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Florida Supreme Court rejects challenge to workers-compensation system

Published Dec. 23, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court has turned down a lawsuit that questioned the constitutionality of the state's workers-compensation insurance system — though the system continues to face three other closely watched challenges at the high court.

Justices late Tuesday declined to take up a Miami-Dade County case that threatened the longstanding concept that disputes involving injured workers should be handled through the workers-compensation system instead of through civil lawsuits.

The one-page decision, however, did not explain the court's reasoning or take a position on the constitutional issue. The 3rd District Court of Appeal in June ruled that plaintiffs did not have legal standing to pursue the case, which had what state attorneys described in a brief as a "byzantine procedural history."

The 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned a 2014 ruling by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jorge Cueto, who found that the workers-compensation law preventing cases from going to civil trial was unconstitutional, at least in part because of legislative changes in 2003 that reduced benefits. The appeals court did not rule on the constitutional issue.

The case originally involved Julio Cortes, who alleged he was injured in 2010 while operating equipment for Velda Farms LLC. The constitutional issue was later dismissed from the Cortes dispute, but the challenge continued with the involvement of two legal groups that had intervened in the case — Florida Workers' Advocates and Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group — and Elsa Padgett, an injured Miami-Dade County worker.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled the two groups and Padgett could not pursue the constitutional question in the case. It said, in part, that the issue became moot when it was dismissed in the Velda Farms dispute. Similarly, it found that the two groups and Padgett did not have standing to pursue the constitutional question.

An attorney for Padgett and the two legal groups asked the Supreme Court to take up the case, filing a brief in July that focused on the constitutional issue.

Florida's workers-compensation system is designed as a sort of tradeoff: Workers are supposed to receive benefits for on-the-job injuries while not filing potentially expensive and time-consuming lawsuits. But critics, including the plaintiffs in the Miami-Dade case, argue that a 2003 overhaul of the state's workers-compensation laws tilted the system too far toward businesses and insurance companies by reducing benefits for injured workers.

"If the court truly wants a comprehensive review of the current state of the workers' compensation scheme after more than 20 years of amendments eviscerating the benefit structure, this is the case that puts it all together,'' the July brief on behalf of Padgett and the legal groups said.

But lawyers in Attorney General Pam Bondi's office wrote in August that the Supreme Court should not take up the case because the appellate court had not ruled on the constitutional issue.

"This (Supreme) Court does not have jurisdiction to review this case; the 3rd District did not expressly declare valid a state statute,'' the state's brief said. "Indeed, in no uncertain terms, the 3rd District disclaimed any consideration of the merits of the constitutional claims. … Because there is no express declaration of validity, there is no jurisdiction."

Though justices declined to hear the case, groups on both sides are closely watching three other workers-compensation challenges that the court has taken up.

The Supreme Court in October agreed to take up a lawsuit that stems from injuries suffered by Hialeah Hospital nurse Daniel Stahl, who hurt his back lifting a patient. The case centers, in part, on a move by lawmakers in 2003 to eliminate a type of benefits for partial disability.

Justices heard arguments in 2014 in the other cases but have not ruled. One of the cases, which stems from injuries suffered in 2009 by a South Florida man, Marvin Castellanos, during an altercation with another worker at their employer, challenges the constitutionality of limits on attorneys' fees in workers-compensation disputes.

The other case involves injuries suffered in 2009 by St. Petersburg firefighter Bradley Westphal and focuses on a two-year limit on what are known as "temporary total disability" benefits. Westphal received those benefits but then had a gap of several months before he could get permanent benefits.

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