ISSUE: Whether section 440.34 Florida Statutes, recently modified by the Florida Supreme Court in Castellanos v. Next Door Company, et al. (Fla., 2016), should be amended to eliminate insurance carrier-paid reasonable attorney’s fees.
DISCUSSION: In 2009, the Florida Legislature barred judges of workers’ compensation claims (JCC) from awarding reasonable carrier-paid hourly fees to the lawyers of injured workers who were successful in securing benefits for their clients. The legislature limited the allowable fee to the following statutory formula: 20 percent of the first $5,000 of the amount of the benefits secured, 15 percent of the next $5,000 of the amount of the benefits secured, 10 percent of the remaining amount of the benefits secured to be provided during the first 10 years after the date the claim is filed, and 5 percent of the benefits secured after 10 years. Section 440.34(1) Florida Statutes.
Because most of the day-to-day workers’ compensation benefits are of low value, the attorney’s fee under the statutory formula for the successful prosecution of a claim for such benefits is correspondingly low. For example, the formula fee for securing the authorization of a $1,000 MRI is $200.
In Castellanos v. Next Door Company, et al. (Fla., 2016), the Florida Supreme Court declared unconstitutional, as a violation of due process under the Florida and United States constitutions, the provisions of 440.34 restricting fees to the statutory formula. The ruling allows workers’ compensation judges to award reasonable fees based on an hourly rate. After seven long years injured workers have a fighting chance to receive all benefits that are due and owing. Unfortunately, there are some individuals within the business community who seek to reverse the effects of the Castellanos ruling through legislative action.
The carrier-pays provisions of section 440.34(3) which open the door to the reasonable hourly rates are triggered by the following limited circumstances: (1) the successful prosecution of a medical-only claim; (2) the successful prosecution of a claim after the carrier has denied the benefit; or (3) the successful prosecution of a claim after the carrier has denied that an accident occurred.
Hence, whether a carrier ever becomes obligated to pay a reasonable hourly fee is a matter entirely within its control.