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Burke: Are the Winds Shifting in Workers' Compensation?

By Bob Burke

Thursday, March 17, 2016 | 301 | 0 | min read

For the past decade or more, the dominant storyline in workers’ compensation has been the states reducing benefits, limiting the very definition of a compensable injury, and shifting much of the cost of workplace injuries to workers and the federal and state governments.

Bob Burke

Bob Burke

Then, on March 1, the Oklahoma Supreme Court released a 50-page unanimous opinion that may be the most important state Supreme Court workers’ compensation decision in many years. In Torres v. Seaboard Foods, the Court declared as unconstitutional one section of Oklahoma’s 2013 reform law that required 180 days of continuous employment for a cumulative trauma injury to be compensable. But the Supreme Court did much more than toss out one arbitrary limitation.

Torres stands for the principle that an injured worker’s federal and state due process rights are violated by a law that limits benefits UNLESS the legislation is rationally related to a legitimate government interest of preventing workers’ comp fraud or decreasing employers’ costs.

Torres holds that a court’s constitutional analysis must be based on what the legislation “actually” accomplishes, not by what the legislature says it accomplishes. The Supreme Court recognizes the legislature’s broad authority to regulate workers’ compensation, but that such police power must be exerted with scrupulous regard for private rights guaranteed by the Oklahoma Constitution. Justice James Edmondson wrote, “It is clear that a state’s legitimate interest in regulating business practices are not exempt from the requirements of substantive due process.”

By throwing out the 180-day cumulative trauma limitation on due process grounds, the Supreme Court reserved for another day the worker’s claim that the new Oklahoma law violates the Grand Bargain and denies an adequate remedy guaranteed by the state’s Constitution.

However, concurring opinions by three justices went further. In discussing the Grand Bargain, former Chief Justice Tom Colbert said, “With the passing of the Administrative Workers’ Compensation Act, the balance is now off-kilter and has become one-sided to the benefit of the employer.”

The 2013 Oklahoma law gives an employer immunity from tort liability even if an injury has been made non-compensable under workers’ comp. Vice Chief Justice Douglas Combs wrote, “By cutting off all recourse for an injured worker, excluding them from both workers’ compensation coverage and from filing a tort claim, the Legislature has violated the Grand Bargain and betrayed the fundamental principles of justice that gave rise to it in the first place.”

The future impact of Torres is unclear. Will it result in the Oklahoma Supreme Court finding other provisions of the 2013 in violation of due process? Will Torres spread? Will due process be used in other states to challenge arbitrary limitations on temporary total disability, termination of future benefits based upon an arbitrary number of medical visits missed, or age limitations on permanent total disability?

Torres is a warning shot at a time when federalization of workers’ compensation is again being discussed. Will the Oklahoma decision send a message to other state legislatures that cost-shifting to injured workers cannot be arbitrary without a rationally-connected state interest? Only time will tell.

Bob Burke is an Oklahoma City claimants' attorney who is representing plaintiffs in several constitutional challenges to the Oklahoma Administrative Workers' Compensation Act.

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