Thursday, October 3, 2013

“Should I Stay or should I go now?”

“Should I Stay or should I go now?” That lyric was immortalized by the Clash in the 1980s. The song comes to my mind as I focus once again on the power of the Judges of Compensation Claims to delay the prosecution of a case pending for trial. It is not uncommon for parties to find themselves unprepared to try their case, for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes it is scheduling issues, sometimes it results from changes in circumstances. Those who practice workers’ compensation litigation are familiar with the continuance, and the circumstances which necessitate one.

Many times, however, we see motions for a stay, rather than a continuance. The parties seek to suspend the proceedings. Usually courts enter a stay to secure the rights of the party or parties seeking that relief.

Frequent workers’ compensation practitioners in Florida are familiar with the fact that the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims is not a Court, and has no inherent judicial power. Though there are those who insist on mislabeling this administrative office a “court,” the Florida Supreme Court has clarified that it is not. See, The Quart of Claims, News and 440 Report, Volume XXXI, No. 1, Winter 2013. That mis-characterization, “court” has led to confusion at times.

As a limited, statutory agency, the Judges of Compensation Claims have only the authority, power and responsibility that is vested by statute. For the most part, these are in Chapter 440. There is a catch-all provision, therein, which empowers JCCs to do those things which are required to facilitate or accommodate the needs of performing statutory duties. Section 440.33(1) provides authority to “do all things conformable to law which may be necessary to enable the judge effectively to discharge the duties of her or his office.”

That is a slim exception though, and it does not answer the Clash’s question as to whether we should Stay or we should go. The answer is found, however, in Alachua County Detention Center v. Alford, 727 So.2d 388 (Fla. 1st DCA 1999). The definitive answer is that the Judges of Compensation Claims do not have the authority to enter a Stay.
         
There, the E/C sought a Stay, which the JCC denied. They then filed a petition for writ of certiorari that the court denied, holding “the E/C have not shown that the JCC departed from the essential requirements of law.” The court affirmed the JCC’s conclusion that “the authority to grant a stay or injunction has not been specifically delegated to the JCCs by the Legislature.” The opinion reiterates that the OJCC “exists and operates under grant of quasi-judicial power from Legislature supplemented only by rules of procedure applicable to it,” (citing authority that had made that determination regarding the former Industrial Relations Commission).  The Court found it persuasive that the E/C could cite no authority which afforded a JCC to “grant such relief (stay) in a case like this.”

Many times, a request for Stay filed with the OJCC is accompanied with a copy of a Stay issued by a court, often a bankruptcy court. The party is asking the JCC to enter a Stay because the Bankruptcy Court has entered a Stay. This is redundant. The OJCC is likely bound in most instances by a Bankruptcy Court Stay. In such an instance, the party is not really seeking a Stay from the JCC, but instead a recognition of the existing Stay. What the party is seeking from the JCC is essentially “comity,” or respect for the other Court’s ruling.

The OJCC is prepared to accommodate such rulings. There are characterizations for hearings in our database. Among others, a hearing may be “set” or “resolved prior” or “continued.” These characterizations merely describe the status of an appointment for trial or mediation. We have a specific characterization “continued for court stay.”

Should I Stay or should I go? The answer to your question is that you should seek a continuance “for court stay,” and that we should afford that accommodation out of Comity. 

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