The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down part of the state’s workers’ compensation law, saying the provisions deprived workers of their due process rights and created a subclass of workers.
The 7-2 decision invalidates a portion of the law, enacted by the Oklahoma Legislature in 2013, that authorizes deferral of payments for permanent partial disability for workers who eventually return to their jobs. Justices said deferring permanent partial disability payments if an injured worker returns to work is unconstitutional.
Under the provision, “an injured employee who returns to work receives no compensation for the physical injury sustained and no compensation for a reducing in future earning capacity, upending the entire purpose of the workers’ compensation system,” Justice Noma Gurich wrote for the majority.
In a concurring opinion, Justices Tom Colbert and Joseph Watt said they agreed with the decision but believed it does not go far enough “to cure the Legislature’s unconstitutional scheme,” hinting that other provisions could have been tackled in the ruling.
The decision involved four cases filed with the state’s Workers Compensation Commission by workers who were injured on the job.
In one case, Theresa Maxwell, an employee of a telecommunications provider Sprint, suffered an injury to her knee on the job in February 2014 and filed for workers’ compensation benefits, the ruling states. She underwent surgery to repair a tendon in her knee and received temporary total disability benefits.
She returned to work in July 2014 and a month later filed a request for a hearing on permanent partial disability, the ruling states. A hearing was held in December 2014 where an administrative law judge awarded a total of $2,261 but ordered that it be deferred because Maxwell had returned to work.
Maxwell appealed to the commission, which affirmed the ruling in 2015. She then appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that her constitutional due process rights to fair compensation had been eliminated by the law.
The court also ruled that officials improperly relied on American Medical Association guidelines when evaluating the extent of the permanent impairment she suffered and the amount of compensation she would receive.
The court sent all four cases back to the commission for recalculation of compensation due.
Justices James Winchester and Steven Taylor dissented from the decision.
Attorney Bob Burke, who represents workers in two of the four cases, said he was gratified that the court sided with the workers.
“It is another example of the court having to correct a poorly written law,” Burke said in a statement. The Supreme Court has struck down earlier attempts to revamp state workers’ compensation statutes, and Burke said legal challenges to the law have been raised in 15 other cases pending in the state Supreme Court.
Reworking the state’s workers’ compensation system is a priority for Republican legislative leaders who claim the state’s previous court-based system was a detriment to business and industry in the state.
Fred Morgan, president and CEO of the State Chamber of Oklahoma, which supported the law, said he is disappointed with the decision and believes the court should defer to the Legislature.
“Oklahoma workers and employers both benefit from an administrative rather than court-based system,” Morgan said in a statement. “Both groups are harmed when the court continues to act like an unelected legislature, overturning the will of the people through their elected representatives.”
Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office, which defended the law, declined comment on the ruling.
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