Florida Supreme Court Asked to Decide Constitutionality of Workers’ Comp

By | July 15, 2015

A legal challenge to the constitutionality of Florida workers’ compensation system that was thrown out by a state appeals court may be headed to the Florida Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs in the case have asked the state’s high court to hear their appeal of the state’s Third District Court of Appeals ruling on June 24 dismissing their case.

A three-judge panel of the Third District court did not rule on the constitutionality of the workers’ compensation system itself. Instead it cited procedural issues and said the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit.

The plaintiffs — Florida Workers’ Advocates and Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group, and Elsa Padgett— filed a petition July 8 requesting the Florida Supreme Court hear the case.

The dismissal came in response to a 2014 judgment by Florida 11th Circuit Court Judge Jorge Cueto, who determined that the “exclusiveness of liability” provision of the Florida Workers’ Compensation Law that immunizes an employer and its employees from lawsuits for covered, work-related injuries, is facially unconstitutional. Cueto ruled that the benefits provided under the workers’ compensation law that was revised in 2003 are inadequate to qualify as an exclusive remedy for injured workers.

Case History

The original case stemmed from a lawsuit by Julio Cortes, who sued his employer Velda Farms in 2010 after he was injured while operating equipment. In 2012, several employee advocacy groups and state government worker, Padgett, who had sustained an on-the-job injury and was forced to retire due to complications, joined the suit.

Padgett, along with several trial bar groups, argued that her workers’ compensation benefits were inadequate and the law unfairly blocked her constitutional right to access the court. In 2013, Velda Farms voluntarily dismissed its affirmative defense of workers’ compensation immunity and contended that any remaining claims relating to statutory workers’ comp issues – including the judgment relief sought by the advocacy groups and Padgett – had become moot and should also be dismissed.

In response, the advocacy groups filed to continue the case independently. Circuit Court Judge Cueto ruled in Padgett’s favor last August, focusing on the exclusive remedy provision of Florida’s workers’ comp law. Cueto said at the time that cuts in medical and wage-loss benefits made by lawmakers over the years had led to a system that no longer gave injured workers a “fair deal.” He specifically cited workers’ compensation changes made by lawmakers in 2003.

“The Act of 2003 no longer provides full medical benefits or any compensation for permanent partial disability,” opined Cueto, adding that “it is inadequate as an exclusive remedy for all injured workers.”

The state — led by Pamela Jo Bondi, attorney general; Allen Winsor, solicitor general; Adam S. Tanenbaum, chief deputy solicitor general; and Osvaldo Vasquez, deputy solicitor general (Tallahassee),— appealed shortly after the circuit court’s ruling and the case was sent to the Third District Court of Appeal.

The appeals court opined in its ruling that the case had strayed from its original intent. The justices wrote that the plaintiffs’ assertions that the workers’ comp system no longer provided adequate benefits to injured workers giving up their right to sue “were transformed by the present appellees and their counsel into a completely different set of claims and parties over the three years which followed” and in the process “the case lost (1) the essential elements of a justiciable ‘case or controversy,’ (2) and identifiable and properly-joined defendant, and (3) a procedurally proper vehicle for the trial court’s assessment of the constitutionality…”

While not ruling on the constitutionality, the court said its reasons for dismissal precluded the plaintiffs from pursuing the constitutional claims and obtaining relief and added “because we find the issues dispositive, we decline to review the trial court’s analysis of the appellees’ state and federal constitutional claims.”

The court further added that the advocacy groups may have an “economic interest in establishing their clients’ rights to file tort claims, but that indirect interest does not confer standing upon them in the present case.” The justices also stated that the associations in this case “are not suffering immediate or threatened injury of the kind comprising a justiciable issue had an individual member of the association—in this case, an attorney regularly representing workers’ compensation claimants—brought the action.”

Katherine Giddings, partner, appellate practice, Akerman LLP, who served as co-counsel for the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Justice Reform Institute as amici curiae in support of reversing of the trial court’s order, called the appeal court’s decision a victory for all Florida employers and employees.

“On behalf of our clients, the Florida Justice Reform Institute and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, we are pleased the Third District Court of Appeal recognized the invalidity of the trial court’s decision, which declared the Workers’ Compensation Law unconstitutional,” said Giddings. “As the Third District noted, the law immunizes from lawsuits both employers and their employees for covered, work-related injuries — while ensuring that employees have benefits when they are injured on the job.”

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About Amy O'Connor

O'Connor is the Southeast editor for Insurance Journal and associate editor of MyNewMarkets.com. More from Amy O'Connor