Saturday, December 20, 2014

Workers' Compensation Section: Court Says Florida Workers’ Comp Law Is Unconstitutional; Legislature Cheated Injured Workers

By Warren K. Sponsler

That was the headline in the Miami Herald on Thursday, August 14, and similar headlines in other newspapers throughout the state. The Florida Workers’ Compensation Law is unconstitutional. The Legislature has cheated the state’s injured workers. Such a ruling will obviously have a dramatic impact on employers, insurance carriers, injured workers, and attorneys … or will it?

The article featured in the Miami Herald and other publications involved a ruling by Circuit Court Judge Jorge E. Cueto, sitting on the bench in Miami-Dade County in the Circuit Court of the Eleventh Circuit. The ruling was actually issued on the basis of an order on an amended motion for summary judgment.

First and foremost, it should be noted that the order issued by Judge Cueto did not arise from a workers’ compensation hearing. In Florida, the Division of Administrative Hearings and, more specifically, the Office of the Judges of Compensation Claims, has exclusive jurisdiction over the adjudication of workers’ compensation claims. The matter in which Judge Cueto issued a ruling stemmed from a claim brought by Elsa Padgett, who was a Miami-Dade County government office worker. The case, formally styled as Padgett v. State of Florida, Office of the Attorney General, arose from an injury suffered by Padgett when she tripped over boxes left on the floor by a co-worker on January 27, 2012. The facts of the case show that Padgett suffered a significant injury that resulted in a shoulder replacement surgery. Rather than pursue benefits through the workers’ compensation system, Padgett filed a negligence personal injury lawsuit against her employer. The suit was filed in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court in Miami-Dade County, which was the appropriate venue for Padgett’s personal injury claim. As one might suspect, Padgett’s employer immediately defended the case on the basis of immunity, asserting that workers’ compensation benefits were the sole remedy available to Padgett based upon section 440.11, Florida Statutes, also known as the “exclusivity” provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act.

As it stands now, the result of the order entered in Miami-Dade County is that section 440.11 has been declared unconstitutional, meaning that the Workers’ Compensation Act should no longer be the exclusive remedy for injured workers. In fact, the court found that the exclusivity provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; the Access to Court’s Provision of Article I, Section 21, of the Florida Constitution; the Florida Constitution’s right to trial by jury; and the Florida Constitution’s right to be rewarded for industry.

Although some will certainly view the order granting the amended motion for summary final judgment a victory for injured workers, in the end, its application will likely be limited. This is primarily due to the fact that the Florida Supreme Court is the ultimate authority on issues involving constitutionality. It seems unlikely that the immunity provisions of the act will be invalidated, but there are two other challenges to provisions of the act before the Supreme Court that are likely to be decided soon. Although it is clear that the headline is dramatic, it is equally as clear that the immunity provision remains valid elsewhere in the state and has not yet been stricken by the Florida Supreme Court. Regardless, this will certainly be an interesting year in Florida workers’ compensation and likely an issue that will not be put to rest for many years to come.