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Supreme Court strikes workers’ comp provision

Senior Editor Regular News

Supreme Court strikes workers’ comp provision

But declines to throw out the whole statute

Senior Editor

For the second time in two months, the Florida Supreme Court has found unconstitutional a section of the state’s workers’ compensation law, but also — with one exception — denied a request to find the entire law unconstitutional.

In a 5-2 decision on June 9, the court struck down a section of the law that limits total disability payments to 104 weeks for an injured worker who is expected to eventually improve. The court, in an opinion written by Justice Barbara Pariente, ordered that the provision of the earlier version of the statute, which provided such benefits for 260 weeks, be imposed in its place.

The case involved St. Petersburg firefighter Bradley Westphal, who injured his back on the job. He went through the maximum 104 weeks of benefits and remained unable to work, but doctors expected him to eventually recover enough to resume employment.

In a strongly worded concurring opinion, Justice Fred Lewis agreed that the 104-week limit was unconstitutional. But he said this is the latest on a long line of cases finding problems with the workers’ compensation law, and it’s time for the Legislature — not the courts — to do something about it.

He said increasing the standard to 260 weeks only “moves the goalposts without eliminating the unconstitutional statutory gap” for workers who are totally but not permanently disabled at that point.

“Over time, the Florida judiciary has repeatedly rewritten provisions of the workers’ compensation law to avoid a declaration of unconstitutionality. No fair-minded individual who reads these decisions can reasonably conclude that they involve simple statutory interpretation,” Lewis wrote.

He noted the First District Court of Appeal had both a panel and en banc decision reaching different conclusions in the case and that the section of law as written plainly leaves totally, but temporarily, disabled workers without compensation after two years and without access to the courts. He also noted the majority opinion, as have other opinions, found that workers’ compensation benefits have been steadily eroded over the years.

“I submit that the time has come for this court to uphold its sacred and constitutional duty and simply apply the words of the Legislature. In lieu of continuing to uphold the workers’ compensation law with rewrites, judicial patches, and flawed analyses, Chapter 440 should be invalidated where defective and the Legislature required to provide a valid, comprehensive program,” Lewis said.

Pariente wrote, “Applying the statute’s plain meaning, we conclude that the 104-week limitation on temporary total disability benefits results in a statutory gap in benefits, in violation of the constitutional right of access to courts. The stated legislative intent of the workers’ compensation law is to ‘assure the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker and to facilitate the worker’s return to gainful reemployment at a reasonable cost to the employer.. . . ’ Section 440.15(2)(a), however, operates in the opposite manner. The statute cuts off a severely injured worker from disability benefits at a critical time, when the worker cannot return to work and is totally disabled but the worker’s doctors — chosen by the employer — deem that the worker may still continue to medically improve.”

But while striking the section, Pariente said, “[W]e conclude that this unconstitutional limitation on temporary total disability benefits does not render the entire workers’ compensation system invalid. Rather, we employ the remedy of statutory revival and direct that the limitation in the workers’ compensation law preceding the 1994 amendments to Section 440.15(2)(a) is revived,” which set temporary total disability compensation at a 260-week maximum.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Peggy Quince and James Perry joined in Pariente’s opinion.

Justice Charles Canady, joined by Justice Ricky Polston, dissented. Canady agreed with the majority that the First DCA en banc opinion impermissibly rewrote the law but disagreed that the provision in question involved an access to the courts claim.

“Here, the challenged statutory provision restructures an existing right of redress. It does not abolish that right. The State argues persuasively that ‘today’s workers’ compensation system allowed Westphal substantially greater temporary total disability benefits than any 1968 [when voters adopted the state’s latest constitution] statutory right provided’ and that ‘[t]he amendment limiting temporary total disability benefits to 104 weeks, therefore, did not “abolish” any pre-existing right,’” Canady wrote.

The court has also been asked to strike down the entire workers’ compensation law in Castellanos v. Next Door Company, et al., case no. SC 13-2082, which limited fees for lawyers representing injured workers. It involved an injured worker who was initially denied, and his attorney spent 107.2 hours pursuing his case, while the employer/carrier raised numerous defenses and paid its attorneys for 122 hours of work. The attorney eventually won around $850 in benefits.

The court struck down the statutory limit in those cases and again restored the provision of the previous statute allowing the awarding of reasonable fees in such cases. (See story in the May 15 Bar News.)

The June 9 decision came in Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, etc., et al., case no. SC 13-1930.