Reasonableness of fee is not ruled by formula; other factors may be considered
Case name: Murray v. Mariner Health and ACE USA, No. SC07-244 (Fla. 10/23/08).
What it means:
When a claimant is entitled to recover attorney's fees from an employer or insurance carrier under Florida law, she is entitled to a reasonable attorney's fee. Because the statute does not define "reasonable attorney's fee" and an ambiguity results when two subsections of the statute are read together, the Supreme Court determined that when not otherwise defined in the workers' compensation statute, the factors of rule 4-1.5(b) of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar should be used to determine reasonableness.
Summary: A certified nursing assistant sustained a uterine prolapse as a result of a lifting accident at work. The JCC found that the claims were compensable and awarded benefits. The parties agreed that the claimant was entitled to a reasonable attorney's fee, but they disputed how to calculate the fee. The claimant argued that the factors articulated in Lee Eng'g & Constr. Co. v. Fellows, 209 So.2d 454, 458 (Fla. 1968) controlled, while the employer/carrier contended that Fla. Stat. § 440.34(1) applied, which mandated the use of a formula based on the benefits awarded.
The JCC determined that while a fee of $16,000 was reasonable, he had to apply subsection (1) of the statute, which yielded a fee of $684.84. The 1st DCA upheld the $684.84 award. The Supreme Court quashed the DCA's decision and returned the case to the JCC for entry of a $16,000 fee award.
The Supreme Court determined that the statute was ambiguous. It concluded that the more specific subsection, which provided for a reasonable attorney's fee, controlled over the more general subsection, which applied the formula. The court reasoned that to rule otherwise would render the more specific subsection meaningless and absurd because application of the formula in all cases would result in inadequate fees in some cases and excessive fees in other cases.
December 2, 2008
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