FL Supreme Court in Work Comp

                               

Florida workers' compensation has recently seen various supreme court decisions. Perhaps 2016 was most noteworthy, with Castellanos and Westphal. These are seen as significantly impacting the Florida system, and I hear them discussed by "insiders" of workers' compensation across the country. There are those who contend that 2016 was significant as much for First District Court decisions in cases like Miles v. City of Edgewater, 190 So.3d 171 (Fla. 1st DCA 2016) and Jones v. Food Lion, 202 So.3d 964 (Fla. 1st DCA 2016). 

But, the Supreme Court cases have led to conversations. One question I hear repeatedly is "how often does the Florida Supreme Court become involved in workers' compensation disputes?" That is an interesting question. One to which I have had no real answer. It is noteworthy that Florida Supreme Court involvement was more common in the early days of Florida workers' compensation.

As originally structured, the Florida dispute process was within the jurisdiction of a commission, the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC). The Commission was ultimately responsible for deciding disputes. Initially, the IRC held hearings for those disputes. Later, to facilitate that process, it employed "deputy commissioners," which were essentially similar in responsibilities to our modern Judges of Compensation Claims. Those deputies would hold hearings, consider evidence, and render rulings. If a party was unsatisfied with the outcome, it would appeal the decision to the IRC.

After Florida enacted workers' compensation in 1935, the first reference I can find to the Florida Supreme Court is Maryland Casualty v. Sutherland, 168 So.2d 679 (Fla. 1936). It describes that a party dissatisfied with the ruling of the IRC would appeal that decision to the Circuit Court (Florida's court of general jurisdiction). And, if dissatisfied with the Circuit Court decision, the party could then resort to review by the Florida Supreme Court. Of course, there were no other appellate courts in Florida at the time. It would not be until 1957 that the Florida legislature would create three District Courts of Appeal (Florida now has five).

In Sutherland, the Circuit Court affirmed the IRC order of death benefits under the new workers' compensation law (enacted in 1935), following the worker's injury and death on October 6, 1935. Florida was not among the first to legislate workers' compensation. In fact, though Florida was not last (sorry Mississippi), it was in the last five states. Thus, many states had been limiting recovery for injured workers by statutory provision of benefits for years before Sutherland was litigated under Florida's "new law."

The Court in Sutherland noted however that it had been unsuccessful finding any "precedent for us to follow in the law of workmen's (sic) compensation." The Court noted that there was no statutory provision for whom should receive death benefits if a worker died without dependents as Sutherland had. The Court concluded death benefits must be nonetheless payable to the worker's estate. Its analysis was that if no death benefits were payable without dependents, "then industry could seize upon this situation and place such men in the most hazardous places of work, knowing that if they were killed, it would cost industry nothing." Some might find that cynical?

The first constitutional challenge to Florida workers' compensation happened the next month in State ex. rel. Jacksonville Gas Co. v. Lewis, 170 So.2d 306 (Fla. 1936). This was a challenge regarding the title of the law and its contents. The challenger contended section 39 of the act was not as described in the title, and thus unconstitutional. The Supreme Court disagreed and concluded the law did not run afoul of the state constitution. 

Time passed, and Florida workers' compensation evolved. Circuit Court involvement was removed and appeals from the IRC went directly to the Supreme Court. In 1979, the legislature enacted Section 440.217 and vested jurisdiction for workers' compensation appeals in the Florida First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. That designation was affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court in 1980 in Rollins v. Southern Bell, 384 So.2d 650 (Fla 1980). The IRC was later abolished in 1979, the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims (OJCC) was created in the Department of Labor and Employment Security (DLES), and the litigation process remains similar to this day (except for the abolishing of DLES and the transfer of the OJCC to the Division of Administrative Hearings in 2001. 

So, until 1979, the Florida Supreme Court would be expected to have had more frequent involvement in workers' compensation. A database search revealed 337 decisions of the Florida Supreme Court that mentioned either "workers' compensation" or "workmens' compensation." That second one is clearly genderist, and that phrase has now been removed from Chapter 440, but historic decisions might nonetheless use that term. 

Of those 337, 102 are clearly not related to substantive workers' compensation issues. These include various rule revision decisions, Florida Bar complaint decisions, and even a few related to the Florida Birth-Related Neurological Injury Fund. These mention "workers' compensation," and were therefore in the search results but were excluded from the final analysis. The distribution of the remaining 235 reported cases are as follows: 

 

From this cursory analysis (without reading all of the individual cases), one might conclude that 2016 was above average for published Florida Supreme Court decisions mentioning workers' compensation; the average over the last 40 years is 6 per year. Some will read the 2016 cases listed below and conclude some are not appropriately included. But, undertaking that in-depth analysis of any particular year would only be appropriate if such analysis were performed for each of the 235 cases. Since that is not undertaken for all years, that scrutiny of any single year is not appropriate in this "overview" analysis. 

And, one might conclude that Florida Supreme Court published decisions that mention workers' compensation are decreasing in volume. Dividing the last 40 years (since the abolition of the IRC, the advent of First District Court jurisdiction) into four decades affords support for that conclusion. Though the most recent decade included 2018, which is now only half-concluded), the average of 2.5 Supreme Court cases per year is notably lower than any prior ten year period. 

It is thus perhaps difficult to conclude that Florida Supreme Court workers' compensation written decisions are increasing. Certainly, 2016 was above that overall average, with 7 published opinions. However, that volume would nonetheless appear to be an exception for that ten year period, and not the rule. For those who might want to count themselves, the data relied upon is located here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Langham is the Florida Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims. He blogs weekly regarding system issues, regulations and decisions. He has published many articles and delivered more than 1,000 professional speeches.

 

 

 


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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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