Florida Appellate Court Throws Out Judge Cueto’s “Padgett” Decision on Procedural Grounds

Earlier today (June 24th), Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal reversed and completely repudiated the decision of Judge Jorge E. Cueto, Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, that had, on August 19, 2014, held the exclusive remedy provision of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Law [Fla. Stat. § 440.11] was unconstitutional [see State of Florida v. Florida Workers’ Advocates, et al., Case No. 3D14-2062, Lower Tribunal No. 11-13661, 2015 Fla. App. LEXIS 9531 (“Padgett”)]. Noting that the initial claims and parties in the case at its inception in 2011 were “transformed” by the present appellants and their counsel into a “completely different set of claims and parties” over the three years that followed, the Court said that in the process, the case lost:

  1. the essential elements of a justiciable “case or controversy,”
  2. an identifiable and properly-joined defendant, and
  3. a procedurally proper vehicle for the trial court’s assessment of the constitutionality of § 440.11.

That’s, of course, what happens when a trial judge insists that a case move forward against an empty chair.

Bizarre Procedural Setting

Those following the case will recall that it has enjoyed a bizarre procedural history. Initially, things were straightforward. Julio Cortes, an employee of Velda Farms, LLC, filed a complaint at the trial court level [Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County] alleging that he had been injured in 2010 while operating equipment for the defendant-employer. Cortes’ wife joined as a co-plaintiff, seeking damages for loss of consortium. The complaint acknowledged the existence and operation of Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Law and a prior submission of Mr. Cortes’ claim to the Judge of Compensation Claims in Tallahassee. The complaint alleged that Velda Farms and its employees were negligent in the operation of Mr. Cortes’ workplace, and that Velda Farms should be estopped from claiming immunity under the Workers’ Compensation Law because it (and its insurer) had denied Cortes’ claim before the JCC.

Velda Farms offered a number of defenses, including the exclusive remedy provisions of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Law. In 2012, plaintiffs filed an amended complaint that included new allegations and an additional (fourth) count seeking, in relevant part, a declaratory judgment that Fla. Stat. § 440.11—the exclusive remedy provision—was unconstitutional.

Several months later, Florida Workers’ Advocates (“FWA”) and the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group (“WILG”) sought and were granted intervention as additional plaintiffs. Thereafter, in early 2013, Velda Farms voluntarily dismissed its affirmative defense of workers’ compensation immunity as to Mr. Cortes’ injury claims. By this time, Mr. and Mrs. Cortes took themselves out of the case altogether.  WILG and FWA moved the trial court to sever the declaratory judgment count and to recognize their independent standing to test the constitutionality of the workers’ compensation statutes. In the motion, both WILG and FWA conceded that Velda Farms no longer had standing to respond to the fourth count seeking declaratory relief. They also acknowledged that the Attorney General of Florida had never been made a party to the case.

Elsa Padgett to the “Rescue”

Initially, the trial court denied the pending motion of WILG and FWA for summary judgment on the declaratory judgment count, concluding that the two advocacy groups lacked standing. Elsa Padgett, an individual workers’ compensation claimant in an unrelated matter sought intervention as a new plaintiff regarding the declaratory judgment count. Padgett’s motion to intervene was granted. She then filed an amended motion for summary final judgment on the declaratory judgment count.

The trial court issued a “sua sponte order to show cause” why the amended motion for summary judgment should not be granted, noting that the court “has not received a response from the State of Florida’s Attorney General’s Office, even though the record indicates proper service.” After reviewing the State’s response—that (a) neither the State nor the AG was a party and that (b) the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to grant the requested relief—Judge Cueto entered an extensive order finding the Florida Workers’ Compensation Act, as amended effective October 1, 2003, did not provide a reasonable alternative remedy to the tort remedy it supplanted and that it could not, therefore, be plaintiffs’ exclusive remedy. Judge Cueto added that § 440.11 was constitutionally “infirm” and invalid.

The Third DCA’s Analysis

According to the Court of Appeal, two threshold legal issues—mootness and lack of standing—each precluded Ms. Padgett, FWA, and WILG from pursuing the constitutional claims and obtaining the relief granted below. Accordingly, the Court reversed on each of those grounds. Because it found those two issues dispositive, it declined to review the trial court’s analysis of the appellees’ state and federal constitutional claims.

Case or Controversy; Mootness

As to the first threshold issue, the court said that when the only original defendant, Velda Farms, dismissed its affirmative defense of workers’ compensation immunity vis-a-vis Mr. Cortes, the declaratory judgment became moot and any further proceedings were “an intervenors-only exercise.” The Court added that the State of Florida was not compelled by Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.071 to participate in the case. Noting that countless constitutionality claims are filed each year by various parties, the Court said it would be futile to require the AG’s office to defend each statute against all constitutional challenges at the trial level.

Standing

Regarding the intervenors’ claims of standing, the Court indicated that while WILG and FWA had “an economic interest” in establishing their clients’ rights to file tort claims, that “indirect interest” did not confer standing upon them in the present case. The Court added that there was no evidence that either association had suffered or was suffering immediate or threatened injury of the kind comprising a justiciable issue. Quite simply, the case law did not support what the Court called “some sort of ‘piggy-back’ standing by an intervenor based exclusively on a predecessor plaintiff’s subsequently-dismissed claim.”

The Court reversed Judge Cueto’s summary final judgment and remanded the case for the dismissal of Count IV of the amended complaint.

Commentary

As I argued in a panel discussion held last November at the 23rd Annual National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference in Las Vegas, Judge Cueto’s decision could not stand any degree of scrutiny since one of the parties at the final summary judgment hearing was an empty chair. I said then that Ms. Padgett, WILG and FWA had raised some important and interesting questions that need to be actively and openly debated, but that their cause was not well served by inserting an unrelated injured employee as a substitute plaintiff as a placeholder; the 3rd DCA clearly saw that the “real parties” in interest were the advocacy groups and not Cortes, the employee originally injured. His case had been long forgotten while the intervenors, and the judge, sparred with a ghost.

In all fairness, WILG and FWA have been able to use the Padgett case to generate attention and discussion on important core issues in workers’ compensation law, and that’s not at all bad. The debate continues to be hot and heavy within and among various legal groups and interested parties. Has the equilibrium represented in the original workers’ compensation bargain moved too far toward the employer? Is the opt out debate raging in Oklahoma, Tennessee and South Carolina the other side of the Padgett coin, with many employers saying the equilibrium originally established 100 years ago by the first state workers’ compensation acts is no longer fair to employers competing on a world stage where so many foreign competitors have the ability to chew up and spit out employees at their whim and without paying benefits?

In the Padgett drama, each side’s arguments have been reported in the news media to the few outside the legal system who appear interested. That debate and discussion, while healthy, can never substitute, however, for a true adversarial hearing before a dispassionate judicial official whose decision is then reviewed for appropriateness at the appellate level. Because of the peculiar procedural aspects of Padgett, the case has been a side show. The real debate lies ahead. How will WILG, FWA and others fare when they face true opposition? Maybe better than some folks think. We’ll have to wait for the real plaintiff and the real defendant to step forward.

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