855 F.2d 820 (11th Cir. 1988), 87-8045, Price v. Tanner

Docket Nº:87-8045.
Citation:855 F.2d 820
Party Name:Gwendolyn PRICE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Joseph TANNER, Commissioner of Labor of the State of Georgia, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:September 22, 1988
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

Page 820

855 F.2d 820 (11th Cir. 1988)

Gwendolyn PRICE, Plaintiff-Appellant,


Joseph TANNER, Commissioner of Labor of the State of

Georgia, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 87-8045.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

September 22, 1988

Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc Denied Nov. 1, 1988.

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John F. Sweet, Atlanta, Ga., for plaintiff-appellant.

Bryndis Roberts Jenkins, State Law Dept., Annette M. Cowart, Atlanta, Ga., for defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Before VANCE and CLARK, Circuit Judges, and GARZA [*], Senior Circuit Judge.

VANCE, Circuit Judge:

This appeal involves the issue whether a Georgia Workers' Compensation statute, Ga.Code Ann. Sec. 34-9-285, violates the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution. Section 34-9-285 provides that where an employee is disabled by the aggravation of a pre-existing condition by an occupational disease, workers' compensation benefits are limited to an amount representing the portion of disability attributable to the occupational disease. Georgia's Workers' Compensation Act, however, does not contain a similar provision limiting benefits to employees disabled by the aggravation of pre-existing conditions by work-related occurrences, such as accidents or injuries, other than occupational diseases. Finding that the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of appellees. We affirm.


During her childhood Gwendolyn Price suffered from numerous respiratory problems. In 1971, she was diagnosed as having chronic bronchiectasis disease. Two years later, Price began working for Lithonia Lighting Company. Over the course of her employment at Lithonia Lighting Price was exposed to fumes, chemicals and dust which aggravated her respiratory condition. Due to her continuing respiratory problems, Price had to leave her job in January 1983.

Price filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits on January 11, 1983 with the State Board of Workers' Compensation. An administrative law judge ("ALJ") found that Price had "sustained an accident arising out of and in the course of her employment which aggravated her pre-existing lung problem." Finding that Price was totally disabled, the ALJ awarded her $135 per week for total economic disability plus medical expenses. Lithonia Lighting appealed the ALJ's decision to the full board of the State Board of Workers' Compensation. On appeal it was determined that only ten percent of Price's disability was attributable to the aggravation of her condition as a result of her employment. Accordingly, Price's award was reduced to $13.50 per week pursuant to section 34-9-285. 1

Price sought review of the administrative award in the state courts. After the Superior Court of Rockdale County, Georgia affirmed the award, Price filed an application for a discretionary appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of section 34-9-285. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the statute. See Price v. Lithonia Lighting Co., 256 Ga. 49, 343 S.E.2d 688 (1986). 2

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While awaiting the resolution of the state court proceedings, Price instituted this action in federal district court alleging that section 34-9-285 violated her federal constitutional rights. 3 Price maintained that section 34-9-285 violated the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment because of the statute's restrictive rule for determining benefits for persons disabled due to the aggravation of a pre-existing condition by an occupational disease. In the complaint, Price alleged that "[t]here is no rational basis for the distinction drawn by [the] statute between disability resulting from occupational factors and disability resulting from all other aggravating factors." The district court held that there was a rational basis for the distinction. 4 The district court found that the rational basis test was satisfied by the two justifications asserted by the state: (1) to alleviate a financial strain on certain industries; and (2) to recognize the problem arising from the gradual onset of occupational diseases of determining when the aggravation of a pre-existing condition becomes the cause of the disability. This appeal followed.


The equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment provides that "[n]o State shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." U.S. Const. amend. XIV, Sec. 1. A violation of the equal protection clause may occur when a legislative body enacts a law which "has a special impact on less than all the persons subject to its jurisdiction...." New York City Transit Auth. v. Beazer, 440 U.S. 568, 587-88, 99 S.Ct. 1355, 1367, 59 L.Ed.2d 587 (1979). The Supreme Court, however, consistently has recognized that "the Fourteenth Amendment does not deny to states the power to treat different classes of persons in different ways." Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 75, 92 S.Ct. 251, 253, 30 L.Ed.2d 225 (1971). An equal protection analysis, therefore, requires as a "preliminary step" a determination of "whether persons who are similarly situated are subject to disparate treatment." Johnson v. Smith, 696 F.2d 1334, 1336 (11th Cir.1983).

Georgia's Workers' Compensation Act (the "Act"), Ga.Code Ann. Secs. 34-9-1 et seq., does not compensate all disabled employees in the same manner. Employees receive full compensation for compensable disabilities arising solely as a result of a work-related injury, 5 solely as a result of an occupational disease, 6 or as a result of the aggravation of a pre-existing condition by a work-related injury other than an occupational

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disease. If, however, an employee is disabled by the aggravation of a noncompensable, pre-existing condition by an occupational disease, compensation is reduced to the proportion the occupational disease is the cause of the disability. Ga.Code Ann. Sec. 34-9-285. Employees who are disabled due to the aggravation of pre-existing conditions are similarly situated with other disabled employees with respect to the purpose of the legislation. Because the compensation for these disabled employees is calculated in a different manner, we find that the preliminary step is satisfied.

Where groups are similarly situated "[t]he general rule is that legislation is presumed to be valid and will be sustained if the classification drawn by the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest." City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, 473 U.S. 432, 105 S.Ct. 3249, 3254, 87 L.Ed.2d 313 (1985); Vance v. Bradley, 440 U.S. 93, 97, 99 S.Ct. 939, 943, 59 L.Ed.2d 171 (1979). Where the classification interferes with the exercise of a fundamental right or operates to the disadvantage of a suspect class, an equal protection analysis requiring strict scrutiny is substituted for the general rule. City of Cleburne, 105 S.Ct. at 3255; Massachusetts Bd. of Retirement v. Murgia, 427 U.S. 307, 313, 96 S.Ct. 2562, 2566-67, 49 L.Ed.2d 520 (1976).

The parties agree that the standard of review applicable to this case is the "rational basis" test. 7 Under this test "we will not overturn ... a statute unless the varying treatment of different ... persons is so unrelated to the achievement of any combination of legitimate purposes that we can only conclude that the legislature's actions were irrational." Vance, 440 U.S. at 97, 99 S.Ct. at 943, see Western & S. Life Ins. Co. v. State Bd. of Equalization, 451 U.S. 648, 674, 101 S.Ct. 2070, 2086, 68 L.Ed.2d 514 (1981) (equal protection challenge will not succeed if the state's purpose is legitimate and the rational relationship question is " 'at least debatable' ") (quoting United States v. Carolene Prods. Co., 304 U.S. 144, 154, 58 S.Ct. 778, 784, 82 L.Ed. 1234 (1938)). The application of the rational basis test to social or economic legislation "allows the states wide latitude." City of Cleburne, 105 S.Ct. at 3254; see United States R.R. Retirement Bd. v. Fritz, 449 U.S. 166, 174, 101 S.Ct. 453, 459, 66 L.Ed.2d 368 (1980); McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 425, 81 S.Ct. 1101, 1104-05, 6 L.Ed.2d 393 (1961).

The state asserts that section 34-9-285 ensures three legitimate state purposes: (1) to alleviate a heavy financial burden on industries where individuals are likely to file more claims; (2) to recognize that occupational diseases have a gradual onset making it difficult to determine when an aggravating injury actually occurs; and (3) to encourage the employment of handicapped persons. We note that appellees have not provided great assistance to this court by identifying compelling reasons for the legislation. We have some question that either of the first two justifications may be classified as a legitimate state interest. 8 Because only one reason, however, is necessary to sustain the statute, see Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co., 449 U.S. 456, 465, 101 S.Ct. 715, 724, 66 L.Ed.2d 659 (1981), we turn to the third purpose advanced by the state.

The third justification offered by appellees initially was presented to this court during oral argument. Although this argument was not presented to the district court, we are obligated under the rational basis test to consider any legitimate state interest however it comes before us. See Western & S. Life Ins. Co., 451 U.S. at 674, 101 S.Ct. at 2086 (in determining the validity of legislation under the equal protection clause the court may analyze considerations presented to the state legislature and those of which it takes judicial notice) (quoting Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S.

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at 154, 58 S.Ct. at 784-85); Dandridge v. Williams, 397...

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