The Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this month in a case that asks whether fee caps for those who represent employees in workers’ compensation laws are legal.

balance2The case before the court is Castellanos v. Next Door Company, and it goes to the very heart of fairness in workers’ compensation proceedings.

While it may seem irrelevant to you what your lawyer is paid, here’s why it matters: In some cases, attorneys are making far less than minimum wage to represent workers, while employer attorneys are not limited by what they can be paid by their clients.

Our Fort Myers work injury lawyer know this has the potential to create a serious imbalance in the courtroom.

In the instant case, the workers’ compensation attorney representing an employee who suffered a work-related injury obtained an award for his client of $822, which the employer initially denied. Because fee caps limit the percentage the lawyer is allowed to collect, he was only awarded $165 for his 107 hours of service. That breaks down to $1.53 an hour.

Just to give you a comparison, an entry-level minimum wage high school student at the local fast-food chain makes $7.93 an hour by law in Florida.

As a result, the Judge of Compensation Claims, who noted the workers’ compensation attorney was skilled and worked hard on the case, certified it to the First District Court of Appeal. The appellate court affirmed the ruling of the JCC, but certified the question of attorney fee awards to the Florida Supreme Court. Specifically, the question is whether the fees are adequate and constitutional with regard to guaranteeing access to the courts.

Indeed, if an attorney knows he or she will not be paid a fair rate for his or her work, what incentive is there to take such cases? That directly limits worker access to the courts in cases where employers deny their claims.

The state Legislature passed sweeping reforms to the workers’ compensation system in 2003 – including the attorney award caps. It should come as no surprise that since then, the rates of workers’ compensation claims has plummeted by more than 50 percent. Even worse, the Office of Insurance Regulation last month agreed to reduce those fees even further.

The state high court has weighed this issue before. Back in 2008 with the case of Murray v. Mariner Health. But rather than deciding the issue of constitutionality, the court focused on the ambiguity of the statute that called for strict fee rate structures, while also demanding the amounts be “reasonable.” The pro-business legislature at the time simply struck the word “reasonable” from the law in 2009.

As it now stands, workers’ compensation lawyers are entitled to 20 percent of the first $5,000 secured, 15 percent of the next $5,000 and then 10 percent of the remaining amount in the 10 years from the date the claim was filed and 5 percent in the years after that.

It seems highly plausible the courts will be swayed in favor of workers, if its March 2014 ruling on non-economic damage fee caps in wrongful death cases is any indication. There, justices ruled such caps were unconstitutional.

Justices were scheduled to hear the Castellanos case Nov. 5, 2014.

If you have been a victim of a work accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Castellanos v. Next Door Company, Amicus Brief, Jan. 21, 2014, Florida Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Curtis v. Lemna – Co-Worker Causes Crash, Workers’ Compensation is Remedy, Nov. 4, 2014, Fort Myers Work Injury Lawyer Blog