On June 24, 2015, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal reversed a decision by an Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court judge that the “exclusive remedy” provision contained in Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Act is unconstitutional because it does not provide a reasonable alternative remedy to the tort remedy it supplanted. In The State of Florida v. Florida Workers’ Advocates, et al., No. 3D14-2062, the appellate court held that the attorney organizations that raised the constitutional challenge, Florida Workers’ Advocates (FWA) and Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), as well as the injured Miami-Dade County employee, Elsa Padgett, did not have standing to pursue the claim. You can view the opinion here.
The nearly 80-year old statute at issue, Florida Statutes § 440.11, provides that the liability of an employer shall be exclusive and in place of all other liability, including vicarious liability, except in very limited circumstances. Under this provision, employees can rarely sue their employers for injuries they sustain on the job and have no alternative but to seek benefits under the no-fault workers’ compensation system.
The case began in 2011 when Julio Cortes, an employee of Velda Farms, sued his employer for negligence occurring at his workplace. Velda Farms denied the allegations and asserted numerous affirmative defenses, including workers’ compensation immunity. The following year, Mr. Cortes filed an amended complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that §§ 440.09 and 440.11 of the Workers’ Compensation Act are unconstitutional. Subsequently, FWA and WILG intervened as additional plaintiffs. In 2013, Velda Farms dismissed its workers’ compensation immunity affirmative defense. Though Velda Farms argued that the dismissal rendered the declaratory judgment count moot, the trial court granted a motion to sever that count filed by FWA and WILG and directed that the count be re-captioned “In re: An Action for Declaratory Judgment seeking a judgment that s.440.11 Fla. Stat. 2003 is invalid,” with FWA and WILG designated as the “petitioners” and the State of Florida, Office of the Attorney General, which had been mailed a notice of constitutional question pursuant to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.071, as the “respondent.”
Thereafter, Elsa Padgett, a county worker who was allegedly injured on the job in 2012, sought intervention as a new plaintiff in the declaratory judgment action, claiming she needed declaratory relief to determine if workers’ compensation benefits were her exclusive remedy. The trial court granted the motion to intervene and Ms. Padgett then filed a motion for summary judgment as to the constitutionality of Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Law. At no time did Ms. Padgett name the State or the Attorney General as a defendant or serve either with process. The trial court issued an order to show cause why the motion for summary judgment should not be granted, noting that the Attorney General had not responded to the motion for summary judgment. The Attorney General advised the trial court that neither the State nor the Attorney General was a party to the matter. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, finding § 440.11 “constitutionally infirm and invalid.”
In finding the statute unconstitutional, the trial judge stated that the Workers’ Compensation Act may have been a reasonable alternative to tort litigation at one time, but the legislature has gradually reduced the benefits in the Act so that it is no longer a reasonable alternative. As the trial judge noted, the law used to provide for the complete payment of medical bills and some compensation for total or partial disability, but now the Act offers no compensation for permanent partial disability and only pays for a fraction of the medical bills. Because these remedies were removed in the 2003 version of the Act, the trial judge held that it is inadequate as an exclusive replacement remedy for all injured workers.
On appeal, the Third DCA held that Ms. Padgett, FWA, and WILG were precluded from obtaining the relief granted because of mootness and lack of standing. The only defendant served with process related to the declaratory judgment count was Velda Farms, and when it dismissed its workers’ compensation immunity affirmative defense directed to Mr. Cortes, the declaratory count became moot. Moreover, as intervenors, Ms. Padgett, FWA, and WILG took the procedural posture of the case as it stood when they were allowed to intervene. The appellate court noted that generally, a voluntary dismissal by the party asserting a claim will foreclose the rights of an intervenor who wishes to address that claim.
Finding that there was no justiciable case or controversy for the trial court to determine and that the intervenors lacked standing, the Third DCA reversed the summary judgment finding the Florida Workers’ Compensation Law unconstitutional.