Florida Appeals Court Strikes Cap on Attorney’s Fees in Workers’ Compensation Cases
In a case challenging Florida’s workers’ compensation laws brought by a police officer, with the assistance of the Fraternal Order of Police, the First District Court of Appeals in Florida issued a lengthy 26 page opinion that stuck the cap on attorney’s fees injured workers can pay their attorney’s to represent them, that was first passed by the Florida Legislature in 2003, as unconstitutional. The court ruled the restrictions violate the injured worker’s constitutional rights under the First Amendment which guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to contract, and one’s right to petition for redress
Martha Miles, a law enforcement officer, was employed by the City of Edgewater Police Department when she was injured at work on two separate occasions due to her exposure to chemicals used in drug labs to produce methamphetamines. She had a legally complex exposure case that would take a lawyer of great skill for her to meet her burden of proof of a preponderance of the evidence under Florida law.
But when she attempted to have a Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) approve her and the Fraternal Order of Police’s retainer agreements with the lawyer of her choice the JCC denied her and said that the retainer agreements violated Florida’s workers compensation laws which limit the amount an injured worker can pay their attorney while placing no such restriction on the amount her employer or insurance carrier can pay their lawyer to defend the case against the injured worker/claimant, Ms. Miles. The JCC stated that he was not able to decide if the law is fair and that his job was to enforce the law that was on the books at the time.
After having her requests to hire and pay, her workers compensation lawyer, denied she proceeded to represent herself pro se at a final merits hearing before the JCC and against an experienced and skilled defense attorney hired by her employer where the JCC heard all the evidence and ruled against the injured worker as she failed to provide the court with the evidence necessary to prove her complex exposure case. Even the defense attorney for the employer and insurance carrier admitted that Ms. Miles had a case that was difficult to prove with the assistance of a skilled attorney to represent her and nearly impossible without one.
Rightfully, the First District Court of Appeals held that the Florida law restricting the amount of fees an injured worker can pay his or her attorney to help them after a work related accident were unconstitutional and struck them down. The Court held that the law was an unjustifiable restriction on an injured worker’s right to Free Speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
The Court looked at the law using the “strict scrutiny” standard that states a law must be content neutral, be necessary to promote a compelling state interest and be narrowly drafted to advance the state interest using the least intrusive means possible. The Court then held that the law was not content neutral as the fee restriction only applied to injured workers and not employers or their insurance companies. The Court also held that did not promote a compelling state interest and in fact the law may harm the state’s interest by forcing more people who are wrongfully denied workers’ compensation benefits onto government assistance. The Court further held that the restrictions violated Ms. Miles’ freedom to contract for legal services which is a fundamental right that is one of the most sacrosanct rights guaranteed under United States laws.
This welcomed change in law for Florida’s workers now gives them the right to freely enter into contingency fee contracts that are in accordance with the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar when they are injured at work much like they are able to do when they are injured in a car accident or slip and fall accident.
Author: James D. Payer, Attorney at Law