Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Oklahoma Supreme Court Decides Coates

On December 2, 2013 I wrote about constitutional challenges. That included discussion of Coates v. Fallin in Oklahoma. This is a constitutional challenge regarding a sweeping change to the Oklahoma workers' compensation law passed last spring. On December 16, 2013 the Court rendered its opinion, concluding that the statute is not unconstitutional on its face. Ninety days passed between the filing on September 17, 2013 and the ruling. 

A quick update on the Florida cases mentioned in the December 2, 2013 post. Castellanos v. Next Door Company was filed in the Florida Supreme Court October 31, 2013 (case number SC13-2082). There has been no action in that case docket since notices of intent to appear were filed by five organizations on November 5 and 6, 2013. Organizations that have sought to file "friend of the court" briefs, called "Amicus Curiae," include the Florida Justice Association, the Workers' Injury Law and Advocacy Group, the Florida Workers' Advocates, The International Union of Police Associations, and the Workers' Compensation Section of The Florida Bar. That appeal has been pending for about 48 days. It remains unclear whether the Court will consider the case on its merits.

Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg was appealed twice (case number SC13-1930 and SC13-1976). On December 9, 2013 the Court accepted jurisdiction of the two cases and ordered the two cases consolidated. The docket reflects that oral argument will be scheduled in the case, and that initial briefs are due at the court before January 3, 2014. 

This is the interesting case on statutory limitations on benefits. There is an en banc (the whole court) decision in a recent case, Matrix v. Hadley, 11.29.11, providing one statutory interpretation, an 02.28.13 panel (three judges of the court) decision finding constitutional infirmity on the basis of "natural law" and a new 09.28.13 en banc decision retreating from the prior en banc decision and not mentioning constitutionality or "natural law." 

Supreme Court cases on Florida worker' compensation are reasonably infrequent. Most appellate review in this state ends with the First District Court. This is another cases that is attracting significant attention. Organizations that have sought to file Amicus Curiae briefs in this matter include the Florida Justice Association, the Workers' Injury Law and Advocacy Group, the Police Benevolent Association, the Florida Professional Firefighters, the Florida Workers' Advocates, and the International Association of Fire Fighters. 

Ninety days later, the Oklahoma Court has rendered its decision in Coates. After the September 17, 2013 filing, the Court assumed jurisdiction of the case on November 25, 2013, heard arguments and made their decision. However, the decision is arguably narrow, with the Court addressing primarily the contention that the bill was inappropriate in addressing more than one subject. Still, ninety days from filing to rendition, impressive.

The Court concluded that the legislature which adopted all of the recent Oklahoma changes did not act "outside its constitutional authority by enacting a bill containing multiple subjects." The Court concluded that all of the sections of the bill, and therefore the "new law are inter-related and refer to a single subject, workers' compensation or the manner in which employees may ensure protection against work-related injuries."  

Justice John Reif, concurring in this narrow determination, also dissented in part. He noted in his opinion that "judicial restraint calls for the denial of relief at this point in time for most of the challenges to the administrative system raised." (emphasis in original). The majority of challenges will be heard in trials, and proceed through the appellate process. Thus, the somewhat unique Oklahoma process for constitutional challenge has provided some guidance on the "facial" challenge, but there will remain opportunities for "as applied" challenges. Justice Reif concurred in the conclusion that the law did not violate the single subject restriction, but in his dissent opined that two provisions of the new Oklahoma law are "unconstitutional on their face."

First, is the "Opt Out System," which he noted is also addressed in Justice Combs' dissent. Second, he noted that the appeals process in the new law violates due process. In the opt out, the employer and an appeals committee chosen by the employer are empowered to make a variety of decisions. Justice Reif writes that such a process "cannot satisfy the impartiality requirement of due process." He contends that this process should be "severed in its entirety." Justice Reif also took issue with the law's provisions regarding death benefits "to a same sex spouse," contending this is contrary to the equal protection clause of both the Oklahoma and United States Constitutions.

Justice Douglas Combs likewise concurred regarding the single-subject challenge. He noted that because the law has not taken effect, "it is unclear exactly how these issues will manifest themselves in future cases or controversies." This signals the same "as applied" concerns expressed by Justice Reif. Justice Combs wrote that the appellate procedure provisions in the law provide different treatment for different claimants, that is those whose employers have workers' compensation plans and those who instead opt out. He describes the appellate process for those in an opt out is "somewhat nebulous" and "differs markedly from that available to claimants who are employees of an entity who has not chosen to opt out."

So, for now the Oklahoma changes will become effective early in 2014. The cases and controversies to come will work their way through the administration process and perhaps the Oklahoma courts. Decisions will be made in this slower process with which Florida is more familiar. And, the nation may watch, curious as to the outcome of this experiment of an opt out that retains exclusive remedy. 

Meanwhile, in Florida we will see if the Supreme Court agrees in Westphal with the First DCA (Matrix), the First DCA (Westphal02.28.13), the First DCA (Westphal, 09.28.13) or comes up with its own interpretation of section 440.15. 

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