Earlier today (June 9, 2016), a divided Supreme Court of Florida rendered its long-awaited decision in Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg [No. SC13–1976], striking down as unconstitutional the state’s 104-week limit on temporary total disability benefits [see § 440.15(2)(a), Fla. Stat.] for workers who are totally disabled and incapable of working, but who have not yet reached maximum medical improvement. The majority found that the provision violated article I, section 21, of the Florida Constitution, as a denial of the right of access to courts, since it deprived an injured worker of disability benefits for an indefinite amount of time, and in the process, created “a system of redress that no longer functions as a reasonable alternative to tort litigation” [Opinion, p. 2].
Judiciary May Not Rewrite Plainly Written Statute
The majority quashed an earlier decision by the First District [see Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, 122 So.3d 440 (Fla. 1st DCA 2013), indicating the First District had “valiantly attempted” to save the statute from unconstitutionality by interpreting the statute so that the severely injured worker who could no longer receive TTD benefits, but who was not yet eligible for PTD benefits, would not be cut off by the 104-week cap. The majority indicated, however, that the judiciary was without power to rewrite a plainly written statute, even if it was to avoid an unconstitutional result.
Statute No Longer is a Reasonable Alternative to Tort Litigation
The majority added that consistent with the views of both parties, § 440.15(2)(a), Fla. Stat. was plainly written; it could not look to rules of statutory construction. There was but one reading of the statute: the 104-week limitation on TTD benefits results in a statutory gap in benefits, in violation of the constitutional right to access to courts. While the stated purpose of the workers’ compensation law was to “assure the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker and to facilitate the worker’s return to gainful reemployment at a reasonable cost to the employer” [§ 440.015, Fla. Stat.], § 440.15(2)(a), Fla. Stat. operated in the opposite fashion. The majority concluded that for workers like Westphal, the workers’ compensation law lacked adequate and sufficient safeguards and could not be said to continue functioning as a “system without contest” that stands as a reasonable alternative to tort litigation.
Entire Workers’ Compensation is Not Invalid
The majority stressed that the unconstitutional limitation on TTD benefits did not render the entire workers’ compensation system invalid. Employing the remedy of statutory revival, the majority revived the law preceding the 1994 amendments to § 440.15(2). Under the prior version of the statute, TTD not to exceed 260 weeks—five years of eligibility rather than two years—passes constitutional muster [see Martinez v. Scanlan, 582 So.2d 1167 (Fla. 1991)].
Westphal Found Himself in Twilight Zone
Those familiar with the First District’s 2013 decision will recall that the injured worker, a firefighter and paramedic for the City of St. Petersburg, sustained injuries to his back and knee in 2009. He underwent back surgery and received additional treatment for nerve damage in his lower extremities. He exhausted the 104-week cap on TTD benefits, but was not awarded PTD benefits because he had not reached MMI. He lingered in what amounted to a twilight zone—beyond the 104-week limit, not yet at MMI, but still unable to work. He remained in this zone for nine months before the employer agreed that he was entitled to PTD benefits.
Echoes of Padgett
For many workers’ compensation experts within and without the state of Florida, some of the majority’s language in Westphal may sound familiar. It echoes some of the points argued by the intervenors in the Padgett case. They contended that over the years workers’ compensation benefits to injured workers had been eroded to the point that the workers’ compensation law was no longer a reasonable alternative to tort litigation. Judge Jorge E. Cueto, Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, agreed. On August 19, 2014, he held the exclusive remedy provision of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Law [§ 440.11, Fla. Stat.] was unconstitutional. Later, however, in State of Florida v. Florida Workers’ Advocates, et al., 2015 Fla. App. LEXIS 9531 (1st DCA, June 24, 2015), Judge Cueto’s decision was repudiated, largely on procedural grounds.
The majority’s decision in Westphal shows that the underlying issues presented in Padgett have not gone away.