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An attorney has filed suit in U.S. District Court to challenge the constitutionality of amendments to Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act that require a workers’ compensation judge to approve any lawyer’s fee that exceeds 20 percent of the claimant’s award. On several occasions, Larry Pitt claims in the suit, the fee agreements he struck with clients that promised him one-third of any award have been rejected by WC judges who reduced his fee to 20 percent. But the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office is now asking U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Savage to dismiss the suit, arguing that Pitt is trying to relitigate an issue he has already lost several times in the Pennsylvania courts. Deputy Attorney General Linda S. Lloyd argues that Pitt’s suit must be dismissed under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which bars the federal courts from hearing cases that effectively challenge a valid state court judgment. “It is evident from the complaint that plaintiff is dissatisfied with the state court’s treatment of the issues. However, Rooker-Feldman does not permit a disappointed state plaintiff to seek review of a state court decision in the federal courts by masquerading his complaint in the form of a federal civil rights action,” Lloyd wrote in a brief filed on Thursday. In the suit, Pitt claims that amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Act passed in 1972 and 1996 violate the Pennsylvania constitution because they effectively delegate judicial power to the legislative and executive branches. The amendments, Pitt claims, “delegat[e] … power to the legislative branch which in turn permits the scrutiny and limitation of attorney’s fees by Workers’ Compensation Judges who are not members of the judicial branch of government, but rather members of the executive branch of the government.” Pitt also claims the amendments violate the U.S. Constitution because they infringe on a lawyer’s rights to due process and property. Named as defendants in the suit are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry and its secretary, Stephen Schmerin, and the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation and its director Richard H. Thompson. The suit seeks a court order striking down Sections 442 and 449 of the Workers’ Compensation Act as unconstitutional and permanently enjoining the defendants from regulating or restricting attorney fees in workers’ compensation matters. Pitt claims in the suit that the two challenged amendments — which define the power of Workers’ Compensation judges — violate Article V, § 10(c) of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The suit cites three cases in which clients of Pitt had signed fee agreements that said Pitt would receive one-third of any settlement as his fee. But in each of the three cases, the suit says, WC judges refused to approve the fee agreement and instead allowed counsel fees of just 20 percent. In each case, the suit says, unsuccessful appeals were taken to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and later to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court to challenge the fee decisions. After each Commonwealth Court decision denying the appeals, Pitt claims he filed applications for allowances of appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court but was denied every time. In November 2000, Pitt also filed suit in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County seeking a declaratory judgment to have § 442 of the act declared unconstitutional. The suit ultimately failed after the Philadelphia court decided that the Commonwealth Court had original jurisdiction, and the Commonwealth Court in 2001 sustained the government’s preliminary objections and dismissed the case. Now the attorney general’s office is arguing that Pitt’s latest challenge must also fail because the federal suit is nothing more than an attempt to relitigate legal questions that have been answered several times by the Pennsylvania courts. “Pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, this court does not now have jurisdiction over plaintiff’s claims because this court may not act in an appellate capacity nor can it be asked to reverse the Commonwealth Court’s decision,” Lloyd wrote in a brief attached to her motion to dismiss. “Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, lower federal courts cannot entertain constitutional claims that have been previously adjudicated in state court or that are inextricably intertwined with a state adjudication,” Lloyd wrote. Lloyd also argued that it made no difference that Pitt asked only for “prospective relief.” “Because plaintiff’s claim has previously been adjudicated in the state court and is so inextricably intertwined with the prior state court adjudication, any prospective relief would effectively void the state court ruling,” Lloyd wrote. Lloyd also argued that it made no difference that Pitt also alleged federal constitutional claims. “Plaintiff had the opportunity to raise these issue in state court when making his other constitutional challenges. For unknown reasons, plaintiff did not do so,” Lloyd wrote. “Because plaintiff had the opportunity to raise these issues in the state court proceedings but did not do so, they cannot now be used as a tool to circumvent the Rooker-Feldman doctrine,” Lloyd wrote. Pitt could not be reached for comment Thursday. The case is Pitt v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 03-cv-4999.

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