For as long as our law firm has been handling Florida workers’ compensation cases, the amount injured workers’ attorneys may receive as a fee has always been a hot topic. The two main factors driving the conversation are the injured workers’ share of a recovery, typically through a settlement, and limiting litigation. While the Florida Legislature pays lip service to the first factor, the second factor is the actual driving force.
Since 1998, when Republicans, with the election of Jeb Bush as governor, took full total control of the lawmaking process in Florida, the workers’ compensation laws have been tailored to make it difficult for lawyers representing injured workers (a/k/a “claimants”) to earn a sustainable income. The stated policy of the laws has been couched as promoting a greater share of recovered proceeds allocated to claimants instead of attorneys’ fees, but the silent truth is to make it difficult for claimants to hire lawyers willing and able to fight toe-to-toe against employers and their workers’ compensation insurance carriers. Bottom line: There is nothing Big Business hates more than pipsqueaks, i.e., injured workers, being able to challenge them on a level playing field. They want the field tilted in their favor.
The most famous example of this blatant abuse came to a head in Castellanos v. Next Door Company, 192 So.3d 431 (Fla. 2016). Marvin Castellanos was injured while working with Next Door Company. With the help of an attorney, Castellanos prevailed in his workers’ compensation claim, after the attorney successfully refuted numerous defenses raised by the employer and its insurance carrier. However, because the statute then in effect limited his ability to recover attorney’s fees to a sliding scale based on the amount of workers’ compensation benefits obtained, the fee awarded to Castellanos’ successful attorney amounted to only $1.53 per hour for 107.2 hours of work.
The Florida Supreme Court found the statute, which essentially became effective in 2003, unconstitutional. It understood that the statute was designed to make it difficult for injured workers to engage competent legal counsel. Citing Davis v. Keeto, Inc., 463 So. 2d 368 (Fla. 1st DCA 1985) (quoting Neylon v. Ford Motor Co., 99 A.2d 664, 665 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1953)) the court noted that a claimant proceeding “without the aid of competent counsel” would be as “helpless as a turtle on its back.” At 371.