Florida’s 6-Month Limitation on Temporary “Physical-Mental” Benefits is Constitutional

A Florida appellate court has upheld the constitutionality of a provision within the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act [§ 440.093(3), Fla. Stat.] that cuts off temporary benefits for psychiatric injuries six months after a claimant reaches (physical) maximum medical improvement [Kneer v. Lincare & Travelers Ins., 2019 Fla. App. LEXIS 5131 (1st DCA, Apr. 3, 2019)]. Thus, where a claimant filed a petition for temporary partial disability benefits related to his back injury more than 18 months after he reached MMI, his claim was appropriately barred by the JCC.

Background

Claimant suffered a work-related accident and back injury in 2014. He underwent extensive back surgery and reached MMI in January 2016, with a 10 percent permanent impairment. In August 2017, claimant filed a PFB seeking psychological treatment for depression relating to his back injury. The employer/carrier accepted compensability and authorized treatment. Claimant then filed a PFB in December 2017, seeking temporary partial disability (TPD) benefits extending back to January 2016, the date of physical MMI, for his mental injury. The E/C opposed this petition asserting that the temporary disability claim was unsupported by the record and precluded by § 440.093(3), Fla. Stat. The JCC agreed with the E/C’s argument and denied temporary disability benefits.

Appeal of JCC’s Decision

On appeal, claimant contended, inter alia, that § 440.093(3) was unconstitutional in that the statute denied claimant access to the courts, due process, and equal protection by forbidding him from receiving TPD benefits even though his psychiatric injury had not reached MMI.

Florida is No “Mental-Mental” State

The court stressed that Florida does not provide temporary disability benefits for a purely mental injury. Rather, an injured worker’s right to receive temporary benefits is linked to the existence and duration of the physical injury. First, § 440.093(1), Fla. Stat. emphasized the requirement of an “accompanying physical injury requiring medical treatment” before payment of benefits for mental or nervous injuries can be allowed. Second, Then, subsection (3) sets a strict deadline after which no temporary disability benefits are payable on psychiatric injuries. Quoting School Board of Lee County v. Huben, 165 So. 3d 865 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015), the court stressed that subsection (3) “starts a clock that stops six months to the day after the date of physical MMI” [165 So. 3d at 867].

“Missed the Window”

The court said TPD benefits were not available in the instant case because claimant’s psychiatric injury arose more than a year after he reached physical MMI on the back injury. Under § 440.093, Fla. Stat., and the relevant case law, claimant “missed the window” for receiving TPD benefits related to his psychiatric injury. Further, the court found claimant’s Westphal arguments [see Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, 194 So. 3d 311, 327 (Fla. 2016)] factually distinguishable. The court likewise rejected claimant’s due process and equal protection challenges to § 440.093(3), recognizing the State’s legitimate interest in establishing time limits for benefits associated with psychiatric injuries.

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