An Alabama trial-court level judge ruled the Alabama Workers Compensation Act was unconstitutional in a recent decision. Though the decision isn’t binding on a state level and it was recently stayed or delayed indefinitely, it is an important and interesting decision for many reasons.
The Alabama workers’ compensation statute was found to be unconstitutional because it capped benefits at $220 per week for permanent injuries and it limited attorney fees for plaintiff attorneys to 15 percent. Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Pat Ballard found that Alabama’s cap on permanent damages violated equal protection of the laws because it created two classes of workers without any rational basis because some workers were fairly compensated for permanent disability while others were not. Ballard also found that the attorney fee cap violated constitutional due process rights.
Ballard’s reasoning about equal protection and due process mirror recent state supreme court decisions in Oklahoma and Florida striking down anti-worker reforms to the workers’ compensation laws in those states. Florida struck down attorney fee caps for plaintiff’s attorney because they impaired the ability of injured workers to find counsel. Oklahoma struck down the so-called Oklahoma option because it impermissibly created two separate systems for workers’ compensation, one of which could make it almost impossible for workers to collect benefits.
While it is encouraging that courts are protecting the rights of injured workers, the decisions in Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama have all been driven by anti-worker legislation in those states. Unfortunately, that trend is continuing in 2017. Possible Democratic presidential candidate and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through anti-worker reforms to New York’s workers’ compensation act.
The recent attack on workers’ compensation has been bi-partisan. A newly- elected Republican legislature in Iowa passed anti-worker workers’ compensation reforms which were signed into law by that state’s Republican governor. The Iowa reforms include a cruel measure that caps benefits for senior citizens who are injured on the job. That provision may be ripe for an equal protection challenge.
Relying on appellate courts to protect the rights of injured workers’ is a risky strategy. Workers compensation laws were passed by state legislatures in response to pressure from unions and other workers advocates during the early 20th century when appellate courts were generally hostile to employees. While it seems that trend may have reversed in the early 21st century, appellate judges certainly can’t be accused of pro-worker bias.
Good legislation also prevents the need for worker advocates to look to the judiciary to protect the rights of workers. Part of the reason, Judge Ballard ruled against the Alabama Workers Compensation Act was because the maximum benefit rate had not increased in 30 years. In Nebraska, our maximum benefit rate increases automatically under a formula determined by the Department of Labor. Nebraska’s current maximum rate is $817 per week for temporary and permanent disability.