The Florida Supreme Court Again

There was a time when the Florida workers' compensation community was fixated upon the Florida Supreme Court. There was significant interest and speculation aboutCastellanos v. Next Door Co., 192 So. 3d 431 (Fla. 2016) and Westphal v. St. Petersburg, 194 So. 3d 311 (Fla. 2016). It was a time of constitutionality discussions, conjectures, and educational presentations. There were criticisms about workers' compensation, statutes, and process. Castellanos is discussed in Castellanos is Decided by the Supreme Court,Constitutional Law in Florida 2016, and Another Look at Castellanos. Westphal is discussed in Westphal is over, Questions RemainStare Decisis, GoodgameLivingood, and Westphal, and Micro Versus Macro Analysis

In 2016, the Court decided both cases after significant time. Castellanos was decided by the Court April 28, 2016, and it was filed October 31, 2013. That is 910 days, about two and one-half years. Westphal was decided on June 9, 2016 and was filed October 21, 2013. That is 962 days, just over two and one-half years. In fairness, there are those who find the issues in both cases to be significantly complex. But, the point is that such decisions take time. 

That timing came to mind recently as two potentially significant cases have been introduced to the Florida Supreme Court, Abreu and Valcourt-Williams. I say "introduced" because it remains uncertain that the Court will actually review either. There is a process by which a party seeks review by the Supreme Court. In that effort, the party describes to the Court why the Court should hear the case. 
There are various grounds that afford the Court the authority to review a case, but there are few instances in which the Court is obligated to review a case. See Florida Constitution, Article V., Section 3 ("shall" applies to death penalty cases, District Court decisions "declaring invalid a state statute or a provision of the state constitution," "final judgments" regarding "validation of bonds or certificates of indebtedness," "action of statewide agencies relating to rates or service of utilities," and certain advisory opinions when requested by the Attorney General. 
The majority of instances are instead referred to as "discretionary," stated in the Constitution as the Court "may" hear various cases. Two of the "may" are direct conflict among district cases and "expressly declares valid." Thus, what has occurred in these cases so far is a party has asked the Court to review. Those who remember Castellanos and Westphal may also remember Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital, and Padgett v. State of Florida, and even Brock v. State of Florida. The Florida Supreme Court was asked to review each of these three, but declined. The Florida Supreme Court in Workers' Compensation is not notably active; this analysis concluded that the Court has averaged about 6 workers' compensation decisions per year since 1979. 
The names Abreu and Valcourt-Williams should be somewhat familiar to the reader. Abreu v. Riverland Elementary (1D17-2755, 16-019165) was discussed in June 2019 in A Constitutional Challenge Denied. This is a challenge alleging first that a judge erred by following the statute and various appellate decisions regarding the effect of an Expert Medical Advisor opinion. The appellant (the party that appealed in the District Court), or "petitioner" (the party petition the Supreme Court to review) is the injured worker. 
Ms. Abreu contends that the Legislature that created workers' compensation does not have the authority to define how the system will work. She contends that such statutory procedural direction conflicts with both the statutory grant to the OJCC of the power to enact procedural rules, and with the constitutional maxim of separation of powers. The petitioner urges that the Court review this pursuant to one of the "may" provisions of Article V., specifically section (3) which says the court "May review any decision of a district court of appeal that expressly declares valid a state statute."
Valcourt-Williams v. Sedgwick is not a Constitutional challenge at all. The petitioner in this case alleges that the recent en banc decision of the Florida First District Court of Appeal in April 2019 is in conflict with other precedent. As such, she seeks review of the Court under Article V., section (3): "that expressly and directly conflicts with a decision of another district court of appeal or of the supreme court on the same question of law." Readers may remember Valcourt-Williams from Personal Comfort? Testing Compensability. It was also discussed later in Watching us, Help or Hindrance and Another Fall Case
The District Court decided Valcourt-Williams en banc (all the judges instead of the more usual panel of three judges). There was a lengthy dissent to the decision. Essentially, the issue for determination will be whether particular injuries may be non-compensable because the injury itself, or the circumstances in which it occurred, lack connection to the work an employee was performing or hired to perform. 
It is too early, of course, for any conjecture on the potential these decisions might have for the Court accepting jurisdiction. As discussed in Express and Direct Conflict, there are those who perceive the Court as recently narrowing what constitutes conflict. That is not a change in what the community perceives as conflict, but more a perhaps stricter perception of the Court.  Perhaps the jurisdictional decision in Valcourt-Williams will provide further explanation of that current perception. If the Court declines jurisdiction, the finality of these two petitions will be known sooner. If jurisdiction is accepted, however, it may be many months before the ultimate outcome is known.

What the effort illustrates is that there will continue to be some desire of parties for the Supreme Court to review workers' compensation cases. Whether these two cases become the community focus as Castellanos and Westphal did, or fade from our view as Stahl and Padgett did remains to be seen. But, for now the market will watch and wait to see if jurisdiction is accepted. 
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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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