Impact cases: Florida's biggest law cases
Castellanos v. Next Door Co.
The Florida Legislature does not have the power to impose strict limits on the amounts attorneys can earn representing employees in workers’ compensation cases, the Florida Supreme Court ruled.
The case involved Marvin Castellanos, a pressbreak operator at Miami- based manufacturer Next Door, who was injured in an on-the-job altercation in 2009. Castellanos sued his employer and its workers’ comp insurance carrier, Amerisure, after they refused to pay his claims. A court awarded him $822.70.
That same court awarded Castellanos’ attorneys just $164.54 in fees — or about $1.53 an hour for the 107.2 hours they spent on the case — because of a provision in state law that strictly limits how much attorneys can earn representing workers in workers’ comp cases. The fee limits were a centerpiece of a sweeping workers’ comp overhaul that lawmakers approved in 2003, amid an intense lobbying campaign by businesses.
In its 5-2 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court, which deliberated on the case for more than a year, declared the fee limits unconstitutional because they do not allow any means for workers or their attorneys to challenge whether the fees are reasonable and ultimately serve to deny workers access to the courts by making it difficult for them to find representation.
Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Pariente, an appointee of the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, chided the Legislature for making the state’s workers’ compensation system “increasingly complex to the detriment of the claimant, who depends on the assistance of a competent attorney to navigate the thicket.”
The ruling is among the most significant in a series of recent decisions the Supreme Court has delivered thwarting efforts by the Republican-controlled Legislature, which have also included rulings on redistricting, abortion, medical malpractice, property taxes and medical marijuana. That has fueled a growing animosity toward the court among legislative leaders, who have begun calling for changes such as judicial term limits.
Hurst v. Florida
On the opening day of the 2016 session, the U.S. Supreme Court dropped a grenade in the Legislature’s lap by declaring the state’s death penalty unconstitutional. The case, known as Hurst v. Florida, involved a former employee at Popeye’s who was convicted of murdering a co-worker. In the 8-1 ruling, the nation’s high court ruled that Florida’s death penalty law was unconstitutional because it allowed a judge — rather than a jury — to make the decision about whether to sentence a defendant to execution.
Lawmakers scrambled to rewrite the death penalty law over the next 60 days, ultimately passing a version that allows only a jury to recommend execution. A judge can still change a sentence of death to a sentence of life in prison, but she or he can no longer change a sentence of life to one of death.
In hopes of further insulating the law against future challenges, lawmakers also made it harder for juries themselves to sentence defendants to death — raising the threshold from a simple majority of jurors to at least 10 of the 12.
Barati v. State and Motorola
To encourage whistleblowers to come forward, Florida’s “False Claims Act” allows someone to sue another person or company for defrauding the state and then receive a portion of the damages if any are recovered. It’s known as a “qui tam” action, which comes from a Latin phrase referring to someone “who sues as well for the king as for himself.”
Under the Florida law, a whistleblower typically must first notify the attorney general, who then has 60 days to decide whether to intervene in the case. If the attorney general declines to get involved, the whistleblower is free to pursue the case on her or his own on the state’s behalf.
That’s the process former Motorola engineer Zoltan Barati followed when he sued the company in 2009, alleging Motorola had misled the state about problems with a fingerprinting system the company developed for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The Attorney General’s office, then led by Bill McCollum, investigated and chose not to intervene.
Nearly four years later, as Barati continued to prosecute his claim, the Attorney General’s office, now run by Pam Bondi, decided to get involved — by having the lawsuit dismissed. Barati appealed, arguing that an attorney general could not dismiss an action after having previously declined to intervene.
The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled in a 3-0 decision in February that Bondi was within her rights to squash Barati’s claim. “The authority of the attorney general to voluntarily dismiss the qui tam action is a substantive right firmly grounded on statutory and state constitutional principles,” Judge Bradford Thomas wrote in the opinion.
Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley v. State
In 2012, the prominent personal injury firm Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley was lobbying the Florida Legislature to pass a claims bill on behalf of one of its clients, Aaron Edwards, who had been born with a brain injury as a result of negligence at Lee Memorial Hospital in southwest Florida. A jury had awarded Edwards and his family more than $30 million in his damages, but because the hospital was shielded by sovereign immunity, the Florida Legislature had to approve any payment above $200,000.
To pressure the House of Representatives, the Searcy firm organized a series of television ads criticizing a high-ranking House member, whose district included Lee Memorial. The tactics infuriated House leaders, who responded by passing a claims bill to pay Aaron Edwards $15 million. But they included an extra provision that limited the amount that could be used to pay attorney’s fees to just $100,000. That amounted to less than 1% for attorney fees — far below the usual 25%. The firm said its expenses in the case topped $500,000.
The firm sued, arguing that the Florida Legislature had unconstitutionally voided a legal contract between it and the Edwards family. It also warned that the maneuver would deter attorneys from pursuing similar cases in the future, leaving victims of the state’s negligence unable to find help.
The 4th District Court of Appeal disagreed. In a 2-1 decision, the court ruled that previous cases decided by the Florida Supreme Court have established that claims bills are acts of “legislative grace” and lawmakers are free to set whatever conditions they chose. “The possibility of such a restriction in a claims bill posits an additional factor to be considered by counsel in deciding whether to take on representation in a case in this state involving a sovereign entity defendant,” Judge Alan O. Forst wrote in the opinion.
The case isn’t over yet. The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to hear it, raising the possibility that — as it did in Castellanos — it may declare attorney fee limits unconstitutional.
Bretherick v. State
If defendants try to get a case dismissed by invoking the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, it is up to them to prove — by a preponderance of the evidence — that they had reason to feel threatened.
“While we recognize that the Stand Your Ground law is intended to be an immunity from prosecution as opposed to just an affirmative defense, the immunity is not a blanket immunity, but rather, requires the establishment that the use of the force was legally justified,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote on behalf of a 5-2 majority in a case that dealt with a tourist near Walt Disney World who pointed his gun at another driver.
The decision enraged gun-rights advocates, who are now lobbying state lawmakers to overrule the decision. Justice Charles Canady, one of the two justices to dissent in the decision, warned that the ruling “substantially curtails the benefit of the immunity from trial conferred by the Legislature under the Stand Your Ground law.”
Alachua County v. Expedia
Online travel companies must only pay tourist development taxes on the lower price they pay to hotels for rooms — rather than the higher price they charge consumers — following a 5-2 Florida Supreme Court decision that finally resolved a years-long, bitterly fought dispute between counties and companies such as Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline.
An enormous amount of money was at stake: State economists at one point estimated that the online-travel industry saved more than $20 million a year on local hotel taxes by paying based on the unseen wholesale rates they negotiate directly with hotels.
League of Women Voters v. Detzner
Democrats are expected to gain more seats in the Florida Senate and in the state’s congressional delegation following a series of rulings that forced the Legislature to redraw the political boundaries to comply with anti-gerrymandering provisions in the state Constitution.
A legal war with the Florida Legislature that began more than six years ago — during the petition drive to put the so-called “Fair Districts” amendments into the Constitution — largely ended in 2015, following a series of victories for the League of Women voters and their allies when the courts adopted revised state Senate and congressional maps.
The rulings are likely to reverberate across state politics for years to come, with the results potentially including the return to elected office of former Gov. Charlie Crist (who is running for a Tampa area congressional seat that is now more favorable for Democrats), the forced retirement of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (whose former district, which snaked from Jacksonville to Orlando, no longer exists) and a more moderate Florida Senate, where Democrats hope to gain as many as 18 seats in the 40-member chamber.
Southern Baptist Hospital v. Charles
Federal law trumps the Florida Constitution when it comes to records of medical errors held by hospitals, according to the 1st District Court of Appeal in a dispute that some think could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case involves the collision of two laws. One is the federal Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act, which Congress passed in 2005 creating a voluntary system through which hospitals could share records about medical errors in order to analyze the data and improve patient safety. The other is Florida’s Amendment 7 — sometimes referred to as the as the “Patient’s Right to Know Act” — which was added to the state Constitution in 2004 following a ballot campaign financed by personal-injury lawyers and which gives patients the right to review records of adverse medical incidents held by hospitals and other health care providers.
The issue arose out of a medical malpractice suit in Jacksonville where the plaintiff sought to review “occurrence records” created by Southern Baptist that the hospital argued were confidential under federal law.
In a 3-0 decision, the 1st DCA sided with the hospital. The case is now pending before the Florida Supreme Court.
Raiser v. State
Drivers for the ride-sharing technology company Uber are independent contractors, rather than employees of the company, and therefore ineligible to receive unemployment compensation, at least according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
The issue arose after a pair of Florida drivers for Uber (operating through a subsidiary called Raiser LLC) filed for unemployment. The state Department of Revenue ruled that the drivers were employees entitled to unemployment, prompting Uber to protest to DEO.
Former DEO Secretary Jesse Panuccio sided with Uber, staking out the opposite position from two other states — California and Oregon — who had previously declared Uber drivers employees.
“Uber is no more an employer to its drivers than is an art gallery to artists,” Panuccio wrote in his decision.