January 24, 2024

Breaking News: DCA Reverses JCC Denial, Impacting Attorney Fees Statewide

The First DCA ruled in favor of the statutory fee calculation today, and it was a big win for claimants’ attorneys.  In the workers’ compensation claim of Darien Smith v. The Home Depot USA, Inc., a catastrophic injury was managed by the workers’ compensation carrier for nearly thirty (30) years.  Eventually, the parties were able to settle the case.  For the purpose of this attorney fee issue, the value of the settlement was $13,500,000.  During the long life of the claim, the claimant hired and fired six attorneys.  The settlement agreement allocated $1,330,000 to resolve the attorney fees of all of the claimant’s past and present attorneys.  All of the attorneys agreed to their portion of this attorney fee allocation.  The allocation constituted 9.85% of the total settlement amount, which is less than the statutory calculation afforded for attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases, section 440.34, Florida Statutes. 

Even though the attorney fee allocation was less than what the statute allows, the JCC refused to approve a portion of the allocation.  He approved all allocations attributed to the claimant’s five prior attorneys, but he refused to approve an $805,000.00 allocation to the claimant’s attorney affording representation at the time of the settlement (Michael Rudolph), writing that the amount “shocks [his] conscience.”  The JCC denied approval of this particular allocation for several reasons stated in his order, however, the First DCA rejected all of them.  In doing so, the First DCA enforced the statutory fee calculation established by the Legislature to standardize attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases, and rejected the JCC’s reasons for deviating from the statutory amount because, although deviating from the statute is allowable, doing so requires “exceptional circumstances” and the statutory calculation must be “manifestly unfair.”  The Court found that neither of these threshold requirements were met in this case for a deviation from the statute. 

The JCC’s unilateral reduction of the $805,000.00 attorney fee to $123,000.00 was reversed by the First DCA for a lack of evidence supporting such a deviation.  The claimant’s attorney on the job at the time of the settlement will receive his $805,000.00 attorney fee allocation from the total settlement amount on remand to the JCC.  And claimants’ attorneys across the state will utilize this decision to challenge the discretion afforded to all JCCs in analyzing and approving attorney fees in the future. 

The ripple effects of this ruling are extensive. If you’re navigating a fee issue, our Workers’ Compensation Defense Attorneys are ready to provide expert guidance and support. Contact us now to safeguard your interests in light of this groundbreaking decision. 

Kimberly J. Fernandes, Esq.
Partner, Workers’ Compensation.
Kelley Kronenberg-Tallahassee, FL.
(850) 577-1301