Has Relief Come To Injured Workers In Florida The Castellanos Decision

On April 28, 2016 the Florida Supreme Court issued its decision in Castellanos v. Next Door Co., No. SC13-2082, slip op. at 1-2 (Fla. April 28, 2016), a workers’compensation case that had claimants’ attorneys and insurance defense attorneys alike waiting with bated breath.
The specific issue the Court addressed in Castellanos was whether the mandatory attorney’s fee schedule contained in Section 440.34 of Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Act is unconstitutional. That schedule required a Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) to award an injured worker’s attorney a fee based upon the value of benefits the attorney obtained for the injured worker without allowing the injured worker to argue, and the JCC to take into consideration, whether the fee was “reasonable.”  Since 2009 the only exception to the mandatory fee schedule was that the JCC had discretion under §440.34(7) to award a $1500.00 fee – once per accident – if the judge found that in a disputed “medical-only” claim the fee awarded to the claimant’s attorney failed to fairly compensate the attorney.
In striking down the mandatory fee schedule as unconstitutional under both Florida’s Constitution and the U.S. Constitution based on due process grounds, the Florida Supreme Court highlighted the fact that Mr. Castellanos’s attorney devoted 107.2 hours of time in successfully securing $822.70 worth of benefits for Mr. Castellanos. However, based on the mandatory fee schedule, the JCC was bound to award a fee of only $164.54, or $1.53 per hour! Clearly, as pointed out by the Court, this fee was not “reasonable” and the statute as presently written prevents injured workers in all cases from challenging the fees awarded to their attorneys. This is untenable since it has a chilling effect on injured workers’ ability to obtain competent counsel in the first place, since what attorney – let alone any worker – is willing to work for $1.53 an hour?
While the Castellanos decision has given injured workers and their attorneys cause for optimism in that workers may now find more attorneys interested in taking on their work comp cases, it is doubtful that the Florida Supreme Court will have the last word on attorney’s fees in the workers’ compensation arena. Indeed, the Court in deference to the Florida Legislature states in its opinion that until the Legislature “acts to cure the constitutional infirmity” of Section 440.34 the predecessor version of the statute as pronounced in the Murray v. Mariner Health, 994 So. 2d 1051 (Fla. 2008) will serve as the starting point in determining a fee due an injured worker’s attorney. That earlier version provides that the claimant is entitled to recover “a reasonable attorney’s fee.” Murray at 1053.
However, what is “a reasonable fee” is not defined in that the statute. Thus, the door is left open as to whether the Florida Legislature (which has not been kind to injured workers and their attorneys) will attempt to define what is a reasonable fee.