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Florida Courts Wrestling with Workers’ Compensation and Issues of Fraud

Recently, a set of cases have been working through the Florida court system that deal with issues of “workers’ compensation fraud.” This loaded term has often been misclassified only as a person who is trying to defraud the workers’ compensation system; however, the cases in Florida have dealt with the question of whether a person who fraudulently secured work still deserves workers’ compensation benefits, or whether it is considered fraud.

The Hernandez Case

In the case of Matrix Employee Leasing v. Leopoldo Hernandez, the defendant Mr. Hernandez obtained employment with Matrix Employee Leasing through the use of a false Social Security card. While in the scope of employment and on the job, Mr. Hernandez was injured and filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. The trial court found that he was entitled to benefits and the First District Court of Appeals in Florida agreed.

At issues were two sections of Florida law, Section 440.105(4)(b)(9) and Section 440.09(4)(a). The second section of law provides that “An employee shall not be entitled to compensation or benefits if . . . the employee has knowingly or intentionally engaged in any of the acts described in 440.105 or in any criminal act for the purpose of securing workers’ compensation benefits.”

Section 440.105 includes the provision that defines the prohibited activities, reports, penalties, and limitations of the workers’ compensation law. It states that it is against the law for a 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.”

The Court of Appeals found that it was clear that Mr. Hernandez violated Section 440.105 by procuring work with a false Social Security card. However, the court also concluded that the violation did not preclude his entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits. This is because the court interpreted the section of 440.09 as saying that it must be proven that the employee engaged in any acts of Section 440.105 specifically for the purposes of obtaining workers’ compensation benefits, which Mr. Hernandez did not do.

The Brock Case

In the case of Florida v. Francisco Brock, the defendant Mr. Brock was charged with one count of fraud under Section 440.105(4)(b)(9) of the Florida code. He allegedly used a fake Social Security number in order to obtain employment at Waste Pro USA and used the same fake number on a Homeland Security I-9 form. However, it was made clear in court that Mr. Brock had never attempted to make a workers’ compensation claim.

Mr. Brock appealed the Fourth District Court of Appeals’ decision to the state Supreme Court, claiming that the court’s interpretation of the statute conflicted with the First District’s ruling of the same statute in Hernandez. The contention in the appeal was that the conclusions of the courts are in conflict and that the appropriate solution is for the Supreme Court to clarify the interpretation and application of the statute. The Court concluded that there is no true conflict and dismissed Brock.

The Florida Supreme Court did not explain its logic in dismissing the case, but it is also not obligated to do so. However, the lack of review suggests that the statute section outlaws the misrepresentation in obtaining employment as in Brock, but it does not preclude the collection of workers’ compensation benefits as in Hernandez.

The Hector Case

Another case currently pending before the Florida Supreme Court is Jordan Hector v. Florida. In this case, Mr. Hector was one of twelve undocumented workers who were rounded up in a raid of Waste Pro USA and charged with violating Section 440.105(4)(b)(9) for using a false Social Security card to obtain employment.

This case was consolidated with Brock at the trial level, where the judge stated that “the State is required to prove that they obtained employment for the purpose of worker compensation benefits, either filing or supporting a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, they’re all tied together. The state has agreed that they have neither claimed nor filed for workers’ compensation benefits…” and Mr. Hector’s charges were dismissed.

The state appealed to the Fourth District and this case was reversed on the same grounds as Brock, where the court ruled that “it seems clear that the legislature specifically intended to make it a felony for a person to knowingly present any false or misleading identification for the purpose of obtaining employment, irrespective of the existence of any workers’ compensation claim.” Based on the same issues as Brock, the Hector case is also pending before the Florida Supreme Court.

If the Court Refuses Hector

The biggest obstacle for the Hector case is finding out whether the case will even make it to the Florida Supreme Court. The state supreme court has the discretion to decide whether it wishes to hear a case, and many state courts often avoid addressing any cases that have potential constitutional questions. If the Florida Supreme Court rejects the offer to hear the Hector issue, the next step would be to appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Representatives from both the Brock and Hector cases have suggested that an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court may happen. Unfortunately, the same issue can arise as it does at the state court level – the U.S. Supreme Court has wide discretion to choose which cases that it wants to hear. Until then, Florida employers and employees alike will have to wait on the state and federal court systems to decide how Florida’s workers’ compensation fraud will be defined.

Call a Florida Workers’ Compensation Attorney Today

Workers’ compensation law in Florida has undergone significant changes in the past few years. If you or someone that you know has questions regarding workers’ compensation law or a particular claim in the Orlando, Tampa, Fort Myers, Jacksonville, or West Palm Beach area, let the experienced attorneys at The Pendas Law Firm help. Call or contact the office today for a free and confidential consultation of your case.

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