Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Forgotten 2014 Florida Supreme Court Workers' Compensation Case

I thought there were only two workers' compensation cases pending before the Florida Supreme Court? There has been a great deal of activity this year. There are three workers' compensation cases currently before the court, one recently dismissed by the court, and a fifth interesting case currently in the Third District (Miami). 

There is much discussion in Florida about the constitutional challenges to the Florida workers' compensation statute. There is the challenge to temporary and permanent indemnity benefit provisions in Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg (SC13-1930 and SC13-1976), and there is the challenge to the attorney fee statute in Castellanos v. Next Door Company (SC13-2082). These two have been the main focus of the Florida workers' compensation community.

There is also the certified question referral to the Florida Supreme Court from the Eleventh Circuit United States District Court of Appeals in Morales v. Zenith Insurance (SC13-696). All three are discussed at length in my post, There's No Other Place I Wanna Be.

There is also the appeal currently being considered by the Third District Court of Appeal (Miami) regarding whether the exclusive remedy of Florida workers' compensation is unconstitutional, due to the changes made in benefits over the decades. This is Florida Workers' Advocates v. State of Florida, but is being called "Padgett" by most. Until mid-October, there was doubt as to whether the Third District Court of Appeal (DCA) would consider that case or certify it to the Florida Supreme Court, but that doubt has resolved. The Third DCA will decide the appeal. Whether or when the Supreme Court will become involved in Padgett remains to be seen.

Four interesting cases, each of which has received a significant amount of attention in this blog and elsewhere. In discussing these in various previous posts, I failed to mention the fifth intriguing workers' compensation appellate court case of 2014, which until recently was pending in the Florida Supreme Court. It was a third constitutional challenge, but it received less attention as it was arguably more tangentially connected to broader issues like indemnity benefit provisions and attorney fees.

This one, Brock v. Waste Pro USA (SC14-1208), centered on misrepresentation. Section 440.105 is titled "Prohibited activities; reports; penalties; limitations." This statute section contains a variety of prohibitions on false statements.

Francisco Brock was arrested during a raid on Waste Pro USA, Inc. in Ft. Pierce. He was "undocumented" (quote from the appellant's brief in the Supreme Court), and charged with violating Florida Statute section 440.105(4)(b)(9), which says:

"It shall be unlawful for any person: To knowingly present or cause to be presented any false, fraudulent, or misleading oral or written statement to any person as evidence of identity for the purpose of obtaining employment or filing or supporting a claim for workers’ compensation benefits." (Emphasis added).

The arrest affidavit stated that the charge was "W/C Fraud." The arrest apparently followed a complaint by a life insurance company, which alleged that multiple Waste Pro employees had "submitted false social security numbers for the purpose of employment." (Quote from the appellant's brief in the Supreme Court). I think it might have intended "obtaining employment."

The claimant sought to dismiss the criminal charges on the grounds that no workers' compensation claim was ever made. There was apparently no dispute on this issue. Essentially, Mr. Brock argued he cannot be guilty of "workers' compensation fraud" because he never suffered or sought benefits for any workers' compensation injury or illness. Thus, he argued, this statute is applicable only when a workers' compensation claim is made.

In March 2013, the trial court agreed and dismissed the charges on the basis that the state did not prove that Mr. Brock "obtained employment for the purpose of workers' compensation benefits." The trial court essentially concluded that the false statements in obtaining employment only become fraud if that employment then leads to a workers' compensation accident or illness.

The State of Florida appealed that dismissal to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, which held that the statute is "clear and unambiguous." The Court concluded that this statute "makes it a crime to present  . . . any false, fraudulent, or misleading oral or written statement to any person as evidence of identity for the purpose of obtaining employment . . .."  (Quote from the appellant's brief in the Supreme Court). Their conclusion is that this statute is not dependent upon the subsequent occurrence of or claim for workers' compensation.

The Court noted that because the statute is "clear and unambiguous" it need not resort to an analysis of statutory intent. However, it then bolstered its opinion concluding that the statutory intent nonetheless supports its conclusion, stating "our analysis confirms the legislature intended to prohibit illegal aliens from using false identification information to obtain employment, and by doing so, specifically intended to close their gateway into the Florida workers' compensation system." The Court cited "the Florida  Senate Interim Project Report 2004-110 (December 2003) in discussing its conclusion regarding statutory intent. 

Mr. Brock sought discretionary review of that decision by the Florida Supreme Court in June 2014, Brock v. State of Florida (SC14-1208). Essentially, Mr. Brock argued that the Fourth DCA holding in his case conflicted with the First District Court of Appeal decision in Matrix Employee Leasing v. Hernandez. Briefs were filed with the Court regarding the issue of the Court's jurisdiction, Mr. Brock's on June 25, 2014 and the State of Florida's August 13, 2014. Both briefs are interesting reading. 

The State of Florida argued that the two cases were not in conflict and therefore the Supreme Court should deny discretionary review. On September 29, 2014, the Court declined to accept jurisdiction of the case, stating on its docket:

"This cause having heretofore been submitted to the Court on jurisdictional briefs and portions of the record deemed necessary to reflect jurisdiction under Article V, Section 3(b), Florida Constitution, and the Court having determined that it should decline to accept jurisdiction, it is ordered that the petition for review is denied. No motion for rehearing will be entertained by the Court. See Fla. R. App. P. 9.330(d)(2)."

So, the third Supreme Court constitutional challenge of 2014, and the last to be brought to the court is the first to be resolved. According to the Fourth DCA, the provisions of Section 440.105 say that people cannot "knowingly present or cause to be presented any false, fraudulent, or misleading oral or written statement to any person as evidence of identity for the purpose of obtaining employment." The Fourth DCA says that this clause stands on its own and that using false documents or statements to obtain employment is a crime, with or without a workers' compensation accident or injury occurring. That is controlling authority in the Fourth District. 

In Florida, that is not controlling authority in the other four Districts. If the issue is raised in one of the other Districts, Brock v. Waste Pro is persuasive authority that may be followed, but the other Districts are not compelled to follow it. If one of the other four Districts concludes otherwise, then there may be conflict, which may lead the Supreme Court to consider the issue. Until such a conflict occurs, however, it appears unlikely that the Supreme Court will be considering this issue. 

And now everyone can turn their full attention back to Castellanos, Morales, Padgett, and Westphal. Each is intriguing in its own right. 

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