Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Court defers constitutional challenge to 2005 amendments

The Missouri Supreme Court over a year ago heard oral arguments on a constitutional challenge of the 2005 amendments to the Missouri Workers' Compenation Act and concluded, after much delay, that they really couldn’t decide much of anything after all. The case is Missouri Alliance for Retired Americans v. Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, Division of Workers Compensation.1

A consortium of 71 organizations, including mostly labor unions, challenged the constitutionality of the changes and argued that the 2005 changes took away constitutional rights from workers and changed the original quid pro quo agreement when the Act was first enacted in 1926 that employees would be guaranteed certain rights in exchange for giving up common law remedies. The Missouri Supreme Court accepted the defense raised by the Division that the argument was not ripe for determination whether the challenged provisions were unconstitutional and so narrow or restrictive to deny an adequate remedy as no individual workers’ compensation claims were before the court. Nothing in the record indicated that the provisions had been interpreted or applied given the “draconian meaning” ascribed by the labor organizations. The court deferred any decision regarding the constitutionality until it is judged on individual basis.

The court issued declaratory judgment and declared that workers excluded from the Act by a narrower definition of accident and injury have a right to bring suit under the common law, just as they did prior to the initial adoption of the Act, because they no longer fall within the exclusivity provisions of the Act. The Court declined to decide what injuries fall within the definition of “accident.”

Judge Wolff in a concurring opinion concluded the declaratory judgment was an abstract principle of law and was premature to indicate how it applied on the facts of individual cases.

Judge Tietelbaum wrote a long dissent and argued that the court should have addressed the constitutional challenge , and that the open courts provision required an adequate substitute remedy when the legislature abrogates a common law cause of action of personal injury. The 2005 amendments excluded "large classes" of workers from cases, suggesting that it deprived benefits now from workers whose injuries arose “in conjunction with” drug or alcohol, those workers who engaged in post-injury misconduct, and those workers who had idiopathic injuries or unduly burdened claimants with mostly subjective complaints. Judge Teitelbaum further suggests that “accident” now excludes all repetitive trauma claims, an issue Commissioner Hickey has mentioned in several dissenting commission opinions and not addressed in the majority. The dissent in its quid pro quo topic does not resolve an issue raised in the majority opinion, that comparisons between the 2005 amendments of the “bargain” struck by labor and business in the workers' compensation law is actually several “bargains” since the law has changed many times since 1926, including many provisions favorable to labor.

This decision cannot be celebrated as a victory for anyone, since it was a decision essentially not to decide anything. It re-iterates the existing case law that parties who have actions arising outside worker's compensation can proceed under common law remedies.2 The Supreme Court leaves questions regarding the new definition of accident unanswered, and may invite employers or employees to deny workers'compensation jurisdiction in claims as a test case to further define "accident" under the new law. The decision whether to deny a workers' compensation case under the new definition of accident clearly mandates a more careful investigation of tort defenses and consideration of potential liability if the client would proceed in civil court under tort recoveries.

1. No. 88368 (Mo. 2-24-09)

2. Such jurisdictional battles over exclusive remedies are nothing new. The Commission has exclusive original jurisdiction to hear any claim where there is a question whether a condition resulting from an accident arises out of and in the course of employment. See Jones v Jay Truck Driver Training Center, 709 S.W.2d 114, 115 (Mo. banc 1986), Schopp v. Matlock , 880 S.W.2d 357, 359 (Mo.App.E.D. 1994).