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Florida Work Comp Comes Full Circle

The recent Florida 11th Judicial Circuit Court decision in Florida Workers Advocates v. State of Florida, No. 11-13661-CA25 (2014) written by Circuit Court Judge Jorge Cueto, represents, in essence, a constitutional challenge to workers’ compensation that has come full circle. While during the early part of the 20th century there were a host of challenges to state workers’ compensation systems by employers, it has taken almost a century for workers to raise their own constitutional claims.

The interest in this case that has been triggered across the country should be tempered by the fact that this is a trial court level opinion and that the Florida Supreme Court already has a constitutional challenge to the workers’ compensation system on its docket. This latest case, undoubtedly, will be added to the appellate mix. (See: Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, Case No. 1D12-3563)

As part of the reform process, stakeholders in every state workers’ compensation system have to come to grips with issues that require revisiting the original bargain. The inciting incident is inevitably the high cost to employers and the perceived abuses in the system by lawyers, medical providers and others. Seldom is the issue whether injured workers are being paid too much per se in terms of impairment or temporary or permanent indemnity benefits.

The challenge to the courts, whether in Florida or anywhere else, is to not sit in judgment over what is fundamentally a legislative decision. As stated by the California Court of Appeal more than a decade ago, “…policy concerns, expressed in a parade of horribles—delay or denial of benefits, delay in employees’ return to work, litigation explosion, increased claims costs, increased strain on government benefit programs, defense solicitation of ‘bought’ medical opinions—are better addressed to the legislature.” Lockheed Martin Corp. v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (2002) 96 Cal.App.4th 1237, 1249, 117 Cal.Rptr.2d 865. When the legislature enacts changes to the workers’ compensation system, it is not up to the courts to overturn such actions based on whether they comport with the courts’ version of what a good workers’ compensation system ought to be. As the California Court of Appeals also stated:

“The judiciary, in reviewing statutes enacted by the legislature, may not undertake to evaluate the wisdom of the policies embodied in such legislation; absent a constitutional prohibition, the choice among competing policy considerations in enacting laws is a legislative function.” Bautista v. State of California (2011)201 Cal.App.4th 716, 733.

Even though Judge Cueto cited New York Central R. Co. v. White 243 U.S. 188 (1917), a decision arising from when New York’s system came under immediate scrutiny almost a century ago, to support his finding that exclusive remedy was now unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court in that case also found:

“If the employee is no longer able to recover as much as before in case of being injured through the employer’s negligence, he is entitled to moderate compensation in all cases of injury, and has a certain and speedy remedy without the difficulty and expense of establishing negligence or proving the amount of the damages. Instead of assuming the entire consequences of all ordinary risks of the occupation, he assumes the consequences, in excess of the scheduled compensation, of risks ordinary and extraordinary. On the other hand, if the employer is left without defense respecting the question of fault, he at the same time is assured that the recovery is limited, and that it goes directly to the relief of the designated beneficiary.”  White 243 U.S. at 201 (1917)

The Court in White set out the boundaries for any constitutional analysis of a state workers’ compensation system when it said, in dicta, “This, of course, is not to say that any scale of compensation, however insignificant on the one hand or onerous on the other, would be supportable.”

That language underscores the wide range of actions a state legislature may take when creating and changing benefits in a workers’ compensation system and how best they are to be delivered. Such discretion – and deference – is at the heart of the concept of separation of powers.

Judge Cueto held that the Florida legislature has crossed this constitutional Rubicon. It will be up to the Florida Supreme Court, ultimately, to decide on which side of the bank its workers’ compensation is now docked.