February 20, 2006
The First District Court of Appeals (“First DCA”) issued an opinion on February 13 in Woods v. Florida Rock Industries, which upheld the attorney fee reforms of the 2003 workers’ compensation law. AIF General Counsel, Mary Anne Stiles, led the Coalition of Business and Industry for several years to gain the passage of much needed reforms which have given Florida employers an average workers’ compensation rate decrease of over 25% since its implementation.
One of the most heavily fought reforms by the trial bar and one of the primary factors for the success of this legislation was the elimination of hourly rate attorney fees in most workers’ compensation cases. Under the new law, only a percentage of benefits secured on behalf of the injured worker can be awarded as an attorney fee. One exception is a one time hourly fee for medical only cases of up to $1500.
The First DCA upheld the validity of the new law and ruled that for accidents after October 1, 2003, an attorney fee cannot be awarded based upon just the claimant’s attorney’s hours. The Court stated, “All approved fees must equal a statutorily enumerated percentage based on the value of the benefits secured on behalf of the Claimant. Therefore, a JCC may approve a fee as “reasonable” only when it equals a statutorily established percentage of the value of benefits secured on behalf of the Claimant.” (emphasis added).
The Court stated there was no question the changes to the statute were intended by the legislature to remove a judge’s ability to grant attorney’s fees in excess of the statutory percentage in most cases. In so stating, the Court noted attorney fees are “no longer based on services rendered, but instead [are] based on the value of benefits secured on behalf of the claimant.”
The ruling is a true victory for Florida’s employers. Since the law’s passage, the trial bar has filed several appeals attempting to overturn the attorney fee provision or have the reforms interpreted in a manner which would still allow them to get fees based upon their hours. Those other cases still working their way through the appellate process and seek to attack this important law for Florida business. At present, there are at least five other cases challenging the attorney fee reforms on various theories. To date, AIF has appeared as Amicus Curiae in three of those cases urging the result reached in this case. Rayford Taylor, partner at Stiles Taylor Grace, AIF’s general counsel firm, represents AIF in all these cases.
AIF is proud to stand with the business leaders of this state to continue to protect the workers’ compensation system which is a vital link to the continued economic growth and development of this state.