Torres v. Seaboard Foods, LLC

Decision Date01 March 2016
Docket NumberNo. 113,649.,113,649.
Citation373 P.3d 1057,2016 OK 20
Parties Yaumary Concepcion TORRES, Petitioner, v. SEABOARD FOODS, LLC, American Zurich Ins. Co., and The Workers' Compensation Commission, Respondents.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

Bob Burke, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Petitioner.

Juan Maldonado, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Petitioner.

Connie M. Wolfe, Connie M. Wolfe & Associates, P.L.L.C., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Respondent, Seaboard Foods, L.L.C.

V. Glenn Coffee and Denise K. Davick, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Amicus Curiae, State Chamber of Oklahoma.

EDMONDSON

, J.

I. Introduction

¶ 1 Petitioner, a former employee, filed a workers' compensation claim and alleged she was injured on-the-job and needed surgery. Her former employer (employer) argued that she was barred from receiving workers' compensation because she alleged a cumulative-trauma injury and she had not worked a continuous 180–day period for that employer. The administrative law judge denied her claim because she had not worked the 180–day period. The Workers' Compensation Commission affirmed the order of the administrative judge.

¶ 2 Employer also argues on appeal petitioner has no right to file either a workers' compensation claim or seek a common-law remedy in a District Court. Employer asserts petitioner has no legal right or remedy to receive any type of compensation or medical care from her employer in any form. Employer argues petitioner has no right to an opportunity to prove her claim of injury before any court or any administrative agency. Employee argues her employer is making an unconstitutional application of workers' compensation statutes.

¶ 3 Because the employee challenged the constitutionality of 85A O.S. §§ 2 (14)

& 5, this Court issued an order providing the Oklahoma Attorney General, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the President Pro Tempore an opportunity to intervene by filing entries of appearance herein and briefing issues. They did not intervene and file briefs. The amicus curiae, State Chamber, filed a brief in support of the constitutionality of the challenged statutes.

¶ 4 Several decades of court precedent from both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Oklahoma Supreme Court on the subject of how state and federal statutes interact with State and Federal Due Process constitutional provisions clearly show an unconstitutional application of a workers' compensation statute by employer in the matter before the Court. We hold 85A O.S. § 2 (14)

violates the Due Process Section of the Oklahoma Constitution, Art. 2 § 7, when applied to employee because the statute's overinclusive and underinclusive classifications are not rationally related to legitimate State interests of (1) preventing workers' compensation fraud and (2) decreasing employers' costs.

II. Workers' Compensation Statutes Raised by the Parties

¶ 5 Two workers' compensation statutes are used by employer in support of its argument: 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 2(14)

& § 5. The first defines cumulative trauma based upon repetitive physical activities and adds a condition requiring an employee to have completed one hundred eighty (180) days of continuous employment.

14. “Cumulative trauma” means an injury to an employee that is caused by the combined effect of repetitive physical activities extending over a period of time in the course and scope of employment. Cumulative trauma shall not mean fatigue, soreness or general aches and pain that may have been caused, aggravated, exacerbated or accelerated by the employee's course and scope of employment. Cumulative trauma shall have resulted directly and independently of all other causes and the employee shall have completed at least one hundred eighty (180) days of continuous active employment with the employer;

85A O.S.Supp. 2013 § 2 (14)

.

Employer argues that two reasons exist for an employee to work 180 continuous days as a condition to receive workers' compensation. The first, “It is reasonable to conceive that a worker who has worked for a significant period of time is more likely to have sustained an injury, while a worker who works for a shorter period did not ... [and the 180–day requirement] places reasonable qualifications on what a compensable injury is, and what it is not.”1 This argument may be reduced to the simple statement that the Legislature's role includes determining what constitutes a compensable injury.

¶ 6 The second argument is that preventing fraud and controlling economic concerns are legitimate State interests, and the Legislature has a role in preventing fraud and advancing economic interests by decreasing employers' costs. The brief of amicus curiae provides rankings from different states based upon costs for workers' compensation insurance premiums, but it does so using a rule-prohibited Brandeis brief method.2 However, amicus curiae's argument supporting a legislative decrease in employers' costs as a legitimate State interest may be considered apart from the Brandeis brief facts. This is so because employer's argument concerning employers' costs is sufficiently broad to fairly include employers' costs associated with workers' compensation insurance.

¶ 7 Employer makes the following argument:

This limitation bears a rational relationship to a legitimate State interest. Preventing fraud is a legitimate state interest. Placing a requirement that an employee work for a period of time before qualifying for a compensable injury ensures that frivolous claims and fraudulent allegations are controlled.

Respondent's Answer Brief, at pp. 5–6.

Amicus curiae similarly argues that the 180–day period is a “durational requirement ... necessary to define the bounds of the injury ... [and the] exposure requirement merely serves to ferret out fraudulent claims and ensure that the injury claimed is fairly attributable to the period of employment.”3

¶ 8 Employee recognizes that legitimate State interests include legislation to prevent fraud and advance economic interests. Employee also recognizes the Legislature's role in creating workers' compensation laws. Employee argues that § 2(14)

class of employees who work less than 180 days is a statutory class that violates the Due Process section of the Oklahoma Constitution, Okla. Const. Art. 2 § 7.4

¶ 9 Employer also argues that employee is barred from bringing a District Court action against her former employer. Employer relies upon 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 5

.5 Paragraph “C” of § 5 states: “The immunity from civil liability described in subsection A of this section shall apply regardless of whether the injured employee is denied compensation or deemed ineligible to receive compensation under this act.” Employer argues that although employee is not eligible to bring a workers' compensation claim because of the 180–day requirement of § 2

, employee is also barred from bringing an action in a District Court.

¶ 10 Employee argues that when the workers' compensation statutes were originally created in several States a grand bargain was created. This bargain consisted of an injured worker relinquishing a common-law right to bring an action in a District Court against the worker's employer and the worker gained more certain statutory compensation but the compensation was less in amount. On the other hand, the employer relinquished certain common-law defenses in a District Court action and gained an economic liability that was less and fixed by statute.6 Employee argues that statutorily barring both a workers' compensation remedy and a District Court remedy violates the grand bargain and the Oklahoma Constitution. She argues for a right to proceed against her employer by an action filed in a District Court.

¶ 11 This Court has a fundamental duty to ascertain and give effect to, or enforce, the Legislature's intent expressed in any statute the Legislature creates.7 If the language of the statute is plain and unambiguous, the legislative intent is deemed to be expressed by the statutory language.8 Rules of construction are applied to determine legislative intent when the statutory language is ambiguous.9 We first examine § 2(14)

and conclude its language is not ambiguous, and apply the meaning of § 2 prior to examining § 5.

¶ 12 The employee in this controversy alleges a cumulative trauma injury occurred, in fact, during less than 180 continuous days of employment. Respondent and amicus curiae do not assert that § 2(14)

is a legislative determination that a cumulative injury does not, or cannot, in fact occur during the first 180 days of a person's employment. They agree that cumulative trauma is an injury “caused by the combined effect of repetitive physical activities extending over a period of time in the course and scope of employment.” The brief of amicus curiae emphasizes this language to show that cumulative injury occurs during a period of time.

¶ 13 Respondent and amicus curiae appear to agree that the statutory language would not prohibit an employee from filing a cumulative trauma claim on the 181st day of employment, where the claim would be based upon repetitive and cumulative trauma occurring for a period of time during the previous 180 days of employment. The language requiring 180 days of employment is thus not construed as defining the nature of an injury, but a condition required to file a claim against an employer in addition to the employee having suffered an injury. As explained by amicus curiae, “the Legislature ... delineated a particular number of days that an individual must be employed prior to filing a claim for an injury that was sustained by ‘repetitive physical activities,’ or the “legislative state purpose” of the 180–day requirement is that “an individual be employed for a certain length of time prior to subjecting the employer to a claim for a repetitive injury.”

¶ 14 Respondent and amicus curiae also characterize the 180–day employment language in § 2(14)

as one element defining “cumulative trauma.” Construing the language as part...

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