Summary Of Court Challenges – Part I

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TO TITLE 85A, THE ADMINISTRATIVE

WORKERS’ COMPENSATION ACT

Updated February 1, 2018

Four years ago to the day, an Act became effective in Oklahoma making devastating cuts to workers’ compensation benefits.  Attorneys who represent injured workers, like Brandon Burton, advised law makers at the time that at least 52 of the new statutes contained in the Act were unconstitutional.  To date, 50 provisions of Title 85A have been found unconstitutional, inoperable, non-applicable, or invalid by the Oklahoma Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.  The goal of the Act was to reduce cost to businesses by reducing benefits to workers.  Through hard work and perseverance, the Act has evolved somewhat but benefit levels remain among the lowest in the nation.  It is hoped that the legislature will find a way to increase benefits in the coming legislative session.  Below is a summary of court cases that have corrected some of injustices contained in the 2013 Act along with some cases that are still pending on appeal.

Subject Areas and Issues

  1. Jurisdiction and Procedure L. Major Cause
  2. Injuries during Breaks M. Parking lots and common areas
  3. Communicable Disease O. Heart Attacks and Strokes
  4. Pre-Existing Condition P. Temporary Total Disability (TTD)
  5. To and From Work Q. Intoxication Defense
  6. Cumulative Trauma R. Retaliatory Discharge
  7. Opt Out S. Hernia
  8. Missed Medical Appointments T. Vocational Rehabilitation
  9.  Subrogation U. AMA Guides
  10. Permanent Partial Disability (PPD) V. Statute of Limitations
  11. Intentional Tort

Court Opinions or Commission Rulings

JURISDICTION AND PROCEDURE

  • Carlock v. Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2014 OK 29, 324 P.3d 408.

Challenge:

Application for Original Jurisdiction to challenge seven provisions of 85A which gave the Workers’ Compensation Commission (Commission) authority to hear appeals from the Court of Existing Claims (CEC) and exert administrative authority over the CEC.

Supreme Court Decision:

On April 17, 2014, a unanimous Supreme Court granted Original Jurisdiction and opined that “All aspects of the adjudication of claims for injuries occurring prior to February 1, 2014,” shall be vested in the CEC. The Commission was prohibited from reviewing any CEC orders. The effect of the decision created two separate workers’ compensation systems in Oklahoma—one for injuries occurring before February 1, 2014, and another for new law claims occurring on or after that date.

  • True v. Workers’ Compensation Commission, Supreme Court No. 113,321

Challenge:

Petition for Original Jurisdiction and Writ of Mandamus to require Commission to hear appeals from administrative law judges.

Supreme Court Decision:

On November 5, 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed the action after the Commission agreed to immediately set appeals for hearing before the Commission en Banc.

  • Williams v. Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2014 OK 98, 339 P3d 427

Challenge:

Application for Original Jurisdiction and Petitions for Writ of Mandamus and Prohibition to require the Commission to provide court reporters for the reporting of hearings before the administrative law judges and the Commission en Banc.

Supreme Court Decision:

On November 17, 2014, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 to assume Original Jurisdiction and grant the Writs of Mandamus and Prohibition. The effect of the decision was to order the Commission to provide a court reporter to report all hearings and prohibit the Commission from providing only an audio recording in lieu of a court reporter.

  • Smith vs. State of Oklahoma, Oklahoma County, No. CV-2015-1168

Challenge:

A class action lawsuit filed to prohibit the Oklahoma Tax Commission, State Finance Director, and State Treasurer from transferring any funds from the Multiple Injury Trust Fund for use for any other state government program and agency. The lawsuit alleged that the annual MITF assessment is a “tax” and cannot be spent by the legislature for any other purpose than designated.

Resolution:

After assurances from state officials that there is no intention to use any of the MITF annual assessment paid by Insurance companies and Own Risk companies for any other purpose except paying MITF awards and administration, the case was dismissed.

  • Torres v. Seaboard Foods LLC, 2016 OK 20, 373 P.3d 1057

Challenge:

The appeal challenges the constitutionality of Section 2(14) which excludes a claim for cumulative trauma unless an employee works for an employer a minimum of 180 days continuously.

The case challenges the entire AWCA’s drastic cut in benefits, limitations of compensability, and use of the AMA Guides as a breach of the Grand Bargain, bringing about an end to exclusive remedy.

The case challenges the grant of exclusive remedy, Section 5(C), even if there is no remedy available in Title 85A.

The appeal argues that this provision is a “special law” and is unconstitutional because it provides disparate treatment of members of a single class. In addition, the section is a denial of fundamental due process.

Supreme Court Decision:

IN A 50-PAGE DECISION, THE COURT UNANIMOUSLY FOUND THAT THE ARBITRARY 180-DAY LIMIT ON CUMULATIVE TRAUMA WAS UNCONSTITUTIONAL AS A DENIAL OF FEDERAL AND STATE DUE PROCESS.

IN THE COMPREHENSIVE OPINION, THE SUPREME COURT SAID THAT THE LEGISLATURE MUST HAVE A RATIONAL STATE INTEREST IN CUTTING BENEFITS AND SHIFTING THE ECONOMIC BURDEN TO AN INJURED WORKER. IF THERE IS NO RATIONAL STATE INTEREST FOR SETTING AN ARBITRARY LIMITATION OF BENEFITS, IT IS A DENIAL OF FEDERAL AND STATE DUE PROCESS.

  • Robinson v. Fairview Fellowship Home, 2016 OK 42, 371 P.3d 477

Challenge:

The Claimant appealed a denial of benefits. Claimant challenges the constitutionality of the parking lot exception to compensability on the grounds that it is a special law and a denial of due process and equal protection.

Decision:

A unanimous Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission and its administrative law judges have the power to determine whether a provision of Title 85A, the 2013 workers’ compensation reform law, is being unconstitutionally applied to a particular party in a Commission proceeding. In other words, the Commission can decide the constitutionality of any part of the new law as it applies to an injured worker or any party. That Commission decision will always be appealable to the Supreme Court.

The Court of Civil Appeals had ruled that the claimant would need to go to district court for a ruling on constitutionality. In the Per Curiam decision, the Supreme lays out a cogent, reasonable basis for the ALJ’s and the Commission to be able to opine on the constitutionality of a statute that affects the parties in a particular case before them.

INJURIES DURING BREAKS

  • Future Environmental Inc. v. Nathaniel Mace, Supreme Court No. 116134

Challenge:

A challenge of Section 2(13)(d) which excludes injuries suffered on an authorized lunch break OUTSIDE the employer’s facility.

Decision:

The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals, Division I, has decided a case in favor of an employee who was injured in an automobile accident while returning from a lunch break. The employee was in Missouri, at the direction of the employer, and took a lunch break during normal business hours. The accident occurred between the restaurant and the motel where the employee was required to spend the night before returning to the employer’s facility in Oklahoma.

The employer argued that the claim should be denied by operation of 85A O.S. Sec. 2(13)(d) which excludes from compensability an injury that occurs while the employee is on an authorized workplace…UNLESS the injury occurs “inside employer’s facility.” The employer also argued the lunch break outside the employer’s facility was a personal mission and excluded by statute.

Judge Bell, writing for a unanimous Court, said, “Here, Claimant’s accident occurred during normal work hours, in a remote location where Claimant was specifically directed by Employer to be and where Claimant was required to spend the night…Under these facts, we hold Claimant was injured while he was within the course and scope of employment.”

Judge Bell posed several questions of how strict interpretation of the statute could result in absurd results….”What if the employee briefly pulls into a rest area to stretch his legs or buy a soda to alleviate fatigue? Using the bathroom, stretching one’s legs, buying a soda and eating lunch may all literally be considered ‘personal or private affairs of the employee.’ For that matter, so could breathing and blinking. However, all such actions are arguably necessary for an employee to adequately and/or safely carry on the affairs of his/her employer.”

Presiding Judge Goree, in a concurring opinion, wrote that if an employer directs an employee to further its affairs by traveling, and the travel necessitates a meal outside the ordinary work facility, travel to a restaurant is neither a personal affair nor a work break.

A Petition for Certiorari is pending.

  • Dolores Billy v. Burford Manor, Inc., Murray County District Court, CJ-2015-4

Challenge:

Plaintiff was injured when a picnic table collapsed while she was on a lunch break. The claim was denied under workers’ compensation because the injury did not fit the statutory requirement that it occur “inside the employer’s facility.”

The case was filed as a common law negligence action in Murray County. As expected, the Defendant moved to dismiss the district court action because it is a workers’ compensation case. The Plaintiff has responded to the Motion to Dismiss, citing identical cases which have been denied by the Workers’ Compensation Commission.  The Plaintiff’s position is that an injured person in Oklahoma must have a forum in which to bring a claim.  If it can’t be brought in workers’ comp, the district court is the only other venue available.

Decision:

This case was settled after the district judge believed that the district court had jurisdiction to decide the constitutional challenge and indicated that the statutory limitation of “inside the employer’s facility” meant any place on the employer’s premises to which access is available to the public and employees. Other cases on appeal deal with this specific issue.

INFECTIOUS DISEASE

  • Deason v. Integris Baptist Medical Center, Supreme Court No. 113,648

Challenge:

The appeal challenges the constitutionality of Section 65(D)(2) which restricts compensability for infectious and communicable diseases to cases in which the disease is contracted in a hospital or sanitarium that treats such disease.

The case challenges the entire AWCA’s drastic cut in benefits, limitations of compensability, and use of the AMA Guides as a breach of the Grand Bargain, bringing about an end to exclusive remedy.

The case challenges the grant of exclusive remedy, Section 5(C), even if there is no remedy available in Title 85A.

The appeal argues that this provision is a “special law” and is unconstitutional because it provides disparate treatment of members of a single class.

Supreme Court Decision:

This case has been settled. Petitioner has dismissed the appeal because the legislature corrected the glaring problem of making many claims for police, fire, and emergency personnel not compensable. SB 776 has been signed into law and returns to the old law definition of compensability. An infectious or communicable disease will be compensable in Oklahoma if it “arises out of employment.”

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