Rivas v. Parkland Manor, 91,007.

Citation12 P.3d 452,2000 OK 68
Decision Date19 September 2000
Docket NumberNo. 91,007.,91,007.
PartiesManuel RIVAS, Jr., Petitioner, v. PARKLAND MANOR, Respondent.
CourtSupreme Court of Oklahoma

William C. Doty, The Bell Law Firm, Norman Oklahoma for Petitioner.

H.A. Carter, H.A. Carter Law Office, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for Respondent.

BOUDREAU, J.

¶ 1 The issue presented is whether it is constitutionally permissible for an injured worker to have his workers' compensation benefits limited, due to preexisting adjudications of permanent partial disability ("PPD"), in order to prevent receipt of combined awards in excess of 100% permanent partial disability. After a review of the record on appeal, we answer the question in the affirmative.

¶ 2 Claimant, Manuel Rivas, Jr., was injured while working for Parkland Manor in January 1997. He pursued a workers' compensation claim and received temporary total disability benefits and medical treatment, including surgery. After surgery, Rivas sought PPD benefits for his continuing permanent disability. At the time, he had preexisting PPD adjudications totaling 99.85%.1

¶ 3 After a hearing, the trial court adjudicated Rivas's injury as a 30% permanent partial disability to the body as a whole. The trial court then applied 85 O.S. Supp.1995, § 22(7) and limited Rivas' compensation award to 0.15% permanent partial disability compensation. Title 85 O.S. Supp.1995, § 22(7) provides in part:

The sum of all permanent partial disability awards, including awards against the Multiple Injury Trust Fund, shall not exceed one hundred percent (100%) permanent partial disability for any individual. An individual may not receive more than five hundred twenty (520) weeks' compensation for permanent partial disability, but may receive other benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act if otherwise eligible as provided in the Workers' Compensation Act.

The statute limits PPD so that the sum of an injured worker's total PPD adjudications cannot exceed 100% permanent partial disability. By applying the statute to Rivas, the trial court reduced Rivas' compensation to $99.12 from $24,900.00, the amount he would have received had he been awarded the entire sum under the 30% adjudication.

¶ 4 After the hearing Rivas appealed the trial court's order to the three judge panel of the Workers' Compensation Court. Rivas argued that 85 O.S. Supp.1995, § 22(7) as applied by the trial court violated his constitutional rights on federal equal protection grounds. He also argued the application of the statute violated Oklahoma constitutional provisions, Art. 2, § 6 (which mandates that every wrong will have a speedy and certain remedy) and Art. 5, § 54 (which prohibits retroactive application of laws affecting substantive rights).2

¶ 5 The three judge panel found that 85 O.S. Supp.1995, § 22(7) as applied to Rivas did not violate either the state or federal constitutions. From that decision Rivas appealed and the Court of Civil Appeals reversed the lower court ruling reducing Rivas' PPD award, finding 85 O.S. Supp.1995, § 22(7) violated Rivas' rights under the equal protection clause of the Unites States Constitution. U.S. Const., Amend. XIV. Respondent, Parkland Manor, then filed its Petition for Certiorari with this Court.

I. Standard of Review

¶ 6 This case presents no questions of disputed fact3 and as a result the appeal addresses only questions of law, whether the award reduction under § 22(7) is permissible in view of the state and federal constitutions. The appellate court will exercise its "plenary, independent, and non-deferential authority [when] reexamin[ing] a trial court's legal rulings." Spielmann v. Hayes, 2000 OK CIV APP 44, 3 P.3D 711; Neil Acquisition, L.L.C. v. Wingrod Inv. Corp., 1996 OK 125, ¶ 4, 932 P.2d 1100, 1103 n. 1. This Court's standard of review is de novo and gives no deference to the legal rulings of the trial court. State, ex rel. Dept. of Human Services, ex rel. Jones v. Baggett, 1999 OK 68, 990 P.2d 235. Regarding questions of constitutionality, this Court will not declare an act of the legislature "void unless it is clearly, palpably, and plainly inconsistent with the terms of the Constitution." Hazel-Atlas Glass Co. v. Walker, 1945 OK 176, 195 Okla. 470, 159 P.2d 268, 269.

II. Equal Protection Analysis

¶ 7 "[T]he equal protection clause is a pledge and a guarantee of the protection of equal laws", however "exact equality is not a requirement[.]" Brown v. Lillard, 1991 OK 74, 814 P.2d 1040, 1042-43. The guiding principle under the equal protection clause is that all people shall be treated alike under like circumstances and like conditions, enjoying the same benefits and privileges as well as the same liabilities. Nordlinger v. Hahn, 505 U.S. 1, 112 S.Ct. 2326, 120 L.Ed.2d 1 (1992); Franklin v. Carter, 51 F.2d 345 (10th Cir.1931). The equal protection clause prohibits a governing body from applying a law dissimilarly to people who are similarly situated. Brown, 814 P.2d at 1042-43; State, ex rel. Oklahoma Bar Ass'n v. Minter, 1998 OK 59, 961 P.2d 208. ¶ 8 Rivas concedes that the standard of scrutiny to be used when examining the governmental action in question under an equal protection analysis is the rational basis test. Using this rationale, legislation may draw certain classifications among individuals or groups of individuals, if those classifications are not arbitrary and capricious and bear some reasonable or rational relationship to a permissible public policy or goal. Brown, 814 P.2d at 1043; Rogers v. Sontag, 1988 OK 94, 764 P.2d 883. The distinction between the classifications must "have some relevance to the purpose for which the classification is made." Brown, 814 P.2d at 1043 (citing T.I.M. v. Okla. Land Title Ass'n, 1984 OK 66, 698 P.2d 915, 920). Rational basis is the lowest standard of scrutiny applied in equal protection analysis and is used when the classification does not jeopardize the exercise of a fundamental right or make a classification based upon an inherently suspect characteristic. Nelson v. Nelson, 1998 OK 10, 954 P.2d 1219. A strong presumption exists in favor of legislative enactments and the constitutionality of a statute will be upheld unless it is "clearly, palpably, and plainly inconsistent with fundamental law." Id. at 1224; See also Price v. Reed, 1986 OK 43, 725 P.2d 1254

; Earnest, Inc. v. LeGrand, 1980 OK 180, 621 P.2d 1148. Therefore, the legislature's 100% limitation on PPD compensation must be similarly presumed constitutional, unless clearly proven otherwise.

¶ 9 To determine if the law is in accord with the constitution the Court must first identify the population and whether a distinction or classification has been drawn within that population. The population at issue in this case begins with the larger group of all people covered by workers' compensation. The application of 85 O.S. Supp. 1995, § 22(7) eventually filters this large group into two subclasses of individuals who have previous PPD adjudications (1) some of which will find their current PPD award reduced when receiving compensation for their latest disability and (2) some who will have an undiminished award because their current PPD rating does not carry them over the 100% allowable limit.

¶ 10 The discrimination arises because the second subclass will receive full compensation benefits for the latest disability whereas the first subclass, of which Rivas is a member, will have their compensation benefits reduced or even eliminated entirely. As a result, two individuals employed and covered by the Workers' Compensation Act may suffer identical injuries, under seemingly identical circumstances, and receive identical PPD ratings, but one will be compensated to the full extent of his PPD benefits and the other denied some or all of the PPD compensation allowed under the Act.

¶ 11 In determining whether this classification is constitutionally proper, we must first identify the objects and purposes of the Workers' Compensation Act. The object and purposes of a law present the touchstone for determining whether the classification passes equal protection muster. Reilly v. Ozzard, 33 N.J. 529, 166 A.2d 360 (1960) (the reasonableness of a classification depends upon the objective).

¶ 12 The Workers' Compensation Act is primarily designed to provide compensation to covered workers for loss of earning capacity, while placing the burden of supporting injured workers on the industries responsible for those injuries. Adams v. Iten Biscuit Co., 1917 OK 47, 63 Okla. 52, 162 P. 938, 940. In the interest of the public good and creation of a more orderly system of compensation, the injured worker is not required to establish employer negligence in his pursuit of compensation. Id. at 945. However, in exchange for the employer's greater and more certain exposure the Act provided the employer with certain advantages. It offered the employer a maximum loss and made the employer's liability more certain and predictable. Fox v. Dunning, 1927 OK 79, 124 Okla. 228, 255 P. 582, 585-86; Upton v. State of Okla., ex rel. Dept. of Corrections, 2000 OK 46, ¶ 8, 9 P.2d 84. "The object of the Workmen's Compensation Act, 85 O.S.1941, § 1 et seq., is to compensate, within the limits of the act, for loss of earning power occasioned by injuries to the body, disabling one in the performance of ordinary manual or mechanical labor. United States Casualty Co. v. Steiger, 179 Okl. 407, 66 P.2d 55[.]"4J.E. Trigg Drilling Co. v. Daniels, 1943 OK 349, 193 Okla. 644, 145 P.2d 944, 946 (emphasis added).

¶ 13 The critical question is whether the classification rests upon a difference which bears a reasonable relationship to any of the goals of the Workers' Compensation Act. In answering this question, we conclude the law does promote the goal of more limited and certain monetary exposure for employers. Application of § 22(7) offers employers finite liability for an employee's permanent partial disability; with regard to PPD, the employer...

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