Tag Archives: unconstitutional

Alabama Court Strikes Down Anti-Worker Provisions Of State Workers’ Compensation Law

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

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.

Oklahoma Commission Says Workers’ Comp “Opt Out” Not OK

Today’s post comes from guest author Kristina Brown Thompson, from The Jernigan Law Firm.

Ever since Oklahoma employers were allowed to “opt out” of the workers’ compensation system in 2013, nearly 60 big employers have chosen the “opt out” path. By opting out, these large corporations (like Wal-Mart and Big Lots) are no longer constrained by the requirements of the Oklahoma State workers’ compensation laws. Instead they are allowed to create their own internal workers’ compensation system playing under their rules and definitions.

According to a NPR study these opt out plans “ . . . provide fewer benefits, make it easier for employers to deny benefits, give employers control over medical assessment and treatment, and leave appeals in the hands of employers, and force workers to accept lump-sum settlements.”

However, just last week, the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission unanimously declared two sections of the “Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act” (a/k/a Oklahoma’s Opt Out law) unconstitutional. According to the Commission, the Opt Out provisions deprived injured workers of equal protection and access to the court. The Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission called the opt out plans “a water mirage on the highway that disappears upon closer inspection.”

Here is a link to the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation opinion filed 26 February 2016. The ruling will likely be appealed and we can expect to hear much more about these Oklahoma opt-out plans in the near future.

 

 

 

Insult to Injury: ProPublica’s Series “Demolition of Workers’ Compensation” Focuses on Ongoing Workers’ Comp Woes Faced by Injured Workers Nationally

Today’s post comes from guest author Kristina Brown Thompson, from The Jernigan Law Firm.

Recent years have not been favorable to injured workers. States across the nation have enacted “reform” measures curbing injured workers benefits. Disability caps have been introduced, medical care restricted. In our last blog, we discussed Oklahoma’s Opt Out provisions as an example of the court system declaring that the legislature had legislated away too much of the injured worker’s protections. A couple years ago, Florida workers’ comp laws were declared unconstitutional by a judge. Although the decision was later reversed, the Florida judge (Judge Cueto) expressed concerns regarding the loss of an employee’s right to wage-loss benefits after an accident.  

 

NPR and ProPublica have been authoring an in-depth series on national workers’ compensation issues. ProPublica reviewed “reams of insurance industry data” and their findings confirmed what many workers’ compensation attorneys suspected for years:  insurance companies are increasingly controlling medical decisions, workers are unable to pick their own doctor in many states, and insurers are denying medical care based on internal “guidelines.”

 

As an example, ProPublica’s article talks about a case in California where the insurance company reopened an old case and denied medical care based on the opinion of a doctor who never even saw the patient. “Joel Ramirez, who was paralyzed in a warehouse accident, had his home health aide taken away, leaving him to sit in his own feces for up to eight hours.”

 

The article also brings up a good point about workers’ comp fraud. Repeatedly studies show “most of the money lost to fraud results not from workers making false claims but from employers misclassifying workers and underreporting payroll to get cheaper insurance rates.”