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Business Groups Oppose Fla. Workers' Comp Law Challenge

By Carolina Bolado

Law360, Miami (January 11, 2016, 9:30 PM ET) -- Florida business and insurance organizations on Friday backed Hialeah Hospital in its fight against a former nurse challenging the state workers' compensation law, urging the Florida Supreme Court to declare the law constitutional.

In three amicus briefs filed on behalf of the hospital, groups like Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Retail Federation told the Supreme Court it should apply the rational basis test, and not strict scrutiny as requested by nurse Daniel Stahl, when determining whether the workers' compensation statute is constitutional.

Strict scrutiny, which requires a law to be narrowly tailored and to further a compelling governmental interest in order to pass constitutional muster, should be applied only to laws that involve a fundamental right or affects a suspect class, the groups said. In this case, the court should apply the more lenient form of judicial review, the rational basis test, they said.

The statute is important to keep Florida on a growth trajectory, the groups said.

“Maintaining the delicate balance between the interests of employers and employees in a self-executing system that provides affordable and available coverage to injured workers is critically important to the state and its continued economic success,” they said.

Stahl injured his back on Dec. 8, 2003, while lifting a patient at Hialeah Hospital, just weeks after an amendment to the act removing benefits for partial disability was enacted. He was left with a permanent impairment and was restricted from lifting heavy weights, according to his brief.

He could no longer do his job and had to take a position teaching at a nursing school, which resulted in a pay cut, the brief said.

The petitioner has been litigating his claims for more than a decade since filing a petition for benefits with the state Division of Administrative Hearings' Office of Judges of Compensation Claims in 2005, according to court documents. The matter appeared before the First District Court of Appeal five times before the appeal that resulted in the law being deemed constitutional.

The Supreme Court agreed to consider the decision on Oct. 13, garnering the attention of a number of workers' advocacy groups — like the Florida Justice Association, the Florida Police Benevolent Association and Florida Workers' Advocates — who filed amicus briefs in favor of Stahl and asked the court to declare the state's workers' compensation statute unconstitutional.

The groups argued that amendments made between the time the workers' compensation law was first enacted, in 1935, and 2003 have made the system inadequate and, thus, in violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution.

Florida lawmakers have eliminated workers' rights in several instances, including repealing the right to opt out of the system in 1970, reducing the temporary disability benefits limit to 104 weeks in 1993 and approving the 2003 amendment removing benefits for partial disability, the Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group and others said. Temporary total disability benefits were previously limited to 350 weeks, while temporary permanent disability benefits were not to exceed five years, according to the group.

The "grand bargain" of the workers' compensation system, in which employees give up the right to sue their employers for negligently inflicted injuries in exchange for sure benefits for all workplace injuries, is failing in Florida, where workers are getting a raw deal, according to the Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group.

Regardless, Stahl lacks standing to challenge a 2003 amendment to the act because he never established that he would have been entitled to benefits if the requirements hadn’t been changed, according to the respondents.

Hialeah Hospital and its administrator also argued that there’s nothing on the record to support a challenge to a 1994 change adding a $10 co-pay per visit after reaching maximum medical improvement, saying the charge is justified by the need to ensure reasonable benefit costs. 

Stahl is represented by the Law Offices of Mark L. Zientz PA.

The Associated Industries of Florida is represented by James N. McConnaughhay and David A. McCranie of McConnaughhay Coonrod Pope Weaver Stern & Thomas PA.

The Florida Association of Insurance Agents and American Association of Independent Claims Professionals are represented by William H. Rogner.

Florida Justice Reform Institute and Florida Chamber of Commerce are represented by Katherine E. Giddings and Diane G. DeWolf of Akerman LLP, Roy Carroll Young of Young van Assenderp & Qualls PA and William W. Large of Florida Justice Reform Institute.

Hialeah Hospital and Sedgwick are represented by Kenneth B. Bell of Gunster Yoakley & Stewart PA and Kimberly J. Fernandes of Kelley Kronenberg PA.

The case is Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital et al., case number SC15-725, in the Supreme Court of Florida.

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