In Kline v. JRD Management Corp., 2015 Fla. App. LEXIS 8364 (1st DCA, June 2, 2015), a Florida appellate court recently held that a judge of compensation claims (“JCC”) erred in denying a claimant’s motion to disqualify himself because of statements and findings the judge had made in an unrelated case concerning the claimant’s attorney. In that earlier case, the JCC entered an order imposing sanctions against the claimant’s attorney for his conduct in pursuit of a claimant-paid attorney’s fee. In the JCC’s order, the judge found that the attorney had made “false and misleading written statements” and indicated the attorney had a “willful and conscious intent” to overcharge for legal services. The JCC also expressly stated that he believed the attorney had conducted himself similarly in other cases, though the claimant alleged no such case was actually before the JCC. Based on these findings, the JCC had referred claimant’s attorney to The Florida Bar for joinder in an existing ethics complaint and to the fraud division at DFS for further investigation for what was, in the JCC’s opinion, a violation of § 440.105(3)(c), Fla. Stat.—a misdemeanor of the first degree.
The appellate court acknowledged that based on the authority found in 5-H Corp. v. Padovano, 708 So. 2d 244, 248 (Fla. 1997), a judge’s report of an attorney’s unprofessionalism to the Florida Bar was legally insufficient to support disqualification in a case, but the court said much more was present in the instant case. Not only had the JCC found that the claimant’s attorney had intentionally made false statements in an effort to maximize his attorney’s fees in the prior case and had likely done so in other cases, the “connotations of the language chosen by the JCC” to express himself showed potential bias. For example, rather than indicate the attorney’s testimony was not credible, the JCC had indicated the attorney himself was not trustworthy. Instead of limiting the JCC’s findings to the case at hand, the JCC had speculated about the attorney’s actions in other cases.
The court held that given the total sum of all of the claimant’s allegations, a reasonably prudent person, represented by claimant’s attorney, would have a well-founded fear that he or she would not receive a fair and impartial trial or hearing before this JCC. For those reasons, claimant’s allegations were legally sufficient to disqualify the JCC.