Workers Comp

24May 2016

A very big case recently came out of the Florida Supreme Court in the workers comp area of law. The case ruled that the statutory limits that were placed on the amount of attorney’s fees that could be awarded in Worker’s Comp cases is unconstitutional, because it violates the due process protections provided by both the Florida & U.S. Constitutions. The Florida Legislature attempted to link the award of attorney’s fees to the amount benefit that was obtained by the attorney representing the claimant. Here is a brief summary of the case.

The claimant, Marvin Castellanos, was injured during the course of his employment with New Door Company. Through the assistance of an attorney, Castellanos prevailed in his workers’ compensation claim, after the attorney successfully refuted numerous defenses raised by the employer and its insurance carrier. However, because of Fla. Statute § 440.34 limits a claimant’s ability to recover attorney’s fees to a sliding scale based on the amount of workers’ compensation benefits obtained, the fee awarded to Castellanos’ attorney amounted to only $.53 per hour for 107.2 hours worth of work determined by the Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) to be “reasonable and necessary” in litigating this complex case.

This statutory frame work would make it financial unfeasible for an attorney to assist a claimant in securing workers compensation benefits. Consequently, the court held that Fla. Statute § 440.34 is unconstitutional under both the Florida and United States Constitutions as a violation of due process protections. See art. I, § 9, Fla. Const.; U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.

The justification for this holding lies in the fact that the courts have found that the right of a claimant to obtain a reasonable attorney’s fee when successful in securing benefits has been considered a critical feature of the workers’ compensation law since 1941. See Murray v. Mariner Health, 994 So. 2d 1051, 1057-58 (Fla. 2008). From its outset, the workers’ compensation law was designed to assure, as the current legislative statement of purpose provides, “the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker.” § 440.015, Fla. Stat. (2009).

Yet, while the Legislature has continued to enunciate this purpose, in reality, the workers’ compensation system has become increasingly complex to the detriment of the claimant, who depends on the assistance of a competent attorney to navigate the thicket.* (See Footnote below) Indeed, as this Court long ago observed, allowing a claimant to “engage competent legal assistance” actually “discourages the carrier from unnecessarily resisting claims” and encourages attorneys to undertake representation in non-frivolous claims, “realizing that a reasonable fee will be paid for [their] labor.” Ohio Cas. Grp. v. Parrish, 350 So. 2d 466, 470 (Fla. 1977).
The purpose of providing for a statutory mandated “reasonable attorney’s fee” award in Workers Compensation cases, was because often times the claimants were denied benefits and need the assistance of counsel to assist them with securing coverage for their injury.

Thus, in the case of Ohio Casualty Group, 350 So. 2d at 470 the Florida Supreme Court previously held that the award of “reasonable attorney’s fees” was “enacted to enable an injured employee who has not received an equitable compensation award to engage competent legal assistance and, in addition, to penalize a recalcitrant employer. If the services of an attorney become necessary, and the carrier is ordered to pay compensation, attorney’s fees must be assessed against the carrier so that the benefits awarded the employee will constitute a net recovery. Thus, in adding attorney’s fees to the injured worker’s compensation award, [the provision] discourages the carrier from unnecessarily resisting claims in an attempt to force a settlement upon an injured worker. In addition, if the worker has a meritorious case, an attorney will be inclined to represent him, realizing that a reasonable fee will be paid for his labor and not deducted from perhaps a modest benefit due the claimant. Conversely, if the attorney believes the claim is frivolous, he would be inclined to decline representation.”

* To name just a few of the ways in which the workers’ compensation system has become increasingly complex and difficult, if not impossible, for an injured worker to successfully navigate without the assistance of an attorney: (1) the elimination of the provision that the workers’ compensation law be liberally construed in favor of the injured worker, § 440.015, Fla. Stat.; (2) reductions in the duration of temporary benefits, § 440.15(2)(a), Fla. Stat.; (3) an extensive fraud and penalty provision, § 440.105, Fla. Stat.; (4) a heightened standard of “major contributing cause” that applies in a majority of cases rather than the less stringent “proximate cause” standard in civil cases, § 440.09(1), Fla. Stat.; (5) a heightened burden of proof of “clear and convincing evidence” in some types of cases, §§ 440.02(1), 440.09(1), Fla. Stat.; (6) the elimination of the “opt out” provision, §§ 440.015, 440.03, Fla. Stat.; and (7) the addition of an offer of settlement provision that allows only the employer, and not the claimant, to make an offer to settle, § 440.34(2), Fla. Stat.