Kentucky Court Affirms Limitation of Attorney’s Fee in Comp Claim Involving Multiple Beneficiaries

The Court of Appeals of Kentucky, in Roberts v. Sticklen, 2014 Ky. App. LEXIS 186 (Dec. 12, 2014) held that the plain language of Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 342.320(2)(a) limited an attorney’s fee to $12,000, in spite of his contention that he had negotiated five settlements and represented five clients: the estate of the deceased police officer, his widow, and the couple’s three children. The court affirmed a finding by an administrative law judge that the attorney had represented "multiple clients on one claim.

After some initial skirmishing, the parties ultimately agreed on the essential facts. The deceased, a police officer, collapsed while on duty and later died from a pulmonary embolism. The officer’s widow filed a workers’ compensation claim on behalf of her husband’s estate, herself, and her three children. The officer’s employer, the City of Alexandria, initially contested the claim, but withdrew its opposition based upon the testimonies of three medical experts who all concluded that the officer’s death was work related.

The parties ultimately settled the case and the attorney filed five motions seeking the ALJ’s approval of attorney’s fees totallying $29,673.12 for his work on behalf of the beneficiaries. He attached itemized documentation to each of his motions. The ALJ entered an order approving a fee in the amount of $12,000, concluding that the fee was subject to the $12,000 maximum set forth in Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 342.320(2)(a). The attorney appealed and the Board affirmed, noting that both the death benefit payable to the officer’s estate and the benefits payable to his family resulted from a single incident—the officer’s death.

The appellate court indicated the case was one of “apparent first impression” and could be reduced to a single question of what constituted an “original claim” under the statute. The court observed that the Board had held that "‘original claim’ referred to all proceedings prior to the rendition of a decision or approval of a settlement agreement.

The appellate court relied upon Curry v. Toyota Motor Mfg. KY., Inc., 91 S.W.3d 557 (Ky. 2002), in which the claimant’s attorney sought separate attorney’s fees for his work in securing awards from two different defendants in relation to his client’s single work-related injury. The Supreme Court rejected the proposition that KRS 342.320 allowed multiple fees and affirmed the lower court’s determination that the attorney was entitled to only one maximum fee because the claimant “had only one claim for the effects of [one] work-related accident.”

The appellate court indicated the analysis in Curry applied to the present case. Though the settlement of the case benefitted five plaintiffs, the settlement and the resulting benefits nonetheless stemmed from one claim for the effects of one work-related incident. The ALJ and the Board properly limited the attorney’s fee to the statutory maximum of $12,000, said the court.

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