In a recent decision, the Florida Supreme Court found that the statutory formula for calculating attorney’s fee awards for disputed workers’ compensation claims is ambiguous and held that the awards should be determined using a multi-factor reasonableness test. Murray v. Mariner Health, No. 07-244, 2008 WL 4659381 (Fla. Oct. 23, 2008).
A judge of compensation claims (“JCC”) found that Ms. Murray’s worker’s compensation claims were compensable, and awarded her $3,244.21 in benefits. Although the parties agreed that section 440.34(3), Florida Statutes, entitled Ms. Murray to an award of reasonable attorney’s fees from her employer, they disagreed on how to calculate the award.
The JCC found under section 440.34(3), Florida Statutes, that a fee award of $16,000 was reasonable, but that the statutory formula in section 440.34(1) governed how awards under section 440.34(3) should be calculated. Subsection (1) provides for attorney’s fee awards to be a percentage of the amount of benefits secured. Accordingly, because Ms. Murray won a modest amount of benefits, the JCC awarded her only $684.84 in attorney’s fees. The fee equated to an hourly rate of $8.11, which even the JCC deemed “manifestly unfair.”
On appeal, the district court affirmed the JCC, but certified the following question to the Florida Supreme Court:
Do the amended provisions of Section 440.34(1), Florida Statutes (2003), clearly and unambiguously establish the percentage fee formula provided therein as the sole standard for determining the reasonableness of an attorney’s fee to be awarded a claimant?
In Murray, the Supreme Court noted that section 440.34(1) requires every attorney’s fee to equal the statutory formula, while subsection (3) authorizes the award of “reasonable” attorney’s fees without reference to subsection (1). The court found that subsections (1) and (3) create an ambiguity not resolved by the legislative history. The court held that where, as here, the workers’ compensation statute provides for a “reasonable attorney’s fee” but does not define the term, the fee is to be calculated under Rule 4-1.5(b) of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar (Fees and Costs for Legal Services). Accordingly, the Court held that the petitioner was entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees, calculated in accord with Rule 4-1.5.