The Florida Supreme Court handed down a significant victory for injured workers and the attorneys who represent them in the recent case of Castellanos v. Next Door Co. et al., a challenge to state limits on workers’ compensation attorney fees.
It’s significant because many injury lawyers have been reluctant to take on workers’ compensation cases, knowing they may not be fairly reimbursed for their time. Plaintiff attorney in the Castellanos case, for example, was reimbursed $1.53 an hour for 107 hours of legal work (a length of time which lower courts agreed was in line with what was necessary to adequately prepare the case).
The ruling comes just one week after the 1st DCA ruled in Miles v. City of Edgewater that it was unconstitutional for the state to restrict a workers’ compensation plaintiff to a strict contingency fee structure with her lawyer, and prohibit a retainer fee or hourly fee payment plan.
Unfortunately, the state high court declined to hear another significant case – Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital – which challenged the workers’ compensation system validity on the basis of the legislature’s abolishing permanent partial disability benefits.
Another high-profile case, Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg et al., is still pending. Plaintiffs in that case challenge the 104-week cap currently imposed on temporary disability benefits.
But let’s get back to the Castellanos case and what it means for injured workers and Florida personal injury attorneys.
Plaintiff in this case was injured in the course of his employment and subsequently, through the assistance of his attorney, he prevailed on his workers’ compensation claim. This required successfully refuting a number of defenses raised by the employer and insurance carrier in the case.
However, because of F.S. 440.34, it limited claimant’s ability to recover attorney’s fees to a sliding scale based on the amount of workers’ compensation he received. In the end, that amounted to $1.53 per hour for a total of 107.2 hours worked. The judge of compensation claims determined these 107.2 hours were “reasonable and necessary” to litigate this complex case. And yet, the employer/ insurer was only responsible to reimburse the plaintiff/ his lawyer for fees based on that contingency model.
The court noted that the right of a claimant to obtain reasonable attorney’s fees when successful in securing workers’ compensation benefits was a crucial feature of workers’ compensation law in Florida dating back to the early 1940’s. In fact the whole point of workers’ compensation law is to provide a quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker.
And while the legislature continues to promise adherence to 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.” In fact, when claimants have access to competent legal assistance, the court ruled, it discourages insurers and employers from unnecessarily resisting claims. It also encourages lawyers to engage in non-frivolous claims because they recognize that reasonable fees will be paid for their time.
So with that, in a 5-2 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court ruled F.S. 440.34 is unconstitutional under both state and federal law in so far as it creates an irrebutable presumption that precludes any consideration of whether an attorney fee award is reasonable to compensate the attorney.
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Castellanos v. Next Door Co. et al., April 28, 2016, Florida Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Nodak Mutual Ins. Co. v. Koller – Auto Insurance Step-Down Provisions, March 10, 2016, West Palm Beach Work Injury Lawyer Blog