First District Court of Appeal Confirms Attorney’s Fees Are Limited to Percentage of Benefits Obtained in Workers’ Compensation Cases
Jul 1, 2011
In Kauffman v. Community Inclusions, Inc./Guarantee Insurance Co., 57 So. 3d 919 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011), the First District Court of Appeal confirmed that the workers’ compensation statute, section 440.34, Fla. Stat., limits claimants’ attorney’s fees to a percentage of benefits obtained based on a statutory formula.
Previously, in 2008, the Supreme Court of Florida issued an opinion in Murray v. Mariner Health, 994 So. 2d 1051 (Fla. 2008), which concluded that reasonable attorney’s fees for claimants were to be determined using the factors set forth in the rule of professional conduct governing attorneys’ fees, rather than using the statutory formula. In turn, the Court disapproved of prior decisions in Lundy v. Four Seasons Ocean Grand Palm Beach, 932 So. 2d 506 (Fla. 1st DCA 2006), Campbell v. Aramark, 933 So. 2d 1255 (Fla. 1st DCA 2006), and Wood v. Florida Rock Industries, 929 So. 2d 542 (Fla. 1st DCA 2006), rev. denied, 935 So. 2d 1221 (Fla. 2006). This is in part based on the fact that the previous version of section 440.34, Fla. Stat., included the language that claimants’ attorneys were entitled to “reasonable” attorney’s fees. In reaction to Murray, the Florida Legislature enacted Council Substitute for House Bill 903, which took effect on July 1, 2009. This law amended section 440.34, Fla. Stat., by deleting “reasonable” before “attorney’s fees” and inserting the phrase “in an amount equal to the amount provided for in subsection (1) or subsection (7).”
In Kauffman, the claimant argued that attorney’s fees may exceed the statutory fees when such fees are “awarded” rather than merely “approved” by the judge of compensation claims. Even though fees may not be paid to a claimant unless approved by the judge of compensation claims, the court rejected this argument in that the section 440.34, Fla. Stat., explicitly provides that a claimant is entitled to recover a fee “in an amount equal to the amount provided for in subsection (1) or subsection (7).” Therefore, the fee must be determined based on the statutory formula. The court also rejected the claimant’s equal protection, due process, separation of powers, and access to courts challenges to the amended statute as the court already rejected these arguments in Lundy, which was not affected by Supreme Court of Florida’s decision in Mariners Health to disapprove of Lundy. As a result, attorney’s fees in workers’ compensation claims are limited to a percentage of benefits obtained according to the statutory formula.
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