Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Statutory Construction and Interpretation

There are sometimes reactions to court rulings. They may impress, disappoint, astound, enrage, encourage, intrigue and more. It may sometimes be a case of the old idiom "it depends on whose ox is being gored." In other words, whether someone loves or hates, respects or derides a court decision may come down to whether the outcome benefits them or is consistent with their personal philosophy.

If one can get past that emotion or immediate reaction, there is an education to be had in many court decisions. There may be a struggle to find the lesson, but it is usually there.

This time of year, across this nation, legislatures are preparing for session, beginning session, or in the midst of session. Winter seems to be the season when we hear about what is happening, or being proposed in various states. Certainly, there are states with full time legislatures, whose schedules therefore do not fit this paradigm. But Floridians are used to the winter/spring session, and it is not an uncommon model.

Legislative action is the foundation of workers' compensation. What it is and how it works in various jurisdictions is dependent on what each legislature and executive have decided its statute will say. Anyone that has been involved in legislation can tell you that sometimes it is a long process, filled with analysis, discussion, and compromise. There may be promise, enthusiasm, and often disappointment. Words may be selected and intended, but may be the result of compromise. During the process there may be changes in wording as a bill works its way through amendments on the way to passage.

Once a statute is in place, the courts are charged with interpreting it. Some statutes may be challenged based on their clarity, or lack of clarity. Some might be challenged on its conflict with some other statute. Others still might be challenged its conflict with either a state or the federal constitution.

If a statute lacks clarity, the court will strive to interpret and explain what the statute means. If there is a conflict or disagreement between two statutes, the court will strive to harmonize or explain how the various provisions might be interpreted together to preclude conflict. And if the the challenge is on constitutionality the court will first work to decide if the statute is clear; if the court concludes it is, then it will determine whether that clear interpretation violates some overriding provision of a constitution.

In Murray v. Mariner Health (Fla. 2008), the Florida Supreme Court reminded courts are "obligated to construe statutes in a manner that avoids a holding that a statute may be unconstitutional." So “[w]herever possible, statutes should be construed in such a manner so as to avoid an unconstitutional result.” The analysis, therefore, is more likely to begin with whether the statute can be interpreted in a constitutional way. The Court did that in Murray, finding resolution of the challenge in the word "reasonable," and avoiding the constitutional question that is now before the Court in Castellanos.

The Court provides a road map through the statutory interpretation process: "legislative intent is the polestar that guides a court’s inquiry in statutory construction." So, "when a statute is unclear or ambiguous as to its meaning, the Court must resort to traditional rules of statutory construction in an effort to determine legislative intent." 

The first step in the process is deciding whether the statute is clear and unambiguous. If it is, then the next question may be whether that clear and unambiguous statute is or is not constitutional. Of course, if the case under consideration is not a constitutional challenge, then the determination that it is clear and unambiguous may end the analysis. Or, may lead next into an analysis of harmonizing multiple statutes.

But what if the court decides that the statute is unclear or ambiguous? Then the court will employ various rules of statutory construction. This is the process of determining what the language of the statutes says, and then what the legislature intended.

The news has recently brought us two examples of statutory interpretation. They merit consideration. In Oklahoma, the legislature recently amended its workers' compensation statute. The new statute defines "accident" as "an event involving factors external to the employee that . . . was unintended, unanticipated, unforeseen, unplanned and unexpected.” This may seem clear enough.

The Oklahoman reports on a recent ruling by an Oklahoma trial judge. In Duck v. Morgan Tire, an employee was injured at work, but sought to sue his employer rather than receiving workers' compensation benefits. Somewhat similar to the Padgett case in Florida. There is significant general angst in Oklahoma about workers' compensation right now

The trial judge in Duck denied a motion to dismiss the tort claim based on the "exclusive remedy" of workers' compensation. Generally, workers' compensation statutes prevent an injured worker from suing her or his employer in a tort claim and instead provide that workers' compensation is the employee's "exclusive remedy." The judge concluded that the injury in Duck was reasonably foreseeable, and so not an "accident" within the meaning of the statute. As it was not covered by the workers' compensation statute under this analysis, then the Judge concluded the employee was permitted to sue in tort.

Some have been critical of the legislature regarding the statutory reforms in Oklahoma. Others have been critical of the decision in the Duck case. An Oklahoma law professor says "we like to complain about goofy legislators, but far worse are judges who do their jobs poorly." He describes the decision in Duck as having "veered off into the legal weeds."

Often, lately, discussion of Oklahoma workers' compensation leads to discussion of Tennessee workers' compensation. Both states had major statutory reforms recently. The discussion today also leads next to Tennessee, but not for the reason one might expect. In Tennessee, a deputy sheriff was accused of workers' compensation fraud, according to the Jackson Sun. But, the charges were dropped.

Allegedly, the deputy reported an injury on-the-job, but an investigation led to belief that the injury did not occur on duty. The deputy was charged under Tennessee law with filing a false insurance claim. Sounds like many other stories found around the Internet so far?

The charges were dropped. The prosecutor noted that the Sheriff's office is not insured for workers' compensation. The Sheriff has elected "self-insurance" instead. The prosecutor concluded that the scope of the "insurance claim" statute may be insufficiently "broad" to cover the allegations regarding a self-insured employer. In other words, it may not be "insurance fraud" if there is no insurance. 

There might be some who would argue this conclusion in Tennessee is not consistent with the outcome of Brock in Florida. They might argue that Brock was convicted of "workers' compensation fraud" since the statute he violated is in Chapter 440. This, they might argue, is inherently illogical since Brock never suffered any injury nor sought workers' compensation benefits. They would perhaps argue "no workers' compensation benefits, no workers' compensation fraud."

These examples provide a reminder that statutory words are important. Specific words of the two statutes, leading to specific interpretations. 

Legislative intent may be a critical element of later interpretations. How any given statute might conflict with or be harmonized with other statutes may be critical. The rules of statutory construction will guide the courts through their efforts to interpret and reconcile workers' compensation statutes. 

The lesson is that those who draft the laws must be as clear as possible, and carefully select their words and phrases. Whether in a drafted bill or in the language as it is compromised and amended during the bill's journey to passage. Ambiguity and conflict lead to uncertainty, and uncertainty leads to litigation. Litigation may lead to decisions that may impress, disappoint, astound, enrage, encourage, intrigue and more. And how you may feel at the end may "depend on whose ox is being gored."  

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