Two recent decisions from the state supreme courts in Oklahoma and Florida point out that how an injured worker gets workers’ compensation benefits is as important as how much an employee can receive in benefits for a work injury. In the parlance of constitutional law, the how a worker receives benefits is a termed “due process.”

Oklahoma – In Vasquez v. Dillard’s, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found the so-called “Oklahoma option” violated the equal protection clause of the state’s constitution. The Oklahoma option allowed employers to create their own workers’ compensation benefit plans under the Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act (OEIBA) so long as they offered the same benefits as under the state workers’ compensation program. The problem that the Oklahoma Supreme Court had with “Oklahoma option” was that employers were allowed to design plans with procedures that made it more difficult for injured workers to collect benefits than if they were in the state system. In essence, the Oklahoma State Legislature had created separate but unequal workers’ compensation systems for employees injured on the job in that state, which was a violation of the equal-protection clause of the state constitution. But the deeper reason why the Oklahoma option was overturned was that it denied due process to workers who were covered under the OEIBA.

Florida – In Castellanos v. Next Door Company, the Florida Supreme Court struck down attorney fee limits in workers’ compensation cases on due process grounds under the U.S. and Florida constitutions. The Florida court found that fee caps deterred employees from bringing claims because they would be unable to find attorneys. The court also found that fee caps encouraged employers to wrongfully deny claims because workers would be unable to find lawyers to challenge denied claims. Though Castellanos wasn’t an equal protection case like Vasquez, the Florida court pointed out that employers faced no limits on how much they paid their attorneys. Fee caps for employees only created a situation where employees and employers had unequal protections under Florida’s workers’ compensation law.

Vasquez and Castellanos challenged and overturned state laws. But there are other ways for employees to challenge unfair denials of workers’ compensation benefits besides overturning state laws. In the Brown v. Cassens Transportation cases, a group of injured workers in Michigan used a civil RICO statute (anti-racketeering law) to challenge how their employer, the employer’s claims administrator, and a defense medical examiner worked together to undermine their workers’ compensation claims. In Brown, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that since employees gave up their right to a tort suit under Michigan law to receive certain workers’ compensation benefits, injured workers had a constitutionally protected property interest in both the receipt of workers’ compensation benefits and their claims for workers’ compensation benefits and that employer had conspired unlawfully to deny those benefits.

The court in Brown also recognized that workers’ compensation was the exclusive remedy for workplace injuries in Michigan, which is another reason why workers’ compensation benefits were constitutionally protected. The state supreme courts in Florida and Oklahoma also cited the exclusive remedy provisions of their state workers’ compensation acts to support their findings that state laws violated due process and equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitution.

 

By Jon Relm