The Kansas Supreme Court undid one small part of Sam Brownback’s legacy
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled on Friday that adoption of the American Medical Association Guides to Permanent Impairment, Sixth Edition (AMA Sixth) to pay permanent injuries under their workers’ compensation act violated constitutional rights to due process because it gave injured workers an inadequate remedy for work injuries.
The decision in Johnson v. US Food Service came on the heels of a recent Oklahoma decision that upheld the constitutionality of the AMA Sixth in that state’s workers’ compensation law. Injured workers in Kansas were likely helped by the Kansas applying heightened scrutiny in assessing a due process violation rather than applying what amounts to rational basis scrutiny like the Oklahoma court did in upholding their use of the AMA Sixth.
The Kansas court also seemed to be persuaded by findings of fact and legislative history about the problems with the AMA Sixth in how it compensates work injuries. The court was particularly persuaded by findings that the AMA Sixth lead to lower impairment ratings because it measured impairment based on inability to do general life activities rather than activities related to working. The Kansas decision throwing out the use of the AMA 6th will likely be persuasive to trial courts in other states when deciding whether impairment under the AMA 6th sufficiently compensates injured workers.
The decision was also premised on the fact that injured workers give up the right to a trial by jury to pursue a tort claim against the employers to receive workers’ compensation benefits. According to the Kansas court, compensating employees under the AMA 6th when combined with other recent changes to Kansas workers’ compensation law meant that employees were giving up too much in exchange for not being able to sue their employers and have a trial by jury.
Last month, I posted “Appellate courts aren’t going to save workers’ compensation.” Maybe I was too pessimistic in that assessment considering Johnson case. But a closer reading of the Johnson case shows my thesis is still sound. The Kansas court went through an exhaustive list of anti-worker reforms made by the Kansas legislature in 2011 and 2013 to that state’s workers’ compensation laws. With the exception of using the AMA 6th, those anti-worker reforms are still law in Kansas. I hope the decision in Johnson will help advocates for injured workers rollback other negative changes made to workers’ compensation law in Kansas. But the changes to Kansas’ workers’ compensation laws came through the political arena and victories in the political arena are the only sure way to insure fair compensation for injured workers in Kansas and in the rest of the country.
I agree with the outcome and most of the reasoning supporting the Johnson decision. But I disagree with the court’s literary flourish arguing that injured workers aren’t heard in adminisatsrive hearings or bench trials. The majority of my court room experience comes in what amount to bench trials in the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court. In my experience the injured worker gets to tell their story and — just as important – management witnesses are forced to answer for their treatment of injured workers as it relates to issues being tried. At least in Nebraska, trials in worrkers’ compensation cases can address that emotional need for justice outside fiancial compensation. But for most people, the finanical outcome of a case is more important than the process used to obtain the outcome.
Thomas Robinson, editor of the leading treatise on workers’ compensation law, stated the Kansas court’s focus on assigning fault for an injury misses the point of workers’ compensation which means defined compensation for a work injury regardless of fault. I agree with this point. I’ve written about the role of fault in the suppodedly no fault world of workers’ compnesation. I will be interested to read Robinson’s take on fault and workers’ compensation.
Two recent decisions from the state supreme courts in Oklahoma and Florida point out that how an injured worker gets workers’ compensation benefits is as important as how much an employee can receive in benefits for a work injury. In the parlance of constitutional law, the how a worker receives benefits is a termed “due process.”
Oklahoma – In Vasquez v. Dillard’s,the Oklahoma Supreme Court found the so-called “Oklahoma option” violated the equal protection clause of the state’s constitution. The Oklahoma option allowed employers to create their own workers’ compensation benefit plans under the Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act (OEIBA) so long as they offered the same benefits as under the state workers’ compensation program. The problem that the Oklahoma Supreme Court had with “Oklahoma option” was that employers were allowed to design plans with procedures that made it more difficult for injured workers to collect benefits than if they were in the state system. In essence, the Oklahoma State Legislature had created separate but unequal workers’ compensation systems for employees injured on the job in that state, which was a violation of the equal-protection clause of the state constitution. But the deeper reason why the Oklahoma option was overturned was that it denied due process to workers who were covered under the OEIBA.
Florida – In Castellanos v. Next Door Company, the Florida Supreme Court struck down attorney fee limits in workers’ compensation cases on due process grounds under the U.S. and Florida constitutions. The Florida court found that fee caps deterred employees from bringing claims because they would be unable to find attorneys. The court also found that fee caps encouraged employers to wrongfully deny claims because workers would be unable to find lawyers to challenge denied claims. Though Castellanos wasn’t an equal protection case like Vasquez, the Florida court pointed out that employers faced no limits on how much they paid their attorneys. Fee caps for employees only created a situation where employees and employers had unequal protections under Florida’s workers’ compensation law.
Vasquez and Castellanos challenged and overturned state laws. But there are other ways for employees to challenge unfair denials of workers’ compensation benefits besides overturning state laws. In the Brown v. Cassens Transportation cases, a group of injured workers in Michigan used a civil RICO statute (anti-racketeering law) to challenge how their employer, the employer’s claims administrator, and a defense medical examiner worked together to undermine their workers’ compensation claims. In Brown, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that since employees gave up their right to a tort suit under Michigan law to receive certain workers’ compensation benefits, injured workers had a constitutionally protected property interest in both the receipt of workers’ compensation benefits and their claims for workers’ compensation benefits and that employer had conspired unlawfully to deny those benefits.
The court in Brown also recognized that workers’ compensation was the exclusive remedy for workplace injuries in Michigan, which is another reason why workers’ compensation benefits were constitutionally protected. The state supreme courts in Florida and Oklahoma also cited the exclusive remedy provisions of their state workers’ compensation acts to support their findings that state laws violated due process and equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitution.