Florida taxpayers are on the hook for more than $1.5 million in legal fees — including nearly $1 million to civil-rights lawyers — because of Gov. Rick Scott’s failed push to force welfare applicants and tens of thousands of state workers to submit to suspicionless drug tests.
The state agreed earlier this month to pay $600,000 to the Florida Justice Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which represented a single father who sued the Department of Children and Families over a 2011 welfare drug-testing law. The payment, issued this week, was part of a settlement in the case, abandoned by Scott earlier this year after four years of litigation and multiple court decisions striking down the law.
A federal appeals court ruled in December that the state’s mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of applicants in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program is an unconstitutional violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. After the ruling, Scott decided to walk away from the lawsuit.
“We are proud to have brought an end to the policy,” Florida Justice Institute Executive Director Randall Berg said.
Other costs in the welfare drug-testing case totaled at least $309,000, including $13,300 for Avram Mack, a psychiatrist and Georgetown University School of Medicine professor whose testimony was banned by a judge. The court concluded that Mack was not qualified to be an expert in the case.
The state also paid the GrayRobinson law firm at least $160,000 to represent the Department of Children and Families.
The welfare drug-testing law “shamelessly exploited ugly stereotypes about poor people,” ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon said.
“The settlement on our attorneys’ fees today finally closes the book on this ugly story and ensures that Floridians who apply for temporary assistance — or any other public benefit — won’t have to be subjected to invasive, humiliating and unconstitutional urine tests without cause or suspicion,” Simon said.
In a separate case, Scott and lawyers representing a state workers’ union reached agreement this spring on the types of Florida government employees who can be forced to undergo suspicionless drug tests. The union, represented by the ACLU, sued Scott after he issued an executive order shortly after taking office in 2011 ordering all workers in agencies under his control, as well as job applicants, to undergo random drug screens.
A federal judge put the policy on hold after the ACLU filed suit that summer, and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Scott could not constitutionally justify drug testing for all types of state employees without a reason, though it said testing could occur for some workers such as those in “safety-sensitive” positions. The appeals court ordered Scott and lawyers for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, to come up with a list of jobs that could be subject to testing.
Under a settlement agreement filed in federal court in April, the state agreed to pay the ACLU $375,000 in legal costs for the drawn-out litigation and to limit the drug tests to about 7,000 workers in 157 different job classes, a fraction of the 34,000 employees Scott’s blanket policy was intended to cover.
The taxpayer tab for that lawsuit totaled at least $675,000, including $180,000 for a private lawyer hired by the state, Thomas Bishop, and $120,000 for a special master to oversee the negotiations with the ACLU.
The amount spent on both lawsuits — at least $1.5 million — would cover about 8,900 days of residential substance-abuse treatment, based on average costs for in-patient treatment in Florida.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida