Thursday, October 24, 2019

FYI: Fla App Ct (2nd DCA) Holds FCCPA Claims for Workplace Injury Bills Not Negated by Workers Comp Law

The District Court of Appeal for the State of Florida, Second District ("2nd DCA"), recently reversed the dismissal of a plaintiff's Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act ("FCCPA") claims relating to bills for medical care incurred as a result of a workplace injury. 


The trial court dismissed the FCCPA claims on the grounds that Florida's Workers' Compensation Law ("WCL") granted exclusive jurisdiction over any matter concerning reimbursement to the state's Department of Financial Services. 


However, the Appellate Court held that section 440.13(11)(c) of the WCL did not preclude trial court jurisdiction over claims against the plaintiff's medical providers under the FCCPA for claims that her medical providers illegally attempted to collect money from her for health care services connected to a workplace injury.


A copy of the opinion is available at: Link to Opinion


An employee ("Employee") was injured in the course of her employment in December 2013.  As part of her worker's compensation benefits, she had a preoperative chest x-ray taken at a radiology clinic (the "Clinic") in October 2014. 


The Employee subsequently received bills from the clinic in April 2015 and later a demand from a collection agency in June 2015, despite the clinic's purported knowledge that the employee was a worker's compensation patient and not responsible for the medical fees.  Even after the employee's workers' compensation carrier contacted the clinic by telephone and sent a letter to inform the collection agency that the Employee was not responsible for payment, in July 2015 the clinic sent yet another bill to the employee seeking payment.


The Employee encountered a nearly identical scenario with regard to lab work done in connection with her injury sustained in the course of employment, as the laboratory (the "Lab") allegedly billed her in May 2014 and again in September 2014 for medical testing that was to be covered under her workers' compensation claims and not billed directly to the Employee.


The Employee filed separate suits against the Clinic and Lab (collectively, the "Medical Providers") alleging violations of the FCCPA, (i) under section 559.72(9), for attempting to collect an illegitimate debt, and (ii) under section 559.72(5), for disclosing false information to a collection agency. 


In response to each suit, the Medical Providers argued that the employee's FCCPA Claims depend on her showing an illegitimate debt, and that the law determining the legitimacy of that debt is Florida's Workers Compensation Law, which grants exclusive jurisdiction to the Department of Financial Services over "any matters concerning reimbursement."  Fla. Stat. 440.13(11)(c).  Accordingly, the Medical Providers moved for judgment on pleadings on the basis that the trial courts lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the employee's FCCPA claims, as they are actually matters concerning reimbursement from her workers' compensation medical providers.  The trial courts agreed, and dismissed the Employee's FCCPA claims.  The instant, consolidated appeal followed.


On appeal, the 2nd DCA first looked to the plain language of the WCL and FCCPA to determine the legislative intent.


The WCL, in relevant part, provides that the Department of Financial Services "has exclusive jurisdiction to decide any matters concerning reimbursement, to resolve any overutilization dispute under subsection (7), and to decide any question concerning overutilization under subsection (8), which question or dispute arises after January 1, 1994." § 440.13(11)(c).


The FCCPA creates "a civil action against a person violating the provisions of s. 559.72" (§ 559.772(1)), which include the provisions of subsection (9) that ""[i]n collecting consumer debts, no person shall . . . [c]laim, attempt, or threaten to enforce a debt when such person knows that the debt is not legitimate, or assert the existence of some other legal right when such person knows that the right does not exist" (§ 559.72(9)) and subsection (5) which prohibits a debt collector from "[d]isclos[ing] to a person other than the debtor or her or his family information affecting the debtor's reputation . . . with knowledge or reason to know that the other person does not have a legitimate business need for the information or that the information is false." § 559.72(5).


Primarily, the Appellate Court noted the distinction between the dictionary definitions of the terms "reimbursement" — to repay or make restoration or payment of an equivalent to — and "collection" — "to gather or exact" or "to claim as due and receive payment for."  The Appellate Court also noted that "reimbursement" is often synonymous with indemnification and typically used to express repayment by a third party not directly involved in a transaction, and thus involves more than two parties.  On the other hand, the Appellate Court noted that the collection of a debt is a demand for, and receipt of payment when a party fails to pay another back. 


Thus, the Court concluded that "collection" is not the same concept or type of activity as "reimbursement," even if a transaction sometimes involves both.  Applying the ordinary meanings of the terms, the 2nd DCA held that the Employee's claims for illegal "collection" practices were not "matters concerning reimbursement." 


Here, the Employee's worker compensation carrier (the "Carrier") was responsible for providing her medical services.  Because the Medical Providers provided those services on behalf of the Carrier, the only party who can reimburse the Clinic and the Lab is the Carrier.  Indeed, the Appellate Court noted, section 440.13(13)(a) provides that "[a] health care provider may not collect or receive a fee from an injured employee within this state, except as otherwise provided by this chapter."


Thus, the 2nd DCA held that the Employee's claims that the Medical Providers engaged in unlawful practices to "collect" consumer debts from Davis under the FCCPA were not "matters concerning reimbursement" committed to the exclusive jurisdiction of the Department of Financial Services under section 440.13(11)(c). 


Further, the Appellate Court held, as neither statute was found to construe the other as meaningless or repealed by implication, and pursuant to Florida's presumption against implicit repeals, the statutes could be read in harmony by allowing courts to refer to the WCL to determine the legitimacy of debts in FCCPA actions.  According to the 2nd DCA, this conclusion was further supported by the statutes' purposes and legislative intent, as the WCL regulates compensation for medical services under a government program and is intended to save time and money for injured employees and their employees, while the FCCPA regulates debt collection practices to protect consumers.


Accordingly, the 2nd DCA held that section 440.13(11)(c) of the WCL did not preclude trial court jurisdiction over the Employee's FCCPA claims, and reversed the dismissals of the Employee's FCCPA claims against her Medical Providers.


However, in light of a strong dissent authored by one of the judges of the three-judge appellate panel, the 2nd DCA further certified the question as to whether section 440.13(11)(c) of the WCL precludes  jurisdiction over claims under section 559.77(1) of the FCCPA to the Florida Supreme Court.





Ralph T. Wutscher
Maurice Wutscher LLP
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