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Florida Supreme Court Rules Part of Workers’ Comp Law Unconstitutional

The Florida Supreme Court recently rendered its decision in one of three key challenges to the state’s workers’ compensation law. gavel21

In a 55-page opinion, the court in Castellanos v. Next Door Company et al., ruled F.S. Section 440.34(1), which pertains to the structuring of plaintiff attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases, is unconstitutional and a violation of due process.

Just a week earlier, the 1st DCA issued a 26-page ruling in Miles v. City of Edgewater in which appellate justices reached the same conclusion regarding the provision that bars workers from paying retainer or hourly fees to attorneys upfront. 

The Castellanos ruling was issued via a 5-2 split, found the attorney fee schedule violates due process under both state and federal law. The issue at hand is whether it is fair to strictly limit plaintiff’s attorney fees. Business interest groups have long argued it is necessary to restrict plaintiff attorney fees in order to keep workers’ compensation insurance costs down.

But in practice, it has resulted in a situation in which the scales were tipped in favor of the employer because employees couldn’t find attorneys to work for the impractically low fees.

For example in Castellanos, his lawyers received just $166 for more than 107 hours of legal work. Each of those 107 hours was deemed by the judge to be “reasonably necessary” in order to secure workers’ compensation benefits for the client, following injuries sustained in an altercation with a co-worker in 2009.

Still, the judge was confined to the statutory fee schedule. That ruling was appealed to the 1st DCA, which affirmed it in October 2013, but certified the question of constitutional adequacy to the Florida Supreme Court.

The state high court noted the importance of this ruling, as the 1st DCA alone had certified 18 other cases with the exact same question to the state supreme court while the Castellanos decision was pending.

Before answering that question, justices with the high court rephrased it before ultimately deciding that the attorney fee provision hinders an injured worker’s ability to obtain adequate legal representation. In essence, the statute establishes an irrebuttable presumption that precludes any consideration of whether the fee is actually reasonable to compensate the attorney. That means it is unconstitutional under both state and federal law.

Castellanos’ attorney, for example, was paid just $1.53 an hour under the statutory scheme – an amount the court called “patently unreasonable.”

Justices decided to quash the 1st DCA ruling affirming that award and remanded the case back to the judge of compensation claims for entry of a reasonable attorney fee.

Meanwhile, the court ultimately decided not to weigh the case of Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital, which had challenged the legislature’s 2003 elimination of permanent partial disability benefits. The law allows only for a $10 copay of medical visits after an injured worker obtains maximum medical improvement and did away with PPD. Plaintiff, an injured nurse, argued the workers’ compensation system is inadequate as an exclusive remedy for a tort action when PPD is off the table. Although the court initially accepted jurisdiction, it ultimately declined to review the case, in which the 1st DCA had upheld the validity of state law in this regard.

Still pending before the court is the case of Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg et al. That case raises the question of whether the statutory 104-week cap on temporary disability benefits is sufficient.

Call Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, at 1-800-646-1210.

Additional Resources:

Castellanos v. Next Door Company et al., April 28, 2016, Florida Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Nursing Home Medication Error Fatal for Resident, April 22, 2016, Fort Myers Injury Lawyer Blog