TALLAHASSEE – The state Supreme Court submitted a brief on June 9 in regards to the Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg case, which involved a challenge to the constitutionality of Florida’s workers’ compensation scheme.
The entire bench in the 1st District Court of Appeal reversed a prior panel’s decision, declaring Florida’s limit for temporary total disability benefits unconstitutional.
The brief explained that when a workers’ compensation claimant remains totally disabled at the end of the period of eligibility for temporary total disability benefits, and is effectively at maximum medical improvement, the claimant must be eligible to bring a permanent total disability claim.
In the Sept. 13, 2013, court document that reversed the initial decision, the courts concluded that they initially interpreted the Workers’ Compensation Law incorrectly and they should recede from the rule they adopted in that case.
“Nothing in the text of the applicable statutory provisions suggests that the Legislature intended to create a gap in which some totally disabled workers will be ineligible to apply for disability benefits,” the document said. “Moreover, the notion that there can be a period of time during which a disabled worker is not entitled to be compensated for his or her workplace injury is contrary to the basic purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Law.”
The document also explained that the Workers’ Compensation Law provides that a disabled worker is eligible for temporary total disability benefits for a maximum of 104 weeks, but it does not suggest that a disabled worker who has reached that limit is no longer entitled to any further disability benefits.
“It is unreasonable to assume that the Legislature meant to create a gap in benefits, during which a disabled worker is not compensated for a disability, even though there is no dispute that the worker is totally disabled,” the document said. “If that were the case, a disabled worker who has exhausted the 104 weeks of temporary benefits, but who has still not fully recovered from the workplace injury, might have to wait months - or perhaps years - before disability benefits would resume, even though the employee remains totally disabled all the while.”
In response, the Florida Justice Reform Institute (FJRI) filed a brief in support of the workman’s compensation scheme’s constitutionality. Despite FJRI’s efforts, the Florida Supreme Court held that the statute ending disability benefits prior to a worker attaining maximum medical improvement was unconstitutional.
“The court's decision will have a direct impact on the mission of The Institute,” the FJRI’s March 2014 response brief said.
In the June 9 brief, the court explained that the statute cuts off a severely injured worker from disability benefits at a critical time, when the worker cannot return to work and is totally disabled, but the worker’s doctors - chosen by the employer - deem that the worker may still continue to medically improve.
“As applied to these circumstances, the workers’ compensation law undoubtedly fails to provide ‘full medical care and wage-loss payments for total or partial disability regardless of fault,’” the brief said. “Instead, for injured workers like Westphal who are not yet legally entitled to assert a claim for permanent total disability benefits at the conclusion of 104 weeks of temporary total disability benefits, the workers’ compensation law lacks adequate and sufficient safeguards and cannot be said to continue functioning as a ‘system of compensation without contest’ that stands as a reasonable alternative to tort litigation.”
Not all judges en banc agreed with the majority decision, saying that the court’s judgment was a full rewrite of the Workers’ Compensation law. Despite these dissents, the 2016 brief is on record and reinforced the court’s 2013 decision.