Policy: Entitlements

Oklahoma high court upholds workers' compensation law

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Associated Press,Labor,Oklahoma,Entitlements,Law

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the state's new workers' compensation law Monday, ruling that "the Legislature has exercised proper authority in a matter over which it has the power to act."

The court handed down the ruling a week after oral arguments in a lawsuit that alleged, among other things, the law amounted to unconstitutional "log-rolling" because it contains multiple subjects in violation of the state's Constitution's single-subject rule.

"As all sections of 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, we disagree with the constitutional challenge to the administrative act on grounds of log-rolling," the Oklahoma Supreme Court wrote in its majority opinion.

The law, passed by the Legislature last spring and signed by Gov. Mary Fallin in May, goes into effect on Feb. 1. It was a top priority for Republican leaders who say the state's previous system was a detriment to business and industry.

State Sen. Harry Coates, Rep. Emily Virgin and the Professional Firefighters of Oklahoma and its president Rick Beams filed a lawsuit in September. Their attorney, John McMurry, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment on the decision.

While upholding the law, Monday's ruling appears to open the door to possible legal challenges on other grounds once it goes into effect.

"Until such time as a case or controversy or a justiciable issue is presented to this court, we are without jurisdiction to rule further with regard to this act," the opinion said.

Justice John Reif of Skiatook wrote a separate opinion that said most future challenges should be decided by the new Workers' Compensation Commission before they reach the courts.

"In a few cases, however, there are provisions that are unconstitutional on their face," Reif wrote.

Justice Douglas Combs of Shawnee also wrote separately, saying certain provisions of the new law "are unconstitutional because they provide for different treatment in appellate procedure for claimants and therefore violate the special law prohibitions" in the Oklahoma Constitution.

Among other things, the law changes Oklahoma's court-based system to an administrative one. Supporters say the change will dramatically reduce workers' compensation costs to businesses, but opponents have said any cost savings will come at the expense of injured workers.

Supporters of the new law praised the court's decision.

"With this ruling, the creation of the new state Workers' Compensation Commission can continue without delay to ensure a seamless transition for businesses and employees alike," said Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, who co-authored the measure.

The other co-author, Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, says the law provides "for the welfare of the injured worker while at the same time freeing Oklahoma's employers from needless and burdensome regulation."

The lawsuit attacked various provisions of the law, including the one that would deny treatment and compensation to injured workers under certain circumstances. The law would allow the use of American Medical Association guides and Work Loss Data Institute Official Disability Guidelines in workers' compensation cases, which opponents of the law have said is an unconstitutional delegation of legislative powers.

The lawsuit also said the law would unconstitutionally delay an injured worker's access to the state's courts to seek compensation and allow employers to "opt-out" of the administrative system and create their own benefit plan for injured workers.

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