The Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims 2020 Annual Report has been published. There are various topics therein that may be of interest to the community. One about which there is frequent inquiry is the filing volumes: "are petitions increasing?" "is the petition volume new cases or old?"
There has been significant fluctuation in the petition filing rates over the years. Florida has used the "petition" paradigm since 1994. Prior to that, issues were raised in a "claim" form, which could be filed as a notification. The jurisdiction of this Office, however, was not invoked with that. After such a claim, a party could then file the jurisdictional pleading, an "Application for Hearing." Thus, "claims "sometimes remained on file for years without any forward progress.
When the new petition process was instigated in 1994, it was part of a major re-write of the Florida Workers' Compensation Law. The extensive revisions were made in a special legislative session. One of the purposes of the 1993 special session was to alleviate necessity of litigation. In 1995-95 41,526 petitions were filed; the volume steadily increased each year, except 1999-00, through 2002-03. In 2002-03 the volume filed was 151,021. One might characterize the effort at decreasing litigation as unsuccessful.
Thereafter, likely related in part to the 2003 statutory amendments, petition filings decreased as steadily through 2012-13. That year, a the trend reversed and increase began. That trend continued until 2019-20. Some are surprised that the petition filing that year was 72,086, a 1.4% decrease from the year before. The "new case" volume similarly dropped about 1.6%. It is notable that the two decreases were so similar.
Some question why the trend is reversing. After reasonably stable tendencies toward increase since 2012-13 (except 2017-18 which demonstrated a minor change downward of 70 petitions), why would the trend change in 2019-20. It is likely attributable to the pandemic, COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2. This chart illustrates several points.
First, the 2019-20 petition filings were demonstrating increase through most of the fiscal year. Note how the green line is persistently the highest on the chart through February. Then, in March 2020, the petition filing rate dipped below the figures for March 2019. That was not a major decrease; note that it remained above the March 2018 figure.
Second, the decreases in April and May 2020 were significant and notable. This two month "dip" was not as severe as the one seen in September 2017 (blue), which was likely related to the impact of hurricane season. The trend in 2017-18 returned rapidly to similarity with other years the next month (October). The decrease in April and May 2020 was a longer period. While the June figure demonstrated some recovery, note that June 2020 did not equal June 2019, but did equal June 2018.
Beyond the reported fiscal year 2019-20, however, the trend for 2020-21 continues to demonstrate mixed results (purple). In July 2020, filings were notably below 2018-19, but on par with 2017-18. August 2020 brought diminished results, well below the other three Augusts illustrated. September 2020 illustrated petition filings above the other Septembers, a promising sign of recovery. However, the encouraging September led to a disappointing October 2020 which demonstrated decreased filings.
While October was diminished, it was not to the extent that November 2020 is predicted (multiple more filing days remained when these figures were compiled). The multiple-year analysis illustrates that petition filing decreases are to be expected in the November and December end-of-year. Unlike the state, with its fiscal year ending in June, most businesses have a year that ends December 31. There is therefore some expectation for there to be winding down and housekeeping in these months. Anecdotally, there are perceptions of increase in resolutions (stipulations, settlements) in these months.
But, for whatever reason, there is a tendency to decreased petition filing at the end of the calendar year. In the time of COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2, that tendency appears to be more pronounced. There is consistency in the overall figures that Florida workers compensation litigation has been suppressed over the last 8-9 months. The decrease was sufficient in the fourth quarter of 2020 to effect an overall decrease for a year which had shown every indication of recording a notable overall increase.
The decreases in the first five months of 2021 suggest probability that the overall figures this year will represent another annual decrease. There will be questions as to this. Anecdotally, the evidence suggests that COVID-19 claims are a significant volume (31.1%) of our "lost-time" claims, according to the Florida Division of Workers' Compensation. Despite that, they represent only 8% of the lost-time claim expenditures (costs). The pandemic is undeniably impacting business operations, work hours, and accident frequency. It is possible that it is impacting accident severity as well.
The volume of petitions (seeking judicial intervention in disputes) is directly related to the volume and nature of disputes. Are disputes sufficiently serious to warrant litigation? What alternatives are there to such disputes? How efficiently are attorney's offices functioning in the role of interviewing and intaking clients with disputes? How willing are workers to seek representation or visit an attorney's office in the environment of COVID-19? Any or all of these may be playing a role in the decreased volume. And, perhaps, the answers lie elsewhere?