On October 23, 2013, in the case Castellanos v. Nextdoor Company, et. al., Florida’s First District Court of Appeal (“First DCA”) affirmed the JCC’s award of attorney’s fees to claimant’s counsel in the amount of $164.54, representing a percentage of the benefits secured as provided under the statutory guidelines set forth in Florida Statutes Section 440.34. The claimant’s attorney in Castellanos incurred 107.2 hours of professional time towards the benefits secured, which equates to a fee recovery of $1.53 per hour. The claimant argued that the guideline fee was inadequate and challenged the constitutionality of the fee cap provision.
Under the current statutory framework, for dates of accident post July 1, 2009, claimant’s attorneys are strictly limited to fees equaling a percentage of benefits secured, or in limited situations, an hourly fee not to exceed $1,500.00, based on a maximum hourly rate of $150.00 per section 440.34. Despite constitutional challenges, the First DCA held that section 440.34 was constitutional on its face and as applied, but, nonetheless, certified the following to the Florida Supreme Court as a question of great public importance:
Whether the award of attorney’s fees in [Castellanos] is adequate, and consistent with the access to courts, due process, equal protection, and other requirements of the Florida and [United States] constitution.
Proponents of Castellanos argue that the current fee cap can result in inadequate attorney’s fees awards such as in the situation of Mr. Castellanos’ attorney. Due to the substantive nature of the attorney’s fee provision in section 440.34, claimant’s attorneys may still seek an upward deviation from the statutory guidelines in exceptional situations for dates of accidents prior to July 1, 2009. Advocates of the current fee cap maintain that the former, more liberal standard encourages litigation and increases workers’ compensation costs, while critics contend that the fee cap may reduce the deterrent effect of large attorney’s fee’s awards. Despite the obvious monetary repercussions and policy concerns, the question remains whether the limits imposed by the Florida Legislature violate provisions of the Florida and United States Constitutions, including access to courts, due process, and equal protection.
Notably, the Florida Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction in Castellanos on March 13, 2014, the same day it ruled in Estate of McCall v. United States, 39 Fla. L. Weekly S104 (Fla. 2014), a case in which the Court found Florida’s caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice claims unconstitutional. In addition, the Florida Supreme Court previously accepted jurisdiction in Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, a case dealing with statutory provision of benefits under the Florida Workers Compensation Act, which is set for oral arguments on June 5, 2014. Although it is debatable what bearing the Supreme Court’s recent activity may have on the Castellanos decision, one thing is certain, the Court is poised to address the constitutionality of the statutory provision of benefits in Westphal, and the attorney’s fee cap in Castellanos, cases which may possibly have a considerable repercussions on Florida workers’ compensation law.