Florida Court Upholds Higher Ambulance Billing Fee for Non-Residents

Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeals handed down a decision yesterday upholding an ambulance fee schedule by City of Miami Fire-Rescue that charges non-residents $100 more than it charges city residents.

The fee schedule was challenged in a suit was filed by Cheryl K. Haigley, a resident of St. Petersburg, Florida who was injured in Miami in March of 2010. Haigley was transported to the hospital by a Miami Fire-Rescue ambulance and billed $445.00, which is $100 more than the fee charged to residents of Miami.

Haigley alleged that the extra $100 was an illegal tax; that it violated Florida’s constitutional guarantee of equal protection; and it was an unconstitutional burden the “Fundamental Right to Intrastate Travel” which is also protected by Florida’s constitution.

The trial court agreed with Haigley

finding in part that it is an unauthorized tax, not a user fee, and that even if the higher fee charged non-residents for the use of the City’s emergency medical transportation services constitutes a user fee, it must be stricken because it violates the plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection under Florida’s Constitution and unconstitutionally impairs intrastate travel.

The 3rd District reversed, ruling that the additional $100 was indeed a user fee, not a tax. The court quoted established case law:

[A] tax is an enforced burden imposed by sovereign right for the support of the government, the administration of law, and the exercise of various functions the sovereign is called on to perform. . . .

User fees are charges based upon the proprietary right of the governing body permitting the use of the instrumentality involved. Such fees share common traits that distinguish them from taxes: [1] they are charged in exchange for a particular governmental service [2] which benefits the party paying the fee in a manner not shared by other members of society, and [3] they are paid by choice, in that the party paying the fee has the option of not utilizing the governmental service and thereby avoiding the charge.

[Citing State v. City of Port Orange, 650 So. 2d 1 (Fla. 1994).]

The 3rd District concluded that the fee was imposed for a service actually rendered, benefitted the party paying the fee not other members of society, and was paid by choice of the party using the service.

The court next rejected the argument that the extra $100 violated Florida’s constitutional guarantee of equal protection. In the court’s own words:

All legislation classifies and discriminates against a distinct group of individuals: Florida’s criminal laws discriminate quite harshly against murderers and thieves, while zoning ordinances may negatively impact large business owners. However… we uphold legislation that has “some rational relationship to a legitimate state purpose” … unless the legislation’s classification is based on a suspect classification or a fundamental right. … However, residency (or nonresidency) is not a suspect classification. …

Requiring non-residents, who use and personally benefit from the service provided to them by the City, to pay an additional $100 for the service furthers the City’s interest of being able to continue providing emergency transportation services to everyone in need of the services, regardless of whether the person is a resident or a non-resident. …

The City’s residents, users and non-users of emergency medical transportation services alike, more than make up for the additional $100 surcharge charged non-resident users by contributing a far greater amount to the City’s overall emergency services budget. The base rate paid by individuals using the City’s emergency medical transportation services is insufficient to cover the total cost, and the City could have properly determined that an extra $100 was necessary to offset that additional cost since non-residents do not contribute through the payment of [property] taxes.

Regarding the state constitutional right to intrastate travel, the court ruled:

We conclude that the fee charged non-residents who use the City’s emergency medical transportation services does not implicate the right to intrastate travel. The City’s ordinance does not burden a non-resident’s right to enter or freely move throughout the City. Rather, the challenged ordinance merely charges non-residents an additional $100 for emergency medical transportation services if they utilize such services when visiting the City. …

The City’s ordinance in the instant case does not in any way restrict a nonresident’s right to enter or move throughout the City or the state of Florida. The City’s emergency medical transportation services are readily available to residents and non-residents alike. Thus, the City’s ordinance does not unconstitutionally burden intrastate travel.

Here is a copy of the ruling: Haigley v City of Miami

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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