The Florida Supreme Court Rules on Claimants’ Entitlement to Attorney Fee Awards in Workers’ Compensation Cases
In October of 2003, the Florida Legislature made significant amendments to the state statute (Chapter 440, section 440.34) governing attorney fee awards in workers’ compensation cases. Specifically, the Legislature deleted reference to consideration of the “reasonable fee” factors formerly provided for in the statute. Reasonableness was determined in accordance with the customary hourly rate paid to attorneys in workers’ compensation cases and the complexity of the issues in each individual case and of workers’ compensation law. Since the modification of the statute, however, claimant’s attorneys have not been entitled to a reasonable fee in workers’ compensation cases.
Recently, the Florida Supreme Court had occasion to review the statute governing attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases in Murray v. Mariner Health and ACE USA. If attorney fees were determined on the basis of the formula set out in the post-2003 version of the statute, the petitioner in Murray would have been entitled to an attorney fee award of merely $8 an hour for her attorney, who worked approximately eighty hours on the case. Prior to the Murray case, Florida courts were upholding attorney fee awards for as little as $6 an hour. Petitioner’s counsel presented evidence showing that the usual rate of pay for attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases was $200 an hour. Unsurprisingly, attorney fee awards determined in accordance with the post-2003 version of the statute are manifestly unfair and place future claimants at a great disadvantage because many injured parties would be unable to obtain counsel if there was no prospect for the attorney to be reasonably compensated. Further, workers’ compensation claimants are unable to represent themselves against an employer/carrier who wrongly denied benefits because of the complexity of the law and the issues involved.
In Murray, the Florida Supreme Court found it unclear why the Legislature deleted reference to the reasonable fee factors which had been included in earlier revisions of the statute. Although the court did note that judges who hear workers’ compensation claims must be vigilant to award only those fees that are necessary and reasonable, the court held that claimants are entitled to a reasonable attorney fee award. In determining the reasonableness of an attorney fee award, the judge should consider 1) the time and labor required, 2) the novelty, complexity, and difficulty of the questions involved, and 3) the skill required to perform the legal services properly in accordance with the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar. Ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court adjusted the petitioner’s attorney fee award from less than $700 upwards to $16,000. While the Murray case appears to be a victory for plaintiffs’ lawyers, it remains to be seen just how courts will interpret the meaning of “reasonable” in the context of workers’ compensation attorney fee awards.
The skilled Florida attorneys at Rue & Ziffra, P.A., have the experience and knowledge that enables them to quickly and effectively assist their clients when they suffer on the job injuries. Our workers compensation attorneys look forward to securing reasonable attorney fee awards in future workers’ compensation cases.
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