The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s mandatory attorneys’ fee schedule for workers’ compensation cases is unconstitutional under both Florida’s and the U.S. constitution as a violation of due process.
The state’s top court also declined to rule in another case challenging the very constitutionality of the state’s reformed workers’ compensation system.
The attorneys’ fee schedule ruling came in the case of Marvin Castellanos, an injured employee who sued his employer Next Door Co. and its insurer, Amerisure. The high court noted that the issue has been raised in as many as 18 lower court cases.
The Castellanos court ruling said that the schedule, passed in 2009, is invalid because it eliminates the right of a claimant to get a reasonable attorney’s fee, a right it says is a “critical feature” of the workers’ compensation law. The court said the statute violates due process by installing an “irrebuttable presumption” that whatever fee the schedule comes up with is reasonable and by not providing any way for a claimant to refute the fee.
In the Castellanos case, the attorney fee calculated under the mandatory sliding scale turned out to be $1.53 per hour for 107.2 hours. The claimant’s attorney had sought a fee of $350 an hour.
The ruling upends a lower court ruling and a finding by a Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) that both upheld the schedule and the fee in the case.
The high court said that while the Legislature has said it intends the workers’ compensation system to deliver benefits to injured workers efficiently and quickly, “in reality the system has become increasingly complex to the detriment of the claimant, who depends on the assistance of a competent attorney to navigate the thicket.”
The court said that “it is undeniable” that without the right to an attorney with a reasonable fee, the workers’ compensation law can no longer “assure the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker.”
The court said it found the irrebuttable presumption, or inability of any claimant to challenge the fee, and not the particular fee, to be unconstitutional.
The Castellanos ruling came down the same day that the Florida Supreme Court changed its mind and decided it does not have jurisdiction in another closely-watched workers’ compensation case brought by an injured nurse. The court had earlier said it would rule in the Stahl case that challenged the constitutionality of the entire Florida workers’ compensation system. The plaintiff questioned whether the workers’ compensation system has provided an adequate alternative for injured workers since its major overhaul in 2003. More specifically, the case asked if the elimination of a type of partial disability benefits by lawmakers was legal.
In the case of Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital, the court today said simply, “After further consideration and hearing oral argument in this case, we have determined that we should exercise our discretion and discharge jurisdiction. Accordingly, we dismiss review.”
The high court’s decision to pass on Stahl means the First District Court of Appeal’s opinion in this matter, which upheld other elements of the workers’ compensation law, stands, according to state officials.
In the Castellanos decision, the court said the right of an injured worker to recover a reasonable prevailing party attorney’s fee has been a key feature of the state’s workers’ compensation law since 1941. “Through the 2009 enactment of a mandatory fee schedule, however, the Legislature has created an irrebuttable presumption that every fee calculated in accordance with the fee schedule will be reasonable to compensate the attorney for his or her services,” the court said. “The $1.53 hourly rate in this case clearly demonstrates that not to be true.”
The court said that it did not view the absolute limitation from the point of view of the attorney’s rights because the attorney always has the option to refuse representation. Rather, it viewed the “conclusive irrebuttable presumption in the context of the complete frustration of the entire workers’ compensation scheme designed to provide workers with ‘full medical care and wage-loss payments for total or partial disability regardless of fault and without the delay and uncertainty of tort litigation.'”
The high court remanded the case to the JCC for entry of a reasonable attorney’s fee.
According to the Office of Insurance Regulation, until the legislature addresses this decision, attorney fees will be evaluated under the “reasonable” award standard articulated in the Murray v. Mariner Health decision.