Friday, July 6, 2012

Supreme Court strikes public adjuster provision

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – July 6, 2012 – A provision in a 2008 law restricted the ability of public insurance adjusters to contact homeowners immediately after a storm, but a unanimous Florida Supreme Court struck it down yesterday.

The Florida Legislature passed the insurance industry-backed waiting period for adjusters’ following claims that adjusters took advantage of distraught homeowners after the 2004-2005 hurricanes. The law barred contact between public adjusters and customers for 48-hours following a hurricane, tornado or other major storm.

Backers claimed that the public adjusters increased insurance costs by pressuring homeowners into signing contracts. Public adjusters and their supporters say they were just helping customers receive the full benefits to which they’re entitled.

The state’s high court upheld a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling that found the law, as written, barred commercial speech in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court rejected arguments put forth by the Department of Financial Services that contended adjustors’ activities fall outside freedom of speech protections.

“The department’s claim that the public adjuster-initiated contact and solicitation … are conduct – not protected free speech – is unpersuasive,” Chief Justice Charles Canady wrote for the court. “This argument is predicated on the strained reading of the statute advanced by the department. With the rejection of that strained statutory reading, the argument collapses.”

DFS spokeswoman Alexis Lambert said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater’s office would have no statement on the ruling other than that Atwater respects the court and accepts the decision.

Following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, lawmakers looked at ways to reduce the cost of property insurance, and the state’s insurance industry said the public adjuster limitations would help. Insurers cited cases where they had to pay some dubious claims, blaming public adjusters for persuading homeowners to pursue them.

Based on the insurers’ argument, Florida lawmakers wrote a statute saying: “A public adjuster may not directly or indirectly through any other person or entity initiate contact or engage in face-to-face or telephonic solicitation or enter into a contract with any insured or claimant under an insurance policy until at least 48 hours after the occurrence of an event.”

An insurance industry representative on Thursday said the high court’s ruling was “unfortunate” and may end up costing consumers money as public adjuster fees are taken from the insurance settlement itself.

“CFO Atwater and the Office of Insurance Regulation provide safeguards for hurricane victims that they will be treated fairly by the adjuster dispatched by their insurance company,” said Sam Miller of the Florida Insurance Council. “There is no need for a public adjuster who must be paid by the policyholder.”

Attorneys for public adjuster Frederick Kortum, who challenged the law, said the law bans all types of communication during that time period. Regardless of whether lawmakers intended an all-out ban or not, the result doesn’t fall under the circumstances under which the government can limit speech, the plaintiffs argued.

“As long as the message is not misleading and is concerning a lawful transaction, you’re protected,” said Wilbur Brewton, a Tallahassee attorney who argued Kortum’s case before the high court. “It’s kind of like free speech anywhere, you may not like some of it but we have free speech in the United States.”

Other provisions of the 2008 law, including ethical standards and other regulatory powers granted to the department, remain in place. The Florida Association of Public Insurance Adjusters said there is adequate regulation to ensure consumers are protected.

“FAPIA and its nearly 400 member public adjusters are committed to helping policyholders receive full and fair compensation following damage to their property,” said FAPIA President Harvey Wolfman. “Thanks to this ruling, we can help more policyholders in those critical first hours when they need it most.”

Source: News Service of Florida, Michael Peltier


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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Homestead-exemption fraud cheats honest taxpayers

Special to The Miami Herald

The last couple of months, several readers and residents at crime watch meetings have remarked at how bad the fraud with homestead exemptions in our county. Well, I started to check some of the abandoned houses or foreclosed houses in various neighborhoods where I have had meetings, and to my surprise found several people claiming homestead exemption on homes they were leasing. This is something that is hurting us because its money that is not coming into the county and municipalities. As we all know we have suffered major budget cuts.

In Miami-Dade County, false claims for the homestead exemptions are common, and we in the neighborhoods need to do something about it, just like any crime. Now it’s not going to be easy to catch these criminals, but we certainly can try. We need to get these cheaters to pay their fair share just like the rest of us. I urge you to clamp down on homestead exemption abuse, and help recoup the losses that costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Here is what you need to do: If you suspect any rented house, townhouse or condominium write down the address and go to the Property Appraiser web site at:, and if the property has a homestead exemption – it’s a fraud! Rented property is not entitled to homestead exemption! Once you know call 311. You don’t even have to give your name. I have seen several that are in foreclosure and being rented by the owner, taking exemption!

As a friend of mine told me, the next time you hear of teachers having to dip into their own pockets to pay for school supplies, or cuts that affect youth programs or less food for the elders or even public safety programs, think about those who cheat the system. This is something where you can really help make a difference.

Our Crime Watch organization depends on funding from taxes. Two years ago we got cut $60,000 and lost 2 employees, which left us with three to cover the entire county. Those who have implemented Neighborhood Watch know how this cut affected our program. So I tell you, let’s get those monies in by doing our part!

Last week I said that pets had to be pre-registered for hurricane shelters well I received an email from Kathleen Labrada from Animal Services that “Pre-registration is no longer required and there are no packets sent out. Acceptance is guaranteed; simply show up with your pets. Apparently the web site had not been updated which is where I got the information. Again if you have any questions contact 311 they will give you further information if needed.

In closing, again I want to congratulate our Miami Heat for an outstanding championship. The entire team is an asset to our community and we should all be thankful. Now it’s “Let’s Go Marlins!” Lets show them the same love and support they deserve. They have been a great partner of Citizens’ Crime Watch for several years.
Carmen Caldwell is executive director of Citizens’ Crime Watch of Miami-Dade. Send feedback and news for this column to, or call her at 305-470-1670

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