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Justices continue rejecting Death Row appeals

The Florida Supreme Court opinions started showing up in batches of 10 last week.

The opinions were nearly identical, except for the names of the Death Row inmates seeking new sentences and a few details of each case. But the conclusion was the same: No dice.

With a batch released Monday, the total number of rejections reached 50. The common thread was that all of the inmates’ sentences were finalized before a June 2002 cutoff date that otherwise could have allowed many of them to be resentenced.

The way the Florida Supreme Court released the batches of opinions was highly unusual. But the underlying issues in the 50 cases traced to a January 2016 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the state’s death-penalty sentencing process was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries, in deciding whether defendants should be executed.

That 2016 ruling effectively halted capital punishment in Florida for more than 18 months, as lawmakers and courts grappled with changes in the system. As part of that, the Florida Supreme Court ruled juries must unanimously agree on critical findings before judges can impose death sentences and must unanimously recommend the death penalty. In the past, juries could recommend death by majority votes.

The Florida Supreme Court’s unanimity requirements allowed many Death Row inmates to argue that those standards should be applied retroactively to their already-decided cases. That has sent cases back to lower courts for resentencing.

But there was a catch for people on Death Row for long periods: The Florida Supreme Court made the new sentencing requirements apply to cases since June 2002. That is when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling known as Ring v. Arizona that was a premise for striking down Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system in 2016.

Each of the 50 appeals rejected during the past week involved cases decided before the Ring decision — with a couple just missing the cutoff.

Perhaps the best example came Monday, when the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Death Row inmate Gary Ray Bowles in the 1994 murder of Walter Hinton in Jacksonville Beach. Bowles’ sentence became final June 17, 2002 — a week before the June 24, 2002, Ring decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to court documents.

In an appeal filed in October, Bowles’ attorney contended that the cutoff date violated constitutional protections against “arbitrary and capricious imposition of the death penalty.” A jury unanimously recommended that Bowles receive the death penalty in the Hinton murder, but Bowles’ attorney, Francis Shea, argued in the appeal that it was unclear whether jurors also unanimously agreed on the critical findings.

“(Bowles’) jury made only a recommendation to impose the death penalty, without making any findings of fact as to any of the elements required for a death sentence under Florida law,” Shea wrote. “This (Supreme) Court cannot reliably infer from the jury’s recommendation whether the jury unanimously found — or a hypothetical jury in a constitutional proceeding would have unanimously found — all the other requisite elements for a death sentence. There is a reasonable probability that individual jurors based their overall recommendation for death on a different underlying calculus.”

But Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office pointed in an October brief to the Florida Supreme Court’s past rulings on issues related to the Ring decision cutoff date and said Bowles has “demonstrated no cause for this (Supreme) Court to recede from its lengthy case precedent.”

In issuing its two-page opinion Monday, the Supreme Court cited precedent in rejecting a resentencing for Bowles, who also has received to life sentences for 1994 murders in Nassau and Volusia counties, according to the Florida Department of Corrections website. A 1999 Florida Times-Union story said Bowles had admitted to killing six gay men in Florida and other states, including Hinton.

Along with Bowles, the other Death Row inmates who lost appeals Monday were Michael Bernard Bell in a Duval County case; Paul Alfred Brown in a Hillsborough County case; Mark Allen Davis in a Pinellas County case; Charles Kenneth Foster in a Bay County case; Kevin Don Foster in a Lee County case; Konstantinos X. Fotopoulos in a Volusia County case; Guy R. Gamble in a Lake County case; Brandy Bain Jennings in a Collier County case; and Robert Joe Long in a Hillsborough County case.

Supreme Court will take firefighter pay raise case

A divided Florida Supreme Court narrowly decided to hear a challenge to Gov. Rick Scott‘s veto of firefighter pay raises in the 2015-16 state budget.

The Court “accepted jurisdiction” of the case (No. SC17-1434) on Thursday, with the first brief on the merits due by Feb. 14.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince voted to accept the case; the court’s conservative-leaning trio of Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson opposed it.

The International Association of Firefighters union wants the court to strike down the veto.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, in a split opinion, previously ruled that Scott’s thumb-down did not violate collective-bargaining rights.

The dispute involved Scott’s veto of a $2,000 raise the Legislature had OK’d for members of the International Association of Firefighters Local S-20 — representing the Florida Forest Service — for the fiscal year that began on July 1, 2015.

The lower court said Scott acted within his authority to veto spending items in the state budget, and that lawmakers could have overridden the veto but did not.

The Legislature included the $2,000 raises for firefighters in budget fine print known as “proviso” language, which Scott subsequently vetoed.

Attorneys for the state say the appeals court “merely applied a clearly articulated constitutional right” of the governor to veto spending items.

1st DCA Judge Brad Thomas, who dissented, had said “the question at issue here is whether the governor, by using his veto power, may unilaterally vacate the Legislature’s decision to resolve a collective-bargaining impasse.

“Based on logic, precedent, and the constitutional basis of public employees’ collective bargaining rights, the correct answer is no.”

Justices reject another batch of death penalty appeals

For the second day in a row, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday turned down appeals by 10 inmates who have been on Death Row since at least 2002.

The release of 20 death-penalty rulings over two days is highly unusual, with every rejection stemming from legal issues about jury unanimity. The appeals were rooted in a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Hurst v. Florida and a subsequent Florida Supreme Court decision.

The 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system was unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries. The subsequent Florida Supreme Court ruling said juries must unanimously agree on critical findings before judges can impose death sentences and must unanimously recommend the death penalty.

But the Florida Supreme Court made the new sentencing requirements apply to cases since June 2002. That is when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling known as Ring v. Arizona that was a premise for striking down Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system in 2016.

In each of the cases Monday, the Death Row inmates had been sentenced to death before the Ring decision and argued that the new sentencing requirements should also apply to their cases. One of the rulings Tuesday dealt with the Charlotte County case of James D. Ford, whose two death sentences became final on May 28, 2002, less than a month before the June 24, 2002, Ring decision, according to the Florida Supreme Court ruling.

The other inmates who lost their appeals Tuesday were Jeffrey Lee Atwater in a Pinellas County case; Curtis W. Beasley in a Polk County case; Daniel Burns Jr. in a Manatee County case; Ronald Wayne Clark Jr. in a Duval County case; Loran Cole in a Marion County case; Carl Puiatti in a Pasco County case; Richard Wallace Rhodes in a Pinellas County case; Chadwick Willacy in a Brevard County case; and Curtis Windom in an Orange County case.

‘Like’ this: Supreme Court will soon be on Facebook Live

There will be more ways to watch the Florida Supreme Court when it revs up Facebook Live broadcasts this week.

The court will use the social media broadcasting service to televise Thursday’s Florida Bar Pro Bono Awards honoring lawyers who donate services to people in need, court spokesman Craig Waters said in a Tuesday email.

After that, Facebook Live “will be used permanently for all oral arguments, starting with February’s, in addition to the live and archived video already available on the Court’s 20-year-old video website portal called Gavel to Gavel,” he added. Arguments also are on The Florida Channel.

The move makes it “one of the first courts in the world to use social media for official live video,” Waters said.

“In the 1970s, Florida became the first state to allow broadcasts of its court cases at a time when every other court in the nation refused it,” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said in a statement.

“This Court’s experiment with transparency showed everyone a better way to balance First Amendment rights against the rights of people involved in a trial or appeal. Social media will be our next step in moving this highly successful model of openness into the 21st century.”

The court’s own coverage “aired worldwide when the presidential election dispute of 2000, known today as Bush v. Gore, came before the Florida Supreme Court twice,” Waters said.

“More recently, the groundwork for Thursday’s Facebook Live video was laid when Labarga and his fellow justices unanimously approved a sweeping court communication plan in December 2015. It called on Florida’s courts to embrace recent advances in technology and communications, such as social media and podcasting.”

For more information, visit these sites:

— Florida Supreme Court Live & Archived Oral Argument Videos: http://wfsu.org/gavel2gavel/

— Florida Supreme Court Facebook Page (including broadcasts): https://www.facebook.com/floridasupremecourt/

— Florida Supreme Court Podcasts: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/podcasts.shtml

Supreme Court rejects 10 death penalty appeals

The Florida Supreme Court on Monday rejected appeals by 10 Death Row inmates, including a man scheduled to be executed Feb. 22 in the 1993 slaying of a University of West Florida student.

The Supreme Court’s release of 10 nearly identical rulings at the same time was a somewhat-unusual move. But each of the cases involved inmates challenging their death sentences because juries did not unanimously recommend execution.

The appeals were rooted in a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Hurst v. Florida and a subsequent Florida Supreme Court decision. The 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system was unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries. The subsequent Florida Supreme Court ruling said juries must unanimously agree on critical findings before judges can impose death sentences and must unanimously recommend the death penalty.

But the Florida Supreme Court made the new sentencing requirements apply to cases since 2002. That is when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling known as Ring v. Arizona that was a premise for striking down Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system in 2016.

In each of the cases Monday, the Death Row inmates had been sentenced to death before the Ring decision and argued that the jury-unanimity requirements should also apply to their cases.

The inmates included Eric Scott Branch, who was scheduled Friday by Gov. Rick Scott to be executed Feb. 22. The other inmates were Pressley Bernard Alston in a Duval County case; Kayle Barrington Bates in a Bay County case; Donald Bradley in a Clay County case; Marvin Burnett Jones in a Duval County case; Daniel Jon Peterka in an Okaloosa County case; Harry Franklin Phillips in a Miami-Dade County case; Jason Demetrius Stephens in a Duval County case; Ernest D. Suggs in a Walton County case; and Frank A. Walls in an Okaloosa County case.

U.S. Supreme Court rejects appeal by Florida judge

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to take up an appeal by a Central Florida circuit judge, who was disciplined by the state Supreme Court for a misleading ad during a 2014 election campaign.

Judge Kim Shepard, who hears cases in Orange County, raised First Amendment arguments in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a challenge to the disciplinary actions.

The U.S. Supreme Court, as is common, did not explain its reasons for refusing to take up the case.

The Florida Supreme Court last year publicly reprimanded Shepard and imposed a 90-day suspension after an investigation by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. The investigation focused on an Orlando Sentinel endorsement that Shepard received in 1994 for a state House campaign.

In the 2014 judicial race, the newspaper endorsed Shepard’s opponent, Norberto Katz, whom Shepard defeated.

By deleting the date of the endorsement and references to the House race, Shepard deceptively made it appear in an advertisement that she had been endorsed by the Sentinel in the judicial race, a hearing panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission found.

In issuing the public reprimand in August, Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said the ad “misled” the public.

“The First Amendment does not create a free pass for judicial candidates to distort facts or misrepresent themselves or their opponents in their campaigns,” Labarga said.

But in a document filed last month with the U.S. Supreme Court, Shepard’s attorneys argued that the case raised a question about the proper First Amendment standard for regulating “misleading” campaign speech that is not false.

“In this case, it was never alleged that petitioner, Judge Kimberly Shepard, falsely claimed the Orlando Sentinel endorsed her 2014 campaign for judicial office. The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission acknowledged that her campaign materials included a full copy of a 1994 Orlando Sentinel article praising her integrity and legislative service that the flyer for which she was sanctioned quoted in part,” the document said. “Nor were there any allegations or findings that the statements in her campaign materials were false. … For First Amendment purposes, there is a vast difference between publishing a knowingly false statement and issuing one that might be misunderstood.”

Panel approves changes to judicial appointments

The Constitution Revision Commission is considering a measure that could settle future disputes over the appointment of Florida Supreme Court justices, but the proposal will do nothing to resolve a constitutional crisis looming early next year.

At question is whether Gov. Rick Scott or his successor, the winner of the 2018 governor’s race, will pick the replacements for three justices — Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince — whose terms end as Scott’s tenure comes to a close in early January 2019.

Scott has asserted the right to appoint the new justices, which could change the ideological balance of the court. The Supreme Court last month dismissed a challenge focused on who has the power to appoint the justices, deciding that it was too early to rule on the issue.

A proposal unanimously approved by the commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee on Friday would resolve that issue for future appointments by changing the mandatory retirement date for members of the Supreme Court, the five state appellate courts and for circuit and county judges.

The measure (Proposal 41), sponsored by Commissioner Bill Schifino of Tampa, would require justices and judges to retire on their birthdays once they reach the age of 75.

It would replace the current system where judges must retire when they reach the age of 70 but are allowed to finish their terms. Under that provision, the three Supreme Court justices have reached their mandatory retirement age but are serving out terms which end Jan. 9, which is also the day the next governor will take office.

However, Schifino’s proposal, if adopted by the full CRC and approved by 60 percent of the voters next fall, would not take effect until July 2019, meaning it would have no impact on the current appointment dispute.

Schifino, a former Florida Bar president, told The News Service of Florida he saw the CRC’s role as considering long-term constitutional changes rather than getting involved in trying to resolve more immediate disputes.

“We’re not here to fix a particular issue that is before us today,” Schifino said. “We’re thinking very long term.”

A major element of Schifino’s proposal would raise the mandatory retirement age for the justices and judges to 75.

Schifino said when the original 70-year-old limit was set in the state constitution decades ago, life expectancy was much shorter than the current projection of about 80 years for U.S. residents.

“I think it makes good, good sense to keep good, experienced judges on the bench,” he said.

Schifino also noted that the federal judicial system has no age limit for judges, including members of the U.S. Supreme Court. There are no age limits for other state government members, he said.

“I can’t think of another elected official or appointed official or anyone in the executive or legislative branches that has a mandatory retirement age,” Schifino said.

And although the proposal would not resolve the existing Supreme Court appointment dispute, Schifino said the imposition of a “drop dead” retirement date on a judge’s birthday would prevent future occurrences of multiple court vacancies on the same day.

“You won’t see this problem again,” he said.

Commissioner John Stemberger of Orlando, who is co-sponsoring the measure, told the CRC’s Judicial Committee earlier on Friday that he had talked to current and retired Supreme Court justices who supported a more orderly retirement and appointment process.

“They explained to me that having two or three justices retire on the same day does not provide the kind of continuity and stability to the court that is really best,” Stemberger said. “A better policy is to have the justices actually retire on their actual birthdays.”

Schifino’s proposal is now ready for consideration by the full commission, where it eventually must garner at least 22 votes to be placed on the November general election ballot.

Orange County appealing to Supreme Court in battle over non-partisan or partisan elections

A three-year fight over non-partisan elections in Orange County may be headed for the Florida Supreme Court — with the prospect of affecting county elections throughout the state.

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs announced Monday she wants the state’s high court to consider whether Orange County — and other charter counties like it — can decide to make key county-wide elected offices such as sheriff, tax collector and property appraiser become non-partisan in elections.

Under Jacobs’ direction, Orange County tried to do so, twice, with county-wide charter amendment elections in 2014 and ’16. Both times voters overwhelmingly agreed with her effort to take partisan labels out of elections for those offices.

But the courts, most recently Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals last month, held against the results of those charter amendment elections. The courts ruled that Orange County does not have the authority to take offices initially created as partisan-election offices by the state, and transform them into non-partisan, even by asking voters.

On Monday, in announcing she and Orange County were appealing to the Florida Supreme Court, Jacobs said she was pursuing “the will of the voters;” and also fighting for county rights, for Orange County and other charter counties that already have taken, or might wish to take, partisan divides out of county-office elections.

“What’s at stake if we let that [appeals court] decision stand? Well, first and foremost, at stake is a very clear and decisive will of the [Orange  County] electorate, expressed by an overwhelming 70 percent, not once, but twice in the last three years, will not be honored, will not be upheld,” Jacobs said. “Second, the citizens of Orange County and other counties in this district will have less rights of self government than all other charter counties in the state of Florida. How can that possibly be right?”

Her appeal is a bit of a gambit that could have statewide ramifications: There currently are several charter counties that have what Jacobs wants in Orange County. None of them, however, is in the jurisdiction of Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals. If the Florida Supreme Court rules against her and upholds the lower courts’ decisions against Orange County, the ruling could make law affecting all Florida counties.

Jacobs insisted, as she has all along, that she is not fighting a partisan battle. Rather, she has insisted she wants to ensure that county voters can fill county-wide offices without partisan races, which she insists makes local government less-partisan in its approach to both elections and day-to-day governing. In Orange, the mayor’s office and those of county commissioners are non-partisan, as are municipal offices, school board offices and others. County-wide offices for sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser, clerk of courts, and supervisor of elections are partisan, typically pitting Democrats and Republicans in elections.

On Monday Jacobs also went to lengths to talk about the rising prominence of independent voters, who now make up more than 30 percent of the county’s voting base. She insisted she is fighting to make sure voters don’t have to consider parties when voting, something apparently more and more popular among voters.

Yet the fight has very real partisan overtones, and Jacobs’ opponents insist it’s been partisan from the beginning. Jacobs is Republican, and Republicans controlled both the County Commission and the Orange County Charter Review Commission when those boards decided to ask voters to make the county-wide offices non-partisan.

They did so during an era when Orange County Republicans are losing their voting base, and Democrats are gaining. Today the county’s voter rolls are 42 percent Democrat, 31 percent independent or “other,” and 27 percent Republican.

Before the questions could even appear on the ballot, first in 2014, then in 2016, Democrats in several of the affected offices, who saw the effort possibly as a Republican way to make them more vulnerable in future elections, sued to stop the charter amendment elections. When the charter-amendment elections went forward anyway, they continued to pursue the cases to overturn the results, contending the questions should never have appeared on the ballots. Specifically, Sheriff Jerry Demings, Tax Collector Scott Randolph, and Property Appraiser Rick Singh sued.

Randolph called Jacobs’ decision Monday to appeal to the Supreme Court “a bad decision and a shame, just like when she appealed it the first time. I think we fully expect the Supreme Court to rule just like the other two courts have on that issue.

“Trust me, this has nothing to do, in her mind, with voters,” Randolph alleged. “This is about protecting the Republican Party’s chances of winning races in Orange County.

“But at the end of the day the charter amendment is unconstitutional. It should have never been put on the ballot in the first place. And at the end of the day, even the mayor has to follow the law,” he continued.

Florida Supreme Court

5 Florida legal issues to watch in 2018

From the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington to a Tallahassee courthouse, Florida’s high-profile legal battles in 2018 will focus on issues ranging from a water war to medical marijuana.

With thousands of lawsuits moving through state and federal courts, it’s impossible to list — or foresee — all the major legal disputes that that will play out in the new year. But here are five to watch:

Water War

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday in a long-running water battle between Florida and Georgia. The crux of the issue: Florida contends that Georgia is siphoning too much water in northern parts of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, damaging the Apalachicola River and the oyster industry in Franklin County’s Apalachicola Bay. But a special master appointed by the Supreme Court recommended that Florida should be denied relief. Georgia has argued that limits on its water use would undermine the state’s economy, including the growth of the Atlanta area and the agriculture industry in Southeast Georgia.

First Amendment

Each year, the U.S. Supreme Court receives 7,000 to 8,000 appeals and agrees to hear roughly 80 cases. But Palm Beach County government critic Fane Lozman beat those long odds, as the Supreme Court will hear arguments Feb. 27 in a First Amendment case that stems from Lozman’s arrest as he spoke during a Riviera Beach City Council meeting. Lozman accused the city of violating his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him, in part, for his outspoken criticism. Lower courts sided with the city, which argued that a police officer had “probable cause” to arrest Lozman, who had refused to comply with directions from a council member.


Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion‘s death in 2011 during a hazing incident drew national attention and spurred prosecutions of other members of the school’s famed “Marching 100.” But the Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments Feb. 7 in an appeal by Dante Martin, a band member who was sent to prison in Champion’s death. Martin, who was found guilty of manslaughter, felony hazing resulting in death and two counts of misdemeanor hazing, contends the state’s hazing law is unconstitutional, at least in part because it is overly broad. Champion was injured during a band ritual known as “crossing Bus C,” which involved band members being struck repeatedly as they crossed from the front of a bus to the back.

Medical Marijuana

Florida voters in November 2016 approved a constitutional amendment to broadly legalize medical marijuana. More than a year later, however, legal battles continue about how the state should carry out the amendment. Orlando attorney John Morgan, who largely bankrolled the 2016 ballot initiative, has filed the high-profile case, arguing that lawmakers violated the constitutional amendment by passing a measure that bars smoking medical marijuana. A Leon County circuit judge is scheduled to hear arguments Jan. 25 about whether she should dismiss Morgan’s lawsuit. Other pending cases involve issues such as the constitutionality of a law that calls for issuing a highly coveted marijuana license to a black farmer. Another case challenges the constitutionality of a preference for the citrus industry in awarding marijuana licenses.

Education Fight

In the education world, it’s known simply as HB 7069 — a massive bill that House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, shepherded to passage at the end of the 2017 Legislative Session. At least 14 county school boards have filed two constitutional challenges to the law, contending in part that it undermines local control of public schools. The pending challenges, filed in Leon County circuit court, focus on issues such as part of the law that requires school boards to share with charter schools a portion of property-tax revenues used for building projects. School boards filed another case directly to the Florida Supreme Court, though justices said last month the dispute should first be heard in circuit court.

Legal fees increase in workers’ comp system

Injured workers racked up nearly $186 million in approved legal fees in 2016-2017, a 36 percent increase from the previous year, a state report on the workers’ compensation insurance system shows.

In all, attorneys’ fees in the workers compensation system totaled nearly $440 million during the 2016-2017 fiscal year. The majority — nearly $254 million — were forked out by employers defending workers’ compensation claims.

Issued by the Office of the Judges of Compensation Claims, the 2016-2017 annual report notes that $185.6 million in approved legal fees for injured workers is the highest amount paid in nearly a decade and is attributable to a 2016 Florida Supreme Court ruling.

“Clearly, there is a trend suggested of increasing claimant attorneys’ fees in the wake of (the ruling),” the report, released last month, notes.

The report shows that in 2016-2017, more than $75 million in hourly fees were approved for claimants’ attorneys, a nearly 200 percent increase from the $25.8 million in hourly fees that were approved the previous year.

During the same period, the report shows that fees paid to workers’ compensation attorneys under legislatively approved fee caps decreased about 31 percent.

It is the second consecutive year that legal fees increased for injured workers and employers and reverses what had been a five-year trend of lower legal costs for both sides in workers’ compensation cases.

Workers’ compensation is a no-fault system meant to protect workers and employers. It is supposed to provide workers who are injured on the job access to medical benefits they need to be made whole. Those who are injured for at least eight days also are entitled to indemnity benefits, or lost wages. In exchange for providing those benefits, employers generally cannot be sued in court for causing injuries.

While the system is supposed to be self-executing, injured workers hire attorneys when there are disputes over the amounts of benefits they should receive.

Florida businesses faced some of the highest workers’ compensation costs in the country in the early 2000s. Business interests argued that attorney involvement — legal fees in the aggregate totaled $427 million in fiscal year 2002-2003 — was the reason for the high costs.

The Legislature responded by passing a sweeping rewrite of the workers’ compensation system in 2003 that, among other things, tied the recovery of plaintiff attorneys’ fees to percentages of the amount of recovered benefits. The law was tweaked in 2009 to make clear that workers’ compensation judges were precluded from awarding additional hourly fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys.

But in a 2016 ruling known as Castellanos v. Next Door Company, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the restrictive fee caps violated injured workers’ due process rights and authorized judges to award fees outside the fee schedule if adhering to it yielded unreasonable results.

Business interests lobbied the Legislature earlier this year to, at a minimum, limit the hourly rates that attorneys could charge. But lawmakers did not approve a change.

Despite the marked increase in legal costs for 2016-2017, the report notes that when adjusted for inflation, aggregate attorneys’ fees in Florida workers’ compensation have decreased by more than $100 million over the past 14 years.

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