[PHOTO CREDIT: Courthouses.com]
(This Article was First Published in LLN in May, 2017 — Issue No. 30.)
There are those times in life when it seems necessary to take up a cause, simply because something just doesn’t seem fair. Moreover, depending on the circumstances, fighting-the-good-fight may be a solo pursuit, or it may involve the joint interests of others. And so it came to be, back in the early 1990s, that Dr. James F. Coy — a physician currently practicing in Lake County, Florida — found himself leading-the-charge for justice in a battle which eventually made its way to the Florida Supreme Court, in Tallahassee.
As as part of medical malpractice reforms enacted in Florida in 1988, an entity known as the Florida Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Plan (the “Plan”) was created. As succinctly noted by the Florida Supreme Court in the case of James F. Coy, M.D., et al., v. Florida Birth-related Neurological Injury Compensation Plan, et. al., 595 So.2d 943 (Fla. 1992):
Several physicians practicing in areas other than obstetrics filed this action… Essentially, the Plan administers a no-fault system to insure against certain types of neurological injuries suffered by infants at birth. However… the statute imposes on all licensed physicians, not merely obstetricians, a mandatory annual assessment of $250. [Emphasis added.]
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The physicians who brought this cause argued that the assessments against them are unconstitutional because they derive no benefit from it greater than does the general public. They note that they have been singled out to pay a large part of the cost while the general public pays nothing… The physicians argued that the link between the tax and its benefits was too tenuous to meet constitutional standards.
Even from the brief recitation above, the battle lines in the case are readily discernible: Dr. Coy was advancing the position that monetary assessments under the Plan deprived him of his due process and equal protection rights, under the law. Ultimately,
the Florida Supreme Court found that:
[T]he rational basis test applies in the present case, as opposed to the strict-scrutiny standard, because physicians are not a ‘suspect’ class within the meaning of the equal protection provision of the Florida Constitution…. Applying this test to the facts at hand, we conclude that there is a rational basis for the statutory assessment of all physicians even though they do not practice obstetrics.
Although the court’s decision narrowly went against him, dissenting opinions contained within the 4-3 vote proved that Dr. Coy and the others had advanced a position of serious, even far-reaching, concern. For example, Justice Kogan (concurring in part, and dissenting in part) had this to say:
It is a truism that the power to tax is the power to destroy. While this phrase is so often repeated as to be cliche, I find nothing trite in the suggestion that the legislature can tax a person’s status without proper reasons. Such a precedent would make equal protection an illusory right. In the present case, the legislature has sought to tax primarily physicians to pay for insurance against certain birth-related injuries. This is little different from taxing only schoolteachers to pay for new educational facilities, or taxing only licensed psychologists to pay for public mental-health care, or taxing only policemen to pay for victims’ compensation programs.
When recently contacted by Lake Legal News at his SunLife medical offices in Fruitland Park, Florida, Dr. Coy easily recalled his “Supreme” battle for justice back in the 90s; in his view, the court’s decision rang extremely hollow. “When I read the scathing opinions of the minority Justices I felt gratified. When I looked for cogent dissent from the majority I was overwhelmed with grief,” he tells LLN.
Despite the fact that Dr. Coy’s words still (after all these years) convey a degree of lingering dissatisfaction with the adverse outcome, one can tell that the physician does not regret having waged a good fight. “I am not naïve now and I wasn’t naïve then,” he assures LLN. “I was blessed to carry the flag toward over-whelming enemy assault,” he proclaims. “The battle was lost, the state won. But as the defenders of the Alamo bought time for liberty against overwhelming odds, [so too] my presence at the Supreme Court of the State of Florida brought recognition that there are some who love freedom and are willing to take a stand,” he says with pride.
Even today, Dr. Coy argues that “the tyranny continues” in the form of what he calls an “illegal taxation of medical doctors through a private gimmick of ‘Maintenance of Certification’ and ‘Maintenance of Licensure’ — dictating who may continue to practice medicine and who cannot — while making a lot of money for the private company.”
James Hope is a Florida Bar Board Certified Criminal Trial Lawyer who has been practicing criminal law in Tavares, Florida, since 1987. He has also been the Publisher and Executive Editor of Lake Legal News since 2009. He may be contacted at LakeLegalNews@gmail.com, or through his website at www.AttorneyJamesHope.com. [PHOTO CREDIT: Bonnie Whicher]