Warren v. Mississippi Workers' Compensation Com'n, 95-CC-00595-SCT

Decision Date09 October 1997
Docket NumberNo. 95-CC-00595-SCT,95-CC-00595-SCT
Citation700 So.2d 608
PartiesRay WARREN, David Graham, Joyce Thornhill, Ralph Barnes, George Cato and Ricky Dear v. The MISSISSIPPI WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION, Claire M. Porter, Beverly Hogan and John Nipper.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Larry O. Norris, Hattiesburg; F. Marvin Morris, Anthony Sakalarios, Morris & Sakalarios, Hattiesburg; John M. Deakle, Hattiesburg, for Appellants.

Janet McMurtray, Fred Krutz, III, S. Kay Freeman, Forman Perry Watkins & Krutz, Jackson, for Appellees.

Before PRATHER, P.J., and BANKS and SMITH, JJ.

BANKS, Justice, for the Court:

¶1 In this case we consider the constitutionality of the Mississippi Workers' Compensation scheme, which is often alleged to be characterized by long delays in the resolution of claims. Because the plaintiffs have not demonstrated in this record that these delays cause any constitutional injury, we affirm the trial court's denial of the relief sought, and accordingly decline to strike down the Workers' Compensation scheme.


¶2 On November 19, 1993, six plaintiffs filed suit in the Hinds County Chancery Court alleging that the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Act was unconstitutional. Their final amended complaint, which was filed on August 10, 1994, alleged six causes of action: (1) the workers compensation scheme deprived the plaintiffs and others similarly situated of their unspecified liberty and property interests without due process of law; 1 (2) the defendants' use of outmoded and obsolete means of administering the Act causes inordinately slow procedures for the plaintiffs and others similarly situated, violating their rights to justice without delay; (3) the Workers' Compensation Enabling Act is unconstitutional because it provides for commissioners who are prejudiced; (4) the Workers' Compensation Act is unconstitutional because it has delays built into the statute which provide for several rounds of appeal that take six to seven years to complete; (5) the Commission and its members exhibited negligence in their supervision and management of the workers' compensation cases that come before it by allowing the cases to drag on for an inordinate period of time, by not streamlining their procedures, and by allowing employers and carriers to impede the progress and resolution of the cases; and (6) the workers' compensation scheme is unconstitutional because it limits the claimant's attorney fees, but does not limit the employer and carrier attorney fees.

¶3 The complaint names as defendants the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Commission and its three full-time members, Claire Porter, Beverly Hogan, and John Nipper. The members were sued in their official and individual capacities. The plaintiffs sought relief by way of a declaration that the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Act was unconstitutional and therefore null and void, an injunction against any further action of the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Commission, and the restoration of plaintiffs' common law right to sue in tort. The final amended complaint does not seek monetary damages.

¶4 The plaintiffs had the following individual experiences with their workers' compensation claims (a) Ray Warren was injured while working as a logger on March 20, 1989 and was rendered a paraplegic. According to the appellant's brief, he filed his Petition to Controvert on August 3, 1989. After five years in the system, he was awarded some kind of benefits in June 1994, but at the time of the instant briefing, he had not received any workers' compensation benefits or medical treatment. He also has a separate case that is currently pending in this Court. In the meantime, he has allegedly lived in poverty. Mr. Warren did not testify at the trial in this case.

(b) David Graham injured his back while delivering a sofa to a customer on May 22, 1985. During the litigation of his workers' compensation claim, he has lived on charity and relatives, and he has lost his automobile, furniture, and house. He has been receiving some compensation intermittently, but has had problems getting his medical treatment covered. His workers' compensation claim is presently pending before this Court.

(c) Ricky Dale Dear was injured on the job in September 1988. Dear has received workers' compensation benefits intermittently since then, but has had to live on food stamps, borrow money from friends, and live in a camper with his wife and children without electricity or hot water. He pawned his television and VCR and had his car and guns repossessed. He ultimately settled his case in September 1991 because he realized that he could not wait the projected four to six years that his lawyer estimated would be required for the full adjudication of his claim.

(d) Joyce Thornhill injured her back on March 7, 1987 while lifting a patient at a nursing home. In the two years that passed while she awaited the approval of her employer for surgery, she sustained permanent nerve root damages because of the delay. At the time of the trial, she was still trying to get her medical expenses covered, but she had been receiving workers' compensation benefits since her injury.

(e) Ralph Barnes was injured on March 3, 1987 while lifting lumber. His benefits were litigated through June 1994. During the four-month period that Barnes was without any income at all, he lived on the charity of his relatives. While he did receive varying amounts of benefits until the final disposition of his case in this Court in June 1994, each stage of appeal produced dramatically different awards.

(f) George Cato injured his back on December 6, 1990. His Petition to Controvert was filed on August 29, 1991, but he ultimately settled his claim because he could not afford to pursue it. He asserts that he was physically unable to attend trial and testify.

¶5 After some discovery, the chancery court held a trial on November 16-17, 1994. The six plaintiffs testified about their injuries and their experiences with their claims. The plaintiffs further called Bill Waller Jr. as an expert witness in workers' compensation practice. Although Mr. Waller had no knowledge outside of the complaint about the delays involved in these six particular plaintiffs' cases, he testified about his experience in representing claimants. He stated that it takes a minimum of nine months to a year after maximum medical recovery has been reached to get an initial hearing on a controverted claim. 2 He further testified that the administrative law judge's opinion does not receive any deference in subsequent review by the full Commission, and can be essentially relitigated by affidavit at the Commission level. The Commission is also entitled to remand matters back to administrative law judges when desirable. Mr. Waller opined that scheduling conflicts and contingencies contribute to the delay in the resolution of these cases.

¶6 Mr. Waller further testified that it was difficult to obtain emergency relief, such as in cases where benefits or medical payments ¶7 Mr. Waller also stated that the length of time typically required to resolve controversies always made a negative impact on a client's willingness to settle a case for less than the client would if the client could count on a faster adjudication of the claim. He believed that the workers' compensation procedures were more protracted than litigation in the regular tort system. He also testified that, in his opinion, the statutory requirement under Miss.Code Ann. § 71-3-85, that the Commission comprise one member who had previously represented employers, and one member who had previously represented employees, was "automatically" an impartial system. Finally, Mr. Waller believed that the statutory ceiling on attorneys' fees, which is 25% of an award of benefits, chilled attorneys' willingness to represent claimants.

have been totally cut off, because of the high case load that the administrative law judges have. He stated that, often, judges will take the position that a regular hearing on the merits will take place within two or three months, and thus the are reluctant to grant emergency relief.

¶8 On cross-examination, Mr. Waller admitted that few cases were ever controverted, and even fewer were ever appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. He further stated that, in his opinion, the members of the Commission at the time of trial were not only fair and impartial, but were trying to speed the process up. Indeed, he stated that, in his experiences of over 300 cases before the Commission, more than half of their decisions had been unanimous.

¶9 The defendant-Commission brought their own expert witness, Horace Brewer, an administrative law judge with the Commission from 1979 to 1984 who has since been in private practice that is exclusively devoted to workers' compensation cases. 3 Mr. Brewer testified that while the system proceeded quite slowly through the 1980s, there had been a number of systemic changes that speeded the system up, including the acquisition of computers and the adoption of procedural rules in September 1993. The procedural changes allowed lawyers to conduct their cases in a manner that speeded things along, like completing their discovery so as to force the opponent to file his pre-trial statement. In Mr. Brewer's opinion, the time required to complete a case had been cut in half since he first began practicing law in 1967.

¶10 On cross-examination, Mr. Brewer complained that circuit courts despised workers' compensation cases and took them under advisement for a long time, often over a year. He further stated that it took a minimum of two years for a case that had been appealed to the Supreme Court to be resolved. He stated that, in his own experience, there had been many reasons that cases were delayed prior to ever reaching the circuit court which had nothing to do with systemic problems such as: claimants who had not reached maximum medical recovery or had...

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  • Short v. House
    • United States
    • Mississippi Supreme Court
    • June 17, 2010
    ...that it can review alleged violations of rights under both the state and federal constitutions. See, e.g., Warren v. Miss. Workers' Comp. Comm'n, 700 So.2d 608 (Miss.1997) (allegation of violation of due-process Georgia-Pacific Corp. v. McLaurin, 370 So.2d 1359 (Miss.1979) (same); Pathfinde......
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