Arkansas Court to Consider Workers’ Comp Fairness Issue

October 6, 2008

The Arkansas Supreme Court has agreed to consider an injured man’s argument that the state Workers’ Compensation Commission operates unfairly in violation of the constitution.

Arkansas Chief Justice Jim Hannah said the court would consider the argument raised by attorney Rick Spencer on behalf of Edward Williams of Mountain Home. Williams was injured in a fall from scaffolding while working for Johnson Custom Homes in 2004 in Baxter County. The commission denied Williams’ claim for compensation, and he appealed.

Spencer raised the constitutional question during oral arguments. He suggested the commission was structured in such a way that it could violate the due-process clause. He argued that the panel can be overly influenced by the governor, who appoints all three commission members. The system is unfair, he said, because the votes of two of the commissioners “almost invariably” support the interests of the person who appointed them.

“In effect, you have a one-man commission, and that violates the due-process clause,” Spencer told the court.

To support his argument, he provided affidavits from two former administrative law judges for the commission who said they were fired for not being more business friendly. The affidavits were written in 2005, when Mike Huckabee was governor. Gov. Mike Beebe took office in 2007.

Among the commission members, one represents labor, another represents business, and the third is the chairman. Law judges are hired by the commission to evaluate and rule on workers’ claims for compensation. Their decisions can be appealed to the commission.

In his affidavit, former administrative law judge Bill Daniels of Monticello said, “The prevailing opinion among judges (at the commission) was that deciding cases in favor of injured workers created a high risk of termination.”

Former administrative law judge Michael White of North Little Rock said he believed the only reason he was fired was “because I would not be influenced in carrying out my statutory duties and responsibilities … (in order) to help the governor’s quest to make the state of Arkansas business-friendly.”

Huckabee could not be reached. His home phone was not listed and he did not immediately respond to an e-mail for comment.

Former commission official Julie Bowman was identified in Daniels’ affidavit as one of the commission officials who fired him. Now state insurance commissioner, Bowman said it has been a while since she read the affidavits but she remembered “they contained some of the most ridiculous lies and allegations I have ever seen or heard.”

Bill Walmsley of Batesville, an attorney for Johnson Custom Homes, said the commission was constitutional, created by popular vote in the 1940s. He said that if the allegations of Daniels and White were true, “that’s the fault of politics within the system and not the creation of the system.”

Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,

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