid claims in contravention of the opioid settlements jeopardizes the flow of tens of millions of dollars that will aid in the abatement of the opioid epidemic throughout the state of Florida.”
Moody’s office filed the lawsuit last year against the Sarasota County Public Hospital District, Lee Memorial Health System, the North Broward Hospital District, Halifax Hospital Medical Center, the West Volusia Hospital Authority and the Miami-Dade School Board. The West Volusia district later was dismissed from the case, but the South Broward Hospital District and the Putnam County School Board were added.
All of the local agencies had sued drug distributors, manufacturers or pharmacies because of the opioid epidemic, according to Cooper’s ruling.
Moody’s office entered into seven settlements with a variety of companies — with each of the settlements including a “release” of claims filed by local governments. Some settlements resulted from multi-state litigation, while others came as a result of a lawsuit that the attorney general’s office filed in Pasco County.
Moody’s lawsuit against the hospital districts and school boards said the settlements would provide money for opioid treatment, prevention and recovery services and that money would go to communities throughout the state. But the hospital districts and school board argued that Moody did not have the authority to release their claims.
As an example, Halifax, a major Volusia County hospital system, said in a September court filing that Moody entered into what is known as an “allocation agreement” to distribute money from the settlements to counties, cities, towns and villages — but did not include hospital districts. The filing also said the attorney general’s office did not consult with Halifax about the lawsuit filed in Pasco County against pharmaceutical companies, the settlements or the allocation agreement.
“The attorney general is asserting the right to seize claims against third parties belonging to Halifax, an independent entity that the attorney general was not representing and over which she has no decision-making authority, and to use those claims as bargaining chips to settle litigation to which Halifax was not a party and from which it stands to gain nothing,” the September filing said. “Not only is there no authority in Florida law for such conduct, it violates fundamental principles of due process.”
But in his ruling, Cooper said courts have repeatedly interpreted state law to mean that the attorney general “retains all of the historic, sovereign common law powers and duties to represent and protect the people of Florida and their interests.”
“This court further states that when there is a conflict (or overlap) between sovereign state interests and insular subdivision interests, the sovereign’s interest necessarily must be deemed to be superior because the state’s interest subsumes, in its entirety, the subdivision’s interest,” Cooper wrote in another part of the ruling.