Battle goes on over fee limits for Workers Comp lawyers

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Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida reports the Florida Supreme Court has declined to take up a closely watched challenge to a law limiting attorneys’ fees in workers-compensation cases, giving at least a tentative victory to businesses.

But a leader of the Florida Justice Association, a powerful trial-lawyers group, said Thursday he expects to see a wide range of new legal challenges to the workers-compensation system. Association treasurer Paul Anderson said the “gloves are off” after the Supreme Court’s decision.

“It is a system that is completely bankrupt,” said Anderson, a Tallahassee attorney who represents injured workers.

Tamela Perdue, general counsel of the business group Associated Industries of Florida, said she would not be surprised if trial lawyers launch more challenges. But she said the system, which was overhauled in 2003, can legally withstand the challenges and is working well.

“People are going back to work,” Perdue said. “People are getting medical care and attention they need.”

The Supreme Court decision, issued July 27, stemmed from a Charlotte County case. Lawmakers approved strict fee limits as part of the 2003 system overhaul and, after a court challenge, made a tweak before re-imposing them in 2009.

Justices did not give a reason for the decision, so it is not clear whether they view the fee limits as constitutional or rejected the case for some other reason. The 1st District Court of Appeal upheld the limits earlier this year.

“Quite frankly, I don’t know the logic behind the Supreme Court’s decision,” Anderson said.
But Perdue, who has long been involved in workers-compensation issues, said she thinks the court was sending a “signal” about the constitutionality of the fee limits.

Lawmakers approved the limits as part of a package that reduced workers-compensation insurance costs for businesses. But critics contend the limits make it harder for injured workers to find attorneys to represent them in disputes about benefits.

The law bases attorneys’ fees on the amount of benefits that are awarded to an injured worker. Fees are 20 percent of the first $5,000 in benefits; 15 percent of the next $5,000 in benefits; and either 10 percent or 5 percent of additional benefits, depending on the length of time involved.Such fee limits do not apply to lawyers who represent employers or their insurance companies.In the Charlotte County case, a judge ruled that injured worker Jennifer Kauffman should receive $3,417 in benefits after a dispute with her employer and its insurance company.Kauffman’s lawyers reported working 100 hours on the case, but the fee limits restricted the amount they could be paid to $684 — or $6.84 an hour. While the judge in the case awarded that amount, he also wrote that reasonable fees would be $250 an hour, or $25,000.

Business and trial-lawyer groups have watched the Kauffman case because it is the first challenge to reach the Supreme Court since lawmakers re-imposed the fee limits in 2009.

Anderson, who has been part of discussions within the Florida Justice Association, said he expects to see what he described as a “multi-faceted attack on the system.” He said that could include state and federal legal challenges to various parts of the system, not just attorneys’ fees.

“I think you’re going to see it coming from all corners of the globe,” Anderson said.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.