Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg

In the case of Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg ,  the First District Court of Appeal determined that section 440.15(2)(a), Florida Statutes (which subsection limits a claimant to 104 weeks of temporary disability benefits) was unconstitutional as applied to the claimant’s circumstances and found him to be entitled to 260 weeks of temporary total, to which he would have been entitled under the pre-1994 amendments to the subsection.

The Claimant suffered “severe” compensable injuries to his back and knee on December 11, 2009.  The E/C authorized medical treatment and paid out temporary total disability (TTD) benefits.  Claimant exhausted his entitlement to 104 weeks of TTD benefits while recuperating from an authorized spinal surgery.  At that point, however, he remained incapable of working or obtaining employment per both the authorized doctors and the vocational experts.  He then filed for permanent total disability benefits, which request was denied as (1) Claimant was not yet at maximum medical improvement, and (2) Claimant’s condition upon reaching MMI was “too speculative.”  The JCC acknowledged, however, that the Claimant fell into the “statutory gap” of benefits in that he could no longer receive temporary benefits but was not yet eligible for permanent total.  Claimant appealed this decision, challenging, inter alia, the constitutionality of the current system of redress for workplace injuries found in chapter 440, Florida Statutes.

The Court endeavored in a lengthy discussion as to the Claimant’s constitutional rights of access to courts and, once inside, the right to the administration of justice without denial or delay, which analysis is beyond the scope of this memorandum.  Ultimately, however, the Court determined that the current statutory scheme often requiring the Claimant to refrain from working and go without disability pay until his doctors (selected and, to some degree, under the control and influence of the E/C) placed him at maximum medical improvement, was unconstitutional as applied. 

In so finding, the Court harkened the doctrine of judicial revival and found that the limitation contained in the pre-1994 amendments (260 weeks) was revived.  Thus, ultimately, the Court found that Claimant was entitled to temporary total disability benefits up to 260 weeks.

There are several important things to note about this decision.  First, the Court explicitly stated that its analysis applies only “prospectively” and will not apply to previous rulings, adjudications, or proceedings already final.  In other words, a claimant who was previously found limited to 104 weeks in an Order by the JCC cannot now seek reversal based upon this decision.  Second, based on the Court’s continuous references to “temporary total disability,” it appears this holding is limited to situations wherein a claimant is rendered totally disabled, but not yet entitled to permanent total disability.  Whether a claimant could assert entitlement to temporary partial disability benefits beyond the 104-week cap is something that should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.

Finally, the Court did not conclude that section 440.15 is unconstitutional on its face, but rather, unconstitutional as applied to Claimant’s (and many others’ circumstances).  Still, we certainly anticipate that the Court’s ruling will trigger review by the Florida Supreme Court as same is expressly construing a statutory provision.  We would also point out that the Court’s decision dated February 28, 2013 is not yet final.  Obviously, we will continue to keep you advised as to further developments related to this decision.

In the meantime, we would invite you to contact us with any questions or concerns or if you would like to discuss this decision in more detail.