A recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court may soon have employers paying substantially more for workers’ compensation insurance. In Castellanos v. Next Door Company, the Court ruled that Florida’s mandatory workers’ compensation attorney fee schedule is unconstitutional. In response to this ruling, the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) proposed increasing Florida’s workers’ compensation rates by 17.1%.
Under Florida Statute 440.34, attorneys who successfully secure workers’ compensation benefits for injured clients may be awarded attorneys’ fees. However, any attorney fee award, which is based on the amount of workers’ compensation benefits secured, must equal:
- 20 percent of the first $ 5,000;
- 15 percent of the next $ 5,000;
- 10 percent of any remaining benefits that will be provided during the first 10 years after the claim is filed; and
- 5 percent of any benefits secured after 10 years.
In Castellanos, the Florida Supreme Court considered whether this mandatory fee schedule is constitutional.
Marvin Castellanos suffered an injury on the job. The workers’ compensation insurance company refused to authorize the medical treatment recommended by its own designated doctor and raised twelve affirmative defenses to avoid paying compensation. After a final hearing, the Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) ruled entirely in Mr. Castellanos’ favor.
Mr. Castellanos’ attorney spent 107 hours working on the case and requested an award of attorneys’ fees calculated at $350 per hour. Despite finding this request to be reasonable and warranted, the JCC was required to follow Florida’s mandatory fee schedule. Based on the actual value of the benefits secured, Mr. Castellanos’ attorney was awarded fees in the amount of $164.54, or $1.53 per hour.
The Court noted that the mandatory fee schedule does not consider the reasonableness of a fee and does not permit the review of grossly inadequate or grossly excessive fees. “Without the ability of the attorney to present, and the JCC to determine, the reasonableness of the fee award and to deviate where necessary, the risk is too great that the fee award will be entirely arbitrary, unjust, and grossly inadequate.” Accordingly, the Court ruled that Section 440.34 is unconstitutional.
As a result, the statute’s immediate predecessor, which was construed to provide for a “reasonable” award of attorney’s fees, was essentially revived. Though the statutory fee schedule remains the starting point for calculating fees, claimants must now be allowed to present evidence to show that its application will result in an unreasonable fee.
Though the Court emphasized that its ruling does not mean that claimants’ attorneys will receive a windfall, insurance companies disagreed. On May 27, 2016, NCCI, which is a licensed rating organization authorized to submit workers’ compensation insurance rate filings on behalf of Florida insurance companies, submitted a proposed rate increase to the Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR).
According to NCCI, the first year impact of Castellanos will be a 15% increase in overall Florida workers compensation system costs. (The total proposed rate increase of 17.1% includes factors that are not related to Castellanos.) NCCI proposes applying the increased rates to new and renewal policies that are effective on or after August 1, 2016. NCCI also proposes applying the increased rates to all policies in effect on August 1, 2016 on a pro-rata basis through the remainder of the term of these policies.
If NCCI’s proposal is approved, Florida would have the highest workers’ compensation rates in the Southeast. The OIR plans to hold a public hearing regarding NCCI’s proposed rate increase in the coming months, so stay tuned.
Even if the OIR approves all or part of NCCI’s proposed rate increase, there are ways to lower workers’ compensation insurance costs, such as promoting employee safety and maintaining a safe work environment.
Please contact us if you would like more information about controlling workers’ compensation insurance costs.
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