1st DCA Tosses Florida Workers’ Comp Attorney Caps
Gregg Hollander | May 7, 2016 | Work Injuries
It’s a decision that could have far-reaching consequences for many Florida workers’ compensation lawsuits. Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal ruled it unconstitutional for a police officer and her union to be barred form paying a retainer and hourly fees for a lawyer in a workers’ compensation case.
In Miles v. City of Edgewater, the three-judge panel struck down the state law that limited the officer’s ability to pay for a law firm to represent her as she pursued workers’ compensation benefits for a work-related injury.
State law puts tight limits on attorney’s fees for workers’ compensation cases, and this has long been a point of bitter contention. The way it works is attorneys are paid strictly on a contingency fee basis, which is dependent on the amount the plaintiff is awarded. If plaintiff does not receive any money, neither will the attorney collect fees.
This isn’t uncommon in personal injury lawsuits, but the law also forbids payment of retainer fees and hourly fees for workers’ compensation claims.
The court decided that the restriction on this was an infringement of plaintiff’s First Amendment rights, and was therefore unconstitutional. Specifically, the court ruled the statute prohibiting a workers’ compensation claimant or union from paying attorney’s fees from his or her own funds to litigate a claim is not constitutional because it infringes on the claimant’s free speech and the right to seek redress of grievances.
Business interest lobbyists have long contended that keeping attorney’s fees low is essential to keeping workers’ compensation insurance rates at a minimum.
But plaintiffs countered all the rules had served to do was to turn the system in favor of employers and give workers a disadvantage.
The timing of this ruling is interesting because the Florida Supreme Court is slated to weigh three other challenges to three elements of the Florida workers’ compensation system.
One of those involves whether it is constitutional to limit contingency fees of plaintiff attorneys. The issue in that case, plaintiffs argue, is that those limits are so low, it is nearly impossible to find lawyers to represent injured workers.
For those who may be unfamiliar, workers’ compensation cases are handled outside the civil court system. In theory, workers’ compensation is supposed to provide a quick, no-fault method of restoring injured workers to health and financial stability. It’s supposed to resolve disputes fast so that workers can get back to work.
The problem – and it’s not unique to Florida – is that workers’ rights have slowly dwindled over the last few decades as legislators have passed laws that favor businesses in these matters. For example in 2003, Florida lawmakers reformed the workers’ compensation system to significantly reduce or eliminate some worker benefits (such as permanent partial disability) and it also has denied injured workers access to adequate legal counsel.
In the Miles case, justices determined that in a free society, individuals should be allowed to personally weigh the benefits of obtaining redress for their injury.
Plaintiff, a police officer, filed two complaints for workers’ compensation benefits, including one that stemmed from her exposure to methamphetamine production chemicals. She later signed an agreement with the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) to pay a retainer and hourly fee to a law firm to represent her.
That attorney argued it wasn’t financially feasible to accept the case on a contingency fee basis because of the time and effort it would take to pursue a case involving a worker exposed to a hazardous substance.
The compensation judge later rejected the attorney agreement because they failed to comply with existing Florida workers’ compensation law.
The case was then sent to an appellate court, which with this 26-page decision remanded the case for a new hearing on the petition for benefits.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (561) 347-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Court rejects legal restriction in workers’ comp cases, April 20, 2016, By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida