U.S. Supreme Court Won’t Review Constitutionality of Comp System
By Sheri Okamoto – November 1, 2016
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied a review of a challenge to the constitutionality of the Florida workers’ compensation.
Although the Florida Supreme Court earlier this year declared portions of the state’s comp scheme invalid, it ducked the opportunity to weigh in whether workers’ compensation still provides an adequate substitute remedy to the civil justice system, in Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital.
The Florida Supreme Court granted review of the matter and heard oral argument, but then it revoked its writ without explanation in April.
Mark Zientz, the attorney Daniel Stahl, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review in June.
While the operation of a workers’ compensation system is normally an issue reserved for state oversight, Zientz’s writ petition noted that it was U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1917 that established the parameters of the “Grand Bargain” that underlies the constitutional validity of the comp scheme of every state.
Zientz argued that the Florida comp system does not provide injured workers with a fair substitute for a civil remedy because it doesn’t provide a replacement for wages they may lose from an industrial injury, and it requires that workers pay for part of their medical care.
Hialeah Hospital countered that there has never been any case in any court that has invalidated a provision of a state workers’ compensation law as inadequate under the U.S. Constitution.
It also argued that the U.S. Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction over the Stahl case because the federal constitutional issues had not been preserved for review during the state court proceedings.
The U.S. Supreme Court gave no indication on Monday whether it found these arguments persuasive. The court generally does not provide its reasons for denying review of cases. The Stahl case was not exception.
Zientz on Monday expressed disappointment with the court’s decision, given the rest findings of the U.S. Department of Labor on the inadequacy of the benefits provided by the comp systems in almost every state.
Zientz said he provided the court with a copy of the Labor Department report earlier this month, “so they knew there was a problem.” But when it comes to getting review, “you either get their attention or you don’t.”
Zientz said he hopes Florida state lawmakers realize “this one came really close” to getting a declaration of unconstitutionality, so they’ll think twice about whether “they want to be cutting benefits any further.”
Richard Johnson, a Tallahassee attorney who filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Florida Chapter of National Employment Lawyers Association in support of Stahl, on Monday said he had known the mathematical odds of getting the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case were slim.
He said the court gets more than 10,000 petitions each year and hears about 70 cases, so “you don’t typically expect one to be accepted.”
Still, Johnson said, he had hoped the Stahl case may make the cut since the adequacy of a Florida comp remedy, “is an important issue.” He contended that a remedy under the Florida workers’ compensation system is “not really a remedy at all,” and the system itself is “almost useless.”
For a comp system to be constitutional, Johnson said, it needs to be a fair substitute for a proceeding through the tort system, but Florida has taken away the ability of a worker to sue in tort, and “gives us nothing” in return. Johnson said he felt it was a “deprivation of property without due process.”
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court passed on a chance to issue such a finding in Stahl, Johnson said there are more cases, “in the pipeline” that will present additional opportunities for the constitutionality of the Florida comp system to be addressed.
The Stahl case will help those along, since now “the issues have been defined,” and “everything has been framed” in terms of legal arguments, Johnson said.
“We’ve got that little foodhold,” he said, while we didn’t get to the top of the mountain, we started a dialogue.”
Now that there is talk with lawmakers, the media and the public about “what’s wrong and what needs to be done,” Johnson said, there the potential for change.
Alan Pierce, the immediate past president of the national Workers Injury Law & Advocacy Group, said the group – which had been an amici backing Stahl – was disappointed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to deny review, but everyone had known “it’s really hard to get the U.S. Supreme Court involved in anything.”
Pierce said he was heartened by the two Florida Supreme Court decisions in Castellanos v. Next Door Co. and Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg earlier this year though.
In Castellanos, the Florida Supreme Court declared the state attorney fee statue unconstitutional, and in Westphal, the court struck down a statutory cap on temporary disability benefits.
Pierce said he thought the Florida Supreme Court decisions in those cases “made it clear” that the way the Florida comp statutes have been amended and changed over the past 20 years have breached “the Grand Bargain.”
He said “the Grand Bargain is still alive,” it’s just “not getting as much nourishment as it should.”
Ramon Malca, a claimants’ attorney with Malca & Jacobs who represent WILGs interests in Florida, said that the problems workers in the state face are by no means unique.
“Stahl attempted to bring light to the shortcomings of the our law in Florida,” Malca said but “we are seeing a nationwide pattern of state governments protecting the interests of business above the interests of working people and their families.”
He said he believed there will be a day when the federal government will have to step in and set “appropriate standards” for the comp systems, and that it would be in the best interests of businesses to support “proper reform” to avoid the potential for tort liability if a comp remedy is declared inadequate.
George Kagan, a defense attorney with Miller, Kegan, Rodriguez & Silver who also has been keeping and eye on the Stahl matter, on Monday reflected that the case was “momentous for what it tried to accomplish.”
He said it’s “very rare that we can say any given state comp case has a prospect of making it to the U.S. Supreme Court,” and thought the chance for the Stahl case to get reviewed, given the rulings in Castellanos and Westphal.
But William Large, the president of Florida Justice Reform Institute, said he was not surprised to see that the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of the Stahl case. He said that since workers’ compensation is traditionally a state concern, he thought the chances of the U.S. Supreme Court grating review were “remote.”
Mark Touby, the president of Florida Workers’ Advocates, on Tuesday said that even though the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to review the issues raised in Stahl, “those issues certainly are not going away.”
He said that the provision of full medical care and wage-loss benefits “are critical to having a constitutional workers’ compensation law,” and the Stahl case shows “the Grand Bargain is not being completely fulfilled anymore.”
Touby said he couldn’t predict when or how that situation will be remedied, but he said “it needs to be addressed.”
Reprinted courtesy of WorkCompCentral.