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Surterra Florida, LLC v. Florida Department of Health and Michael Barfield

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

June 9, 2017



         An appeal from the Circuit Court for Leon County. Charles W. Dodson, Judge.

          John L. Wharton and Brittany O. Finkbeiner of Dean, Mead & Dunbar, Tallahassee, for Appellants.

          Sarah Young Hodges, Chief Appellate Counsel, Florida Department of Health, Tallahassee, for Appellee Florida Department of Health; Andrea Flynn Mogensen of Law Office of Andrea Flynn Mogensen, P.A., Sarasota, for Appellee Michael Barfield.

          PER CURIAM.

         Appellants[1] challenge an order finding that the identities and related information of their consultants, investors, and partners do not meet the definition of a trade secret under Florida law. We affirm the trial court's findings regarding investors and partners because appellants did not prove that the names and related information of their individual investors and partners are trade secrets. However, we reverse the trial court's findings regarding appellants' consultants and remand to the trial court to make more specific findings as to whether the particular identities and related information of appellants' consultants meet the requirements of section 812.081(1)(c), Florida Statutes (2015).

         I. Facts

         In 2015, appellants submitted applications to the Florida Department of Health (Department) for licenses to operate dispensing organizations for "low-THC cannabis" or "medical cannabis" pursuant to section 381.986(5)(b), Florida Statutes (2015). Appellants indicated that portions of their applications contained confidential trade secrets pursuant to section 812.081, Florida Statutes (2015), and were exempt from disclosure as public records under section 815.045, Florida Statutes (2015). The Department reviewed the applications and appellants' written materials supporting their claimed trade secret exemptions and ultimately found that some portions of the applications were trade secrets under Florida law.

         Appellee Michael Barfield submitted a public records request to the Department for the files related to appellants' applications. The Department declined to release to Mr. Barfield appellants' unredacted applications pursuant to section 815.045 but told him that he could retrieve the redacted versions of the applications on its website. Subsequently, Mr. Barfield filed suit for a declaratory judgment that the exemption asserted by the Department does not apply to the redacted portions of appellants' applications.

         The trial court held a hearing to examine the documents and to determine whether they contained trade secrets. At the hearing, Robert Jacob Bergmann, the Chief Executive Officer of Surterra Florida, LLC, testified about the alleged trade secret information. Mr. Barfield and his counsel were permitted to hear only a portion of Mr. Bergmann's testimony. [2]

         Subsequently, the trial court found that appellants' purported trade secret information falls into the following five categories: (1) investor, consultant, and partner identity; (2) financial structure; (3) security processes and building designs; (4) nursery operations, scientific processes, and business plans; and (5) administrative materials and standard operating procedures. As to the latter four categories of appellants' information, the trial court concluded that they are trade secrets and exempt from disclosure under the Florida public records law. These findings have not been appealed to this Court and are therefore not at issue. As to the first category of appellant's information, however, the trial court found that the identities and related information of appellants' investors, consultants, and partners do not meet the trade secret definition under section 812.081(1)(c). Appellants now seek reversal on appeal as to the court's findings regarding the first category of information.

         II. Analysis

         Florida's broad public records policy provides "that all state, county, and municipal records are open for personal inspection and copying by any person." § 119.01(1), Fla. Stat. (2015); see also Art. I, § 24(a), Fla. Const. ("Every person has the right to inspect or copy any public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body, officer, or employee of the state, or persons acting on their behalf . . . ."). However, the Legislature has made some exemptions to the public records law. One such exemption is that of trade secrets. See § 815.045, Fla. Stat. (2015) ("The Legislature finds that it is a public necessity that trade secret information . . . be expressly made confidential and exempt from the public records law because it is a felony to disclose such records.").

         Chapter 381, Florida Statutes (2015), the chapter under which appellants submitted their applications to become dispensing organizations, reflects both Florida's public records policy and the trade secret exemption. Section 381.83(1), Florida Statutes (2015), states that "[r]ecords, reports, or information obtained from any person under this chapter . . . shall be available to the public, except upon a showing satisfactory to the department . . . that such ...

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