Shawn Ashley, eCapitol
The state Supreme Court struck down another provision of the 2013 workers’ compensation reform package Tuesday, saying it violated due process rights.
In the 7 to 2 decision, the court overturned a provision of the law related to permanent partial disability payments and a process known as deferment. The case involved four similar cases that were appealed from the Workers’ Compensation Commission. Workers in each of the cases had been denied permanent partial disability payments.
Deferment allows the permanent partial disability payments to be reduced each week the injured party returns to work until such time their employer’s liability reaches zero or until the employee is terminated for cause unrelated to the injury.
The court found that disability payments are compensation for permanent impairment and cannot be tied to the short-term ability to return to work or near pre-injury performance or earnings levels.
Writing for the majority, Justice Noma Gurich said the 2013 law “suggests the Legislature intended for permanent partial disability to be based solely on loss of earning capacity with no consideration as to the physical insult to the employee’s body…” which “unconstitutionally abrogated” the “due process rights of injured employees …”
The court also found the Workers’ Compensation Commission, which was created by the 2013 law to oversee an administrative, rather than a judicial or adversarial, work comp system, incorrectly applied the law and that deferral of disability payments resulted in an unconstitutional special law because it singled out a “subclass of injured workers” for no valid reason.
Justice Thomas Colbert, who was joined in a separate opinion by Justice Joseph Watt, called the 2013 law an “unconstitutional scheme.”
Justices James Winchester and Steven Taylor dissented in the case.
In February, the Workers’ Compensation Commission ruled that the opt-out provisions were unconstitutional. The opt-out provision is supposed to permit an employer to offer their own workers’ compensation plan as long as its benefits mirror those provided under a workers’ compensation insurance policy. That decision is being appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court in March ruled unconstitutional that portion of the 2013 workers’ compensation law requiring 180 days of continuous employment before workers’ compensation benefits would be afforded a worker.