381 P.3d 768 (Okla. 2016), 114,810, Vasquez v. Dillard's, Inc.

Docket Nº:114,810
Citation:381 P.3d 768, 2016 OK 89
Opinion Judge:WATT, J:
Party Name:JONNIE YVONNE VASQUEZ, Plaintiff/Respondent, v. DILLARD'S, INC., QUALIFIED EMPLOYER, Defendant/Petitioner
Attorney:G. Calvin Sharpe, Catherine L. Campbell, Amy D. White, PHILLIPS MURRAH P.C., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Defendant/Petitioner, Dillards, Inc. Jay M. Wallace (pro hac vice), Alana Ackels (pro hac vice), BELL NUNNALY & MARTIN LLP, Dallas, Texas, Rabindranath Ramana, CALVERT LAW FIRM, Oklahoma City...
Judge Panel:WATT, J. REIF, C.J., COMBS, V.C.J. (by separate writing), KAUGER, WATT, EDMONDSON, and COLBERT, JJ. - CONCUR. GURICH, J. (by separate writing) - CONCURS SPECIALLY. WINCHESTER (by separate writing), and TAYLOR, JJ. - DISSENT. REIF, C.J., COMBS, V.C.J. (by separate writing), KAUGER, WATT, EDMONDSON...
Case Date:September 13, 2016
Court:Supreme Court of Oklahoma
 
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Page 768

381 P.3d 768 (Okla. 2016)

2016 OK 89

JONNIE YVONNE VASQUEZ, Plaintiff/Respondent,

v.

DILLARD'S, INC., QUALIFIED EMPLOYER, Defendant/Petitioner

114,810

Supreme Court of Oklahoma

September 13, 2016

Page 769

ON APPEAL FROM THE WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION EN BANC.

ORDER OF THE WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION EN BANC VACATED; CAUSE REMANDED.

SYLLABUS

[¶0] Defendant/petitioner, Dillard's Inc. (Dillard's/employer), seeks review of the Workers' Compensation Commission's (Commission) order finding the Employee Injury Benefit Act (Opt Out Act), 85A O.S.Supp. 2014 § § 201-213 inoperable based upon multiple constitutional infirmities. The plaintiff/respondent, Jonnie Yvonne Vasquez (Vasquez/employee), urges affirmance of the Commission's order finding the Opt Out Act unconstitutional. Having determined that we have authority to address the constitutional challenges presented, the Court addresses a single dispositive issue: whether the Opt Out Act is an unconstitutional special law. We hold that the Opt Out Act is an unconstitutional special law within the meaning of the Okla. Const. art. 5, § 59 creating an impermissible select group of employees seeking compensation for work-related injuries for disparate treatment.

G. Calvin Sharpe, Catherine L. Campbell, Amy D. White, PHILLIPS MURRAH P.C., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Defendant/Petitioner, Dillards, Inc.

Jay M. Wallace (pro hac vice), Alana Ackels (pro hac vice), BELL NUNNALY & MARTIN LLP, Dallas, Texas, Rabindranath Ramana, CALVERT LAW FIRM, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Plaintiff/Respondent, Jonnie Yvonne Vasquez.

Bob Burke, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Patrick R. Wyrick, Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for the State of Oklahoma.

Brandon Burton, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Kathleen G. Sumner, Greensboro, NC, Amici Curiae for Academic Experts in support of Respondent Vasquez.

Brandon Burton, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Daniel M. Dalmat, Daniel M. Rosenthal, JAMES & HOFFMAN, P.C., Washington, D.C., Amici Curiae for National Employment Law Project.

Larry Derryberry, Douglas A. Rice, DERRYBERRY & NAIFEH, LLP, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Amici Curiae for AIA, PCI and NAMIC in support of Respondent Vasquez.

WATT, J. REIF, C.J., COMBS, V.C.J. (by separate writing), KAUGER, WATT, EDMONDSON, and COLBERT, JJ. - CONCUR. GURICH, J. (by separate writing) - CONCURS SPECIALLY. WINCHESTER (by separate writing), and TAYLOR, JJ. - DISSENT.

OPINION

Page 770

WATT, J:

[¶1] With the constitutionality of the Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act, 85A O.S.Supp. 2014 § § 201-213, squarely before this Court in the instant cause, we determine that we have authority to address the special law issues presented pursuant to the legislative directive contained in 85A O.S.Supp. 2014 § 213(A)1 and under Robinson v. Fairview Fellowship Home for Senior Citizens, Inc., 2016 OK 42, 371 P.3d 477. The core provision of the Opt Out Act, 85A O.S.Supp. 2015 § 2032 creates impermissible, unequal, disparate treatment of a select group of injured workers. Therefore, we hold that the Oklahoma Employee Benefit Injury Act, 85A O.S. 2014 § § 201-213, is an unconstitutional special law under the Oklahoma Constitution, art. 5, § 59.3

PROCEDURAL POSTURE

[¶2] Vasquez, Dillard's employee, injured her neck and shoulder as she lifted shoe boxes while working on September 11, 2014.4 On that date and on September 24th, she filed claims for benefits under Dillard's Opt-Out plan. Dillards denied the claims on October 3 and 10, 2014, respectively. The employee appealed to the Workers' Compensation Commission, filing a Notice of Claim for Compensation on December 5, 2014.

[¶3] The employer sought removal to federal court on August 6, 2015 on grounds that the federal court had exclusive jurisdiction under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The United States District Court for the Western District disagreed and remanded the cause to the Commission on September 30, 2015. The Commission heard arguments in the cause

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in February, issuing an order in the cause on September 26, 2015. It found that the Opt Out Act: 1) constituted an unconstitutional special law; 5 2) denied equal protection to Oklahoma's injured workers; [6] and 3) denied injured workers the constitutionally protected right of access to courts.7

[¶4] On March 17, 2016, Dillard's filed a petition for review with this Court. Extensive briefing ensued by the parties, the Attorney General,[8] and various amici curiae. The most recent filing in the cause, the employee's Submission of Supplemental Authority, occurred on the afternoon of July 30th. We issue today's opinion in conjunction with the Legislature's directive that appeals alleging constitutional challenges to the Opt Out Act should be expedited9 and in recognition that multiple cases concerning challenges similar to the one presented here have currently been stayed by the Commission.

DISCUSSION

[¶5] a. Constitutional issues are properly before this Court pursuant to the legislative mandate of 85A O.S.Supp. 2014 § 213(A) and Robinson v. Fairview Fellowship Home for Senior Citizens, Inc. , 2016 OK 42, 371 P.3d 477.

[¶6] Dillard's assertions that this Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the instant cause are unconvincing. In § 213(A) of the Opt Out Act,10 the Legislature directs that whenever the constitutionality of the Act is challenged, the Supreme Court shall11 retain the appeal. Furthermore, we are instructed to expedite review.

[¶7] We have recently determined in Robinson v. Fairview Fellowship Home for Senior Citizens, Inc., 2016 OK 42, 371 P.3d 477, that the Commission has no authority to determine the facial constitutionality of the Opt Out Act as a special law. Therefore, the Commission's determinations of constitutionality were not authorized as a blanket strike of the Opt Out Act.

[¶8] The portion of Robinson important to these proceedings is found at ¶ 14. It provides that " this Court has a duty to review the constitutionality of a challenged legislative enactment when presented with a justiciable case or controversy. . . ." We are presented with such a cause here.

[¶9] At issue is a challenge to the constitutionality of the Opt Out Act. Robinson confirms that it is this Court's responsibility to address the issue currently before us. Furthermore, the Legislature has directed us to do so in a timely manner. Therefore, we determine that issues related to the constitutionality of the Opt Out Act are properly before this Court.[12]

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[¶10] b. The Opt Out Act is an unconstitutional special law, creating an impermissible select group of employees seeking compensation for work-related injuries for disparate treatment, in violation of art. 5, § 59 of the Oklahoma Constitution.

[¶11] Before addressing the various arguments of the parties, it is helpful to understand the test for determining whether a law violates the special law prohibition of art. 5, § 59. Its terms are that:

" Laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation throughout the State, and where a general law can be made applicable, no special law shall be enacted."

Statutes facing an art. 5, § 59 challenge are considered pursuant to a three-part test to determine constitutional muster. First, is the law special or general? Second, if the law is special in nature, does a general law apply? And, finally, if a general law is not applicable, is the statute a permissible special law?13

[¶12] The first prong requires us to identify the class. If the statute relates to all persons or things within the class, it is a general law. Where the law singles out less than an entire class of similarly affected persons or things for different treatment, it is a special law. Under the second prong, the question is whether the legislation is susceptible of general treatment or if some special situation makes treatment by a general law impossible. Third, it must be determined whether the special law is so substantially related to a valid legislative objective that it will survive the constitutional challenge.14

[¶13] The above analysis was posited by this Court in Reynolds v. Porter, 1988 OK 88, 760 P.2d 816. We consider the arguments of the parties, in which many of the concerns of the Attorney General are subsumed, in making our determination as to whether the Opt Out is general or special in nature.

[¶14] 1) The defined class for special law analysis is made up of injured employees.

[¶15] Dillard's contends that there is no disparate treatment of the class at issue in the Opt Out Act. It does so by alleging that the relevant stautorily-created class is...

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