Missouri Alliance v. Dept. of Labor

Decision Date24 February 2009
Docket NumberNo. SC 88368.,SC 88368.
Citation277 S.W.3d 670
PartiesMISSOURI ALLIANCE FOR RETIRED AMERICANS, et al., Appellants, v. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS, Division of Workers' Compensation, Respondent.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

PLURALITY OPINION

For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that the plaintiff labor organizations do not have standing to raise eight of the claims they assert in an attempt to strike down the 2005 amendments to the state workers' compensation law because those claims are not yet ripe for review. Six of these claims argue that specific provisions of the workers' compensation act, as amended in 2005, are unconstitutional because the application of those particular provisions deprives workers of due process, violates the open courts provision of the Missouri constitution or violates several other constitutional rights of the workers.

But, no individual injured person or group of persons are joined in this action, and the claims that these provisions unfairly will deprive any particular person of the person's constitutional rights are, at this point, completely hypothetical. Any opinion this Court would offer, therefore, would be purely advisory, and it is premature to address whether there may be constitutional problems with application of these provisions to particular individuals. State ex rel. State Bd. of Mediation v. Pigg, 362 Mo. 798, 244 S.W.2d 75, 79 (1951).

The Court also finds that the claim that the legislature must provide a quid pro quo to workers that is at least substantially equivalent to or greater than that provided in the original workers' compensation act is not properly raised or justiciable at this time. Likewise, the claims that the amendments to the act impair workers' constitutional rights and have no rational basis are hypothetical and, hence, not justiciable.

Separate and apart from their constitutional challenges, however, the plaintiff labor organizations have presented this Court with a ripe and justiciable issue in their request for a declaratory judgment as to the scope of the exclusivity clause in section 287.120 after the amendments.1 The amendments narrow the definition of the type of "injury" that falls within the definition of an "accident," which limits the scope of the act. The removal of certain injuries and accidents from the scope of the act places workers who have suffered those injuries outside the workers' compensation system. Those workers now can recover under the common law as they no longer fall within the exclusivity provision of the act as set out in section 287.120.

The Court addresses the constitutional claims, the ripeness issue and the sole justiciable controversy below, after providing a brief factual framework for this analysis.

I. Factual and Procedural History

In 2005, the legislature made significant changes to the workers' compensation system. Senate Bills Nos. 1 and 130 amended 30 sections of chapter 287, RSMo 2000, the Missouri's workers' compensation law ("amendments"). In response, a consortium of 71 organizations—including 66 labor unions, four labor councils and one not-for-profit corporation—filed a nine-count petition against the division of workers' compensation in the Cole County circuit court challenging the constitutional validity of the amendments. The labor organizations assert that the primary import of the amendments was to reduce the scope of benefits available to workers injured on the job.

The labor organizations challenge the amended workers' compensation law as a whole in counts I and III, challenge specific statutory provisions in six other counts, and seek a declaratory judgment as to the rights of injured workers whose accidents no longer are within the scope of the act. The parties filed cross-motions for a judgment on the pleadings with respect to counts I and III, the due process challenges to all the amendments. The division also filed for summary judgment on all counts for lack of justiciability. The trial court held that the division was entitled to judgment, as a matter of law, on counts I and III, and granted the division's motion for summary judgment holding that all the other counts, including count IV, were not justiciable. The labor organizations appeal, arguing that the workers' compensation law as a whole is unconstitutional and that all the rest of the claims in their petition are justiciable.

II. Constitutional Challenges

The constitutional validity of a statute is a question of law, the review of which is de novo. Weinschenk v. State, 203 S.W.3d 201, 210 (Mo. banc 2006). A statute's validity is presumed, and it will not be declared unconstitutional unless it clearly contravenes a constitutional provision. Doe v. Phillips, 194 S.W.3d 833, 841 (Mo. banc 2006).

A. Nature of Due Process and Open Courts Violation Challenges to the Act as a Whole

The labor organizations challenge the constitutional validity of the act as a whole on the ground that in the original "workers' compensation bargain," workers surrendered the right to sue their employers at common law in exchange for lower but certain compensation, without regard to fault, in all cases of accidental work-related injury. The labor organizations maintain that the reduction of workers' rights in the 2005 amendments is not permitted because it is below the standard set in the initial legislation by the workers and their employers. They allege that the rights then set out were the quid pro quo for workers giving up their rights to sue at common law for their claims and, if those rights are diminished in a substantial way, the bargain has been breached. They further assert that the law as a whole, in its current form, contains such substantial modifications of the original bargain that it is no longer a quid pro quo and, therefore, violates workers' due process and open courts rights.

Both the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 10 of the Missouri Constitution provide that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. In this case, the labor organizations ask this Court to review the substantive content of the legislation and find that because the amendments substantially affect the bargain that formed the basis of the workers' compensation system, the act unconstitutionally deprives workers of their right to certain compensation for a work-related injury without regard to fault. Alternatively, the labor organizations assert that the amendments violate the workers' due process rights because the amendments are arbitrary and lack a rational relationship to legitimate legislative goals. See Phillips, 194 S.W.3d at 844-45.

For the same reasons, the labor organizations argue, the amendments violate procedural due process and the "open courts" provision of the Missouri Constitution, which states: "That the courts of justice shall be open to every person, and certain remedy afforded for every injury to person, property or character, and that right and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay." Mo. Const. art I, sec. 14.2 "Put most simply, article I, section 14 prohibits any law that arbitrarily or unreasonably bars individuals or classes of individuals from accessing our courts in order to enforce recognized causes of action for personal injury." Kilmer v. Mun, 17 S.W.3d 545, 549 (Mo. banc 2000) (internal quotation omitted). The open courts provision does not itself grant substantive rights but, rather, is a procedural safeguard that ensures a person has access to the courts when that person has a legitimate claim recognized by law. Etling v. Westport Heating & Cooling Serv., Inc., 92 S.W.3d 771, 774 (Mo. banc 2003). The analysis employed to determine the constitutional validity of a statute on open courts grounds, then, is the same as the analysis used for procedural due process claims, as article I, section 14 is "a second due process clause to the state constitution." Goodrum v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co., 824 S.W.2d 6, 10 (Mo. banc 1992).

The division argues that, while workers who are covered by the workers' compensation act did give up their right to sue at common law in return for their right to recover, regardless of fault or negligence, from the employer, that bargain was not a "take it or leave it" or quid pro quo proposition that could not be changed. It points to the fact that Missouri has changed its workers' compensation laws dozens of times over the years, usually making them more favorable to the employee, although sometimes making them more favorable to the employer. The issue, the division argues, is whether the current law passes constitutional muster under a rational basis analysis, not whether the law has changed from what it was in 1926 when the act was first...

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