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Date: 04-13-2016

Case Style: MAXWELL v. SPRINT PCS

Case Number: 2016 OK 41

Judge: Noma Gurich

Court: THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF OKLAHOMA

Plaintiff's Attorney: Bob Burke, Gary Prochaska, Bret A. Unterschuetz, Michael R. Green, Valerie L. Sparks

Defendant's Attorney: John A. McCaleb, Preston G. Hanner, Kevin E. McCarty, David J.L. Frette, Anthony A. Blair, E. Scott Pruitt, Patrick R. Wyrick, Sarah A. Greenwalt, Jared B. Haines, Office of the Attorney General, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Rabindranath Ramana, V. Glenn Coffee, Denise K. Davick

Description: On February 2, 2014, Petitioner Theresa Maxwell suffered an injury to her knee while working for her Employer, Respondent Sprint PCS. She promptly notified her Employer and timely filed a CC-Form-3 with the Workers' Compensation Commission on March 18, 2014. The Employer admitted Petitioner's injury to her knee was compensable, and she had surgery to repair a tendon in her knee. Petitioner also received temporary total disability benefits from February 6, 2014, until February 24, 2014. After reaching maximum medical improvement on July 2, 2014, she returned to her pre-injury position with her employer earning her pre-injury wages. On September 24, 2014, Petitioner Maxwell filed a request for a contested hearing on the issue of permanent partial disability.

2 A hearing was held on December 8, 2014, and the ALJ, relying on the AMA Guides 6th Edition, concluded that Petitioner sustained 2% permanent partial disability to the body as a whole as a result of the injury to her knee and that the rate of compensation was $323.00 for a total award of $2,261.00. However, because she returned to her pre-injury position and pay, the ALJ ordered the award of benefits be deferred at a rate of $323.00 beginning July 2, 2014, for every week Petitioner worked in her pre-injury or equivalent job according to 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 45(C)(5). Petitioner appealed the order, and the Workers' Compensation Commission sitting en banc affirmed on April 24, 2015. Petitioner Maxwell appealed to this Court on May 4, 2015, and we retained the case. On October 6, 2015, this case was made a companion case with the above-styled and numbered causes.1

Standard of Review

3 Section 78 of Title 85A provides:



C. The judgment, decision or award of the Commission shall be final and conclusive on all questions within its jurisdiction between the parties unless an action is commenced in the Supreme Court of this state to review the judgment, decision or award within twenty (20) days of being sent to the parties. Any judgment, decision or award made by an administrative law judge shall be stayed until all appeal rights have been waived or exhausted. The Supreme Court may modify, reverse, remand for rehearing, or set aside the judgment or award only if it was:

1. In violation of constitutional provisions;

2. In excess of the statutory authority or jurisdiction of the Commission;

3. Made on unlawful procedure;

4. Affected by other error of law;

5. Clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, material, probative and substantial competent evidence;

6. Arbitrary or capricious;

7. Procured by fraud; or

8. Missing findings of fact on issues essential to the decision.

85A O.S. Supp. 2013 78(C).

Analysis

Scheduled Members Are Exempt From the AMA Guides Under the
AWCA

4 The issue of whether scheduled members are exempt from the AMA Guides under the AWCA is an issue of statutory interpretation. Statutory interpretation presents a question of law which we review under a de novo standard. Such review is plenary, independent, and non-deferential. State ex rel. Protective Health Servs. State Dep't of Health v. Vaughn, 2009 OK 61, 9, 222 P.3d 1058, 1064.

5 Petitioner Maxwell and Respondent Employer Sprint PCS both agree that Petitioner Maxwell's injury to her knee was an injury to her leg. Under 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 2(40), a leg is considered a "'scheduled member' or 'member'" along with "hands, fingers, arms, feet, toes, and eyes."2 Section 45(C)(1), which addresses permanent partial disability, provides in part that "[a] physician's opinion of the nature and extent of permanent partial disability to parts of the body other than scheduled members must be based solely on criteria established by the current edition of the American Medical Association's 'Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment.'"3 Respondent Employer Sprint PCS concedes4 the AMA Guides do not apply because the statutory language specifically exempts scheduled members from the AMA Guides.5

6 The language exempting scheduled members from the AMA Guides was inserted into the workers' compensation statutes in 1977 and has remained in each and every version of the statute since that time.6 This Court, for nearly forty years, has interpreted such language to mean exactly what it says--scheduled members are exempt from the AMA Guides.7 "Unless a contrary intent clearly appears or is plainly expressed, the terms of amendatory acts retaining the same or substantially similar language as the provisions formerly in force will be accorded the identical construction to that placed upon them by preexisting case law."8 Petitioner Maxwell's knee injury was exempt from evaluation under the AMA Guides.9

7 Additionally, because Petitioner Maxwell's injury was to a scheduled member, the permanent partial disability award should have been to the leg and not to the body as a whole. Section 46(A) provides:



A. An injured employee who is entitled to receive permanent partial disability compensation under Section 45 of this act shall receive compensation for each part of the body in accordance with the number of weeks for the scheduled loss set forth below.

1. Arm amputated at the elbow, or between the elbow and shoulder, two hundred seventy-five (275) weeks;

2. Arm amputated between the elbow and wrist, two hundred twenty (220) weeks;

3. Leg amputated at the knee, or between the knee and the hip, two hundred seventy-five (275) weeks;

4. Leg amputated between the knee and the ankle, two hundred twenty (220) weeks;

5. Hand amputated, two hundred twenty (220) weeks;

6. Thumb amputated, sixty-six (66) weeks;

7. First finger amputated, thirty-nine (39) weeks;

8. Second finger amputated, thirty-three (33) weeks;

9. Third finger amputated, twenty-two (22) weeks;

10. Fourth finger amputated, seventeen (17) weeks;

11. Foot amputated, two hundred twenty (220) weeks;

12. Great toe amputated, thirty-three (33) weeks;

13. Toe other than great toe amputated, eleven (11) weeks;

14. Eye enucleated, in which there was useful vision, two hundred seventy-five (275) weeks;

15. Loss of hearing of one ear, one hundred ten (110) weeks;

16. Loss of hearing of both ears, three hundred thirty (330) weeks; and

17. Loss of one testicle, fifty-three (53) weeks; loss of both testicles, one hundred fifty-eight (158) weeks.10

The parts of the body listed in 46(A) include arm, leg, hand, foot, fingers, toes, eyes, ears (loss of hearing), and testicles. Except for the testicles, the body parts listed in the 46(A) schedule are the same body parts defined as scheduled members. Additionally, arms, legs, hands, feet, fingers, toes, and eyes have been classified as scheduled members since the inception of the system in 1915.11 The "other cases" provision in 46(C) by its terms applies only to "an injury to a part of the body not specifically covered by the foregoing provisions of this section," i.e., 46(A). 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 46(C). The "other cases" provision has also applied to "all other cases" since 1915.12

8 While amputations to parts of the body listed in 46(A) are compensated for the number of weeks listed, 46(B) goes on to state that "[t]he permanent partial disability rate of compensation for amputation or permanent total loss of use of a scheduled member specified in this section shall be seventy percent (70%) of the employee's average weekly wage, not to exceed Three Hundred Twenty-three dollars ($323.00), multiplied by the number of weeks as set forth in this section, regardless of whether or not the injured employee is able to return to his or her pre-injury job." 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 46(B) (emphasis added). Additionally, 46(G) provides that "[c]ompensation for permanent total loss of use of a member shall be the same as for amputation of the member." 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 46(G) (emphasis added). The use of the word "amputated" in the schedule in 46(A), by further definition, actually means amputations OR "permanent total loss of use of a scheduled member" OR "permanent total loss of use of a member."

9 "Permanent total loss of use" is not a defined term in the AWCA. Previous versions of the statute used the term "permanent loss of use," meaning incapable of use in the ordinary manner. Bristow Cotton Oil Co. v. State Indus. Com'n, 1920 OK 117, 4, 188 P. 658, 658. Neither the Attorney General nor any Employer has pointed to any meaningful distinction between "permanent total loss of use" and "permanent loss of use," and we find none. Therefore, the phrase "permanent total loss of use of a scheduled member" translates to 100% loss of a scheduled member.

10 Although we recognize the statute under consideration does not specifically reference partial loss of use,13 as the AWCA is structured, an injury either falls under 46(A) and is compensated according to that specific body part, or an injury falls under 46(C) "other cases" and is compensated to the body as a whole. This statutory structure has been in place since 1915,14 and this Court's construction of such has gone unchanged since that time. "Legislative familiarity with extant judicial construction of statutes is presumed."15 In the case before us, a "[l]eg amputated at the knee, or between the knee and the hip" would include the knee, so amputation or total loss of use of the knee (100% loss) would be compensated at a maximum of 275 weeks. Partial loss of the knee (less than 100% loss) would then be compensated for the number of weeks the partial loss bears to 275 weeks. On remand, the ALJs shall recalculate the permanent partial disability awards in the above-styled and numbered causes in accordance with this opinion.16

The Permanent Partial Disability Deferral Provision of 85A O.S. Supp.
2013 45(C)(5) is a Violation of Due Process Under the Oklahoma
Constitution

11 After erroneously applying the AMA Guides to a scheduled member and concluding that Petitioner Maxwell sustained 2% permanent partial disability to the body as a whole as a result of the injury to her knee, the ALJ awarded Petitioner Maxwell a permanent partial disability award of $2,261.00. However, because Petitioner Maxwell returned to her pre-injury position and pay, the ALJ ordered the award of benefits be deferred according to 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 45(C)(5).



The deferral provision of 45(C)(5) of Title 85A provides:

5. Except pursuant to settlement agreements entered into by the employer and employee, payment of a permanent partial disability award shall be deferred and held in reserve by the employer or insurance company if the employee has reached maximum medical improvement and has been released to return to work by his or her treating physician, and then returns to his pre-injury or equivalent job for a term of weeks determined by dividing the total dollar value of the award by seventy percent (70%) of the employee's average weekly wage.

a. The amount of the permanent partial disability award shall be reduced by seventy percent (70%) of the employee's average weekly wage for each week he works in his pre-injury or equivalent job.

b. If, for any reason other than misconduct as defined in Section 2 of this act, the employer terminates the employee or the position offered is not the pre-injury or equivalent job, the remaining permanent partial disability award shall be paid in a lump sum. If the employee is discharged for misconduct, the employer shall have the burden to prove that the employee engaged in misconduct.

c. If the employee refuses an offer to return to his pre-injury or equivalent job, the permanent partial disability award shall continue to be deferred and shall be reduced by seventy percent (70%) of the employee's average weekly wage for each week he refuses to return to his pre-injury or equivalent job.

d. Attorney fees for permanent partial disability awards, as approved by the Commission, shall be calculated based upon the total permanent partial disability award and paid in full at the time of the deferral.

e. Assessments pursuant to Sections 31, 98, 112 and 165 of this act shall be calculated based upon the amount of the permanent partial disability award and shall be paid at the time of the deferral.17

Section 2 of Title 85A defines "[p]re-injury or equivalent job" as "the job that the claimant was working for the employer at the time the injury occurred or any other employment offered by the claimant's employer that pays at least one hundred percent (100%) of the employee's average weekly wage[.]" 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 2(37).

12 The Attorney General argues that the newly inserted permanent partial disability benefits "deferral provision advances a legislative policy that disability payments be directly connected to a reduction in earnings capacity."18 Since 1941, permanent partial disability compensation has been awarded solely on the basis of loss of function as established by medical evidence, and an injured employee's loss of earning capacity has been arbitrarily fixed by statute and a claimant has not been required to present evidence of loss of wage-earning capacity.19 Once a permanent partial disability award became final, the injured employee was entitled to receive the money awarded in weekly benefits. The money awarded represented the total "damages" suffered by the employee.

13 Under the AWCA, the newly defined term "[d]isability" is defined as "incapacity because of compensable injury to earn, in the same or any other employment, substantially the same amount of wages the employee was receiving at the time of the compensable injury[.]"20 Additionally, permanent partial disability is now defined as "a permanent disability or loss of use after maximum medical improvement has been reached which prevents the injured employee, who has been released to return to work by the treating physician, from returning to his or her pre-injury or equivalent job. All evaluations of permanent partial disability must be supported by objective findings[.]" 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 2(34). According to this definition, permanent partial disability is no longer a mere equivalent to physical impairment or functional disability unrelated to industrial performance.21 The above statutory language suggests the Legislature intended for permanent partial disability to be based solely on loss of earning capacity with no consideration as to the physical insult to the employee's body.

14 However, the AWCA also includes the term "permanent disability," which means "the extent, expressed as a percentage, of the loss of a portion of the total physiological capabilities of the human body as established by competent medical evidence and based on the current edition of the American Medical Association guides to the evaluation of impairment, if the impairment is contained therein," indicating that loss of function in the medical sense is still relevant to a disability determination. 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 2(33) (emphasis added). Additionally, 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 45(C)(1) addresses the "competent medical testimony of a medical doctor, osteopathic physician, or chiropractor," that is necessary to support a permanent partial disability determination. Ambiguities and inconsistencies abound in the AWCA, but regardless, as the system has been implemented by the Commission, the due process rights of injured employees have been unconstitutionally abrogated with regard to permanent partial disability determinations and compensation.

15 Article 2, 7 of the Oklahoma Constitution provides: "No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."22 This Court has held that "Oklahoma's due process clause has a definitional sweep that is coextensive with its federal counterpart,"23 and that the "'Due Process Clause provides that certain substantive rights--life, liberty, and property--cannot be deprived except pursuant to constitutionally adequate procedures.'" Daffin, 2011 OK 22, 20, 251 P.3d 741, 748 (quoting Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985)). "'The right to due process "is conferred, not by legislative grace, but by constitutional guarantee."'" Id. Although the Legislature may "alter private contractual rights of employers and employees when it properly exercises its police power in creating a particular workers' compensation law," the Legislature may not deprive such rights, once conferred, without appropriate procedural safeguards. Yaumary Concepcion Torres v. Seaboard Foods, L.L.C., 2016 OK 20, 30, ___P.3d___ (emphasis added); see also Daffin, 2011 OK 22, 20, 251 P.3d at 748.

16 We first note that the AWCA orders the Commission, through its ALJs, "to hear and determine claims for compensation and to conduct hearings and investigations and to make such judgments, decisions, and determinations as may be required by any rule or judgment of the Commission." 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 22(D). By statutory directive, the ALJs undoubtedly act in an adjudicative capacity in the administrative workers' compensation system because adjudication includes "the authority to hear and determine forensic disputes." Yocum v. Greenbriar Nursing Home, 2005 OK 27, 13, 130 P.3d 213, 220. "When an administrative board acts in an adjudicative capacity, it functions much like a court" and such proceedings are quasi-judicial in nature.24 Thus, "[t]he constitutional guaranty of due process of law applies," and proceedings before the Commission require certain constitutional safeguards.25

17 Property interests, within the meaning of the due process clause, "are not created by the Constitution, but rather are derived from an independent source sufficient to create a legitimate claim of entitlement, such as state law or contract." Wood v. Ind. Sch. Dist. No. 141 of Pottawatomie County, 1983 OK 30, 9, 661 P.2d 892, 894. Title 85A provides that "[t]he determination of permanent partial disability shall be the responsibility of the Commission through its administrative law judges,"26 and "[in] cases of permanent partial disability, the compensation shall be seventy percent (70%) of the employee's average weekly wage, not to exceed Three Hundred Twenty-three Dollars ($323.00) per week . . . ."27 "Compensation" is defined in Title 85A as "the money allowance payable to the employee or to his or her dependents . . . ."28 Section 12 provides that "[c]ompensation due an injured employee or his or her dependents shall have the same preference as is allowed by law to an employee for unpaid wages."29 Section 91 provides: "Compensation shall bear interest pursuant to Section 727.1 of Title 12 of the Oklahoma Statutes from the day an award is made by either an administrative law judge or the full Workers' Compensation Commission on all accrued and unpaid compensation." Section 10 provides that "[t]he right to any claim, benefit or compensation shall not be released or commuted except as provided by the Administrative Workers' Compensation Act and, except for child support liens, is not assignable and is not subject to garnishment, attachment, levy, execution, or any other legal process."30

18 The "Order Awarding Permanent Partial Disability Benefits" in Petitioner Maxwell's case finds: "The Claimant sustained 2% permanent partial disability to the body as a whole for partial loss of use of her LEFT LEG (KNEE) and is awarded compensation for 7 weeks at $323.00 per week, in the total amount of $2,261.00 . . . ."31 In accordance with Title 85A, the ALJ's order awarding Petitioner Maxwell compensation in the amount of $2,261.00 clearly vested in Petitioner Maxwell a property interest worthy of the protections of due process.

19 At a minimum, "due process requires notice and a meaningful opportunity to appear and be heard." Crownover, 2015 OK 35, 14, 357 P.3d at 474. This Court has long held that a "right to a full hearing includes a reasonable opportunity to know the claims of the opposing party and to meet them. There must be adequate notice of the issues, and the issues must be clearly defined in order that an administrative hearing is fair. All parties must be apprised of the charges so they may test, explain or rebut it. They must be given an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and to present evidence." Wolfenbarger, 1974 OK 38, 15, 520 P.2d at 812 (emphasis added).

20 Petitioner Maxwell, upon reaching maximum medical improvement and returning to work, requested a hearing on the issue of permanent partial disability. At the hearing, Petitioner Maxwell's employer was allowed to present evidence of her return to work as proof Petitioner Maxwell did not suffer a loss of wage-earning capacity. Petitioner Maxwell was limited to presenting medical evidence only. Petitioner Maxwell's return to work was the only evidence considered by the ALJ in determining whether Petitioner Maxwell actually suffered any loss of wage-earning capacity.

21 The Legislature cannot pre-determine that an injured worker has in fact had no loss of wage-earning capacity because he or she returned to his or her job making the same wages.32 An employee who has sustained a permanent injury may not suffer a reduction of immediate earning capacity by returning to his or her job, but it is often likely his or her "ultimate earning capacity will be reduced either by a shortening of his work life or a reduction of employment opportunities through a combination of age and physical impairment." Hawkins Bros. Coal Co. v. Thacker, 468 S.W. 2d 256, 257 (Ky. 1971) (internal quotations omitted). In fact, a permanent physical impairment caused by a work-related injury "frequently results in a reduced earning capacity in the future rather than an immediate reduction in present earning capacity." Vail Assocs. Inc. v. West, 692 P.2d 1111, 1115 (Colo. 1984) (emphasis added). Evidence of loss of wage-earning capacity could include the injured employee's age, education, work history, vocational training, transferable skills, job opportunities, fitness to perform certain jobs, wage levels, or other information relating to his or her employment situation.33

22 We also note that Petitioner Maxwell returned to work on July 2, 2014. The hearing on permanent partial disability wasn't held until December 8, 2014. In her order awarding permanent partial disability benefits, the ALJ deferred Petitioner Maxwell's permanent partial disability award at a rate of $323.00 beginning July 2, 2014, for every week Claimant worked in her pre-injury job. Thus, Petitioner Maxwell's permanent partial disability award was exhausted well before the hearing on permanent partial disability actually took place. Under the statutory deferral scheme, an injured employee who returns to work loses the ability to collect any subsequent permanent partial disability award issued by the ALJ because by the time the case is heard, enough time will have passed so that the injured employee, in most cases, will have forfeited his right to receive any portion of the permanent partial disability award. The due process clause of the Oklahoma Constitution protects "citizens from arbitrary and unreasonable action by the state." City of Edmond v. Wakefield, 1975 OK 96, 6, 537 P.2d 1211, 1213. "[S]tate statutes which attempt to take away vested property interest, or work an arbitrary forfeiture of property rights are unconstitutional as violations of due process." Id. (internal citations omitted).

23 The Attorney General argues that one of the policy rationales behind the deferral provision is to ensure that employees terminated for misconduct are not inappropriately compensated with disability payments when they are capable of returning to their pre-injury position. But the deferral provision fails to even remotely advance this interest.34 As discussed above, Petitioner Maxwell forfeited her permanent partial disability benefits by simply returning to work.35 Additionally, in Petitioner Smith's case, his employer admitted he suffered a compensable knee injury in the course and scope of his employment. He received temporary total disability benefits and had surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He returned to his pre-injury job on August 19, 2014, after reaching maximum medical improvement and being released by his physician. Approximately one month later on September 22, 2014, due to causing damage while driving a company vehicle, Petitioner Smith was terminated for misconduct by his employer.36 Not until February 12, 2015, was Petitioner Smith awarded $947.31 in permanent partial disability benefits.37 That award was ordered deferred upon the date he returned to work--August 19, 2014. At his benefit rate of $270.66 per week, Petitioner Smith's entire permanent partial disability award was forfeited within three weeks of returning to work.38

24 Under the deferral scheme, an employee's permanent partial disability award is not deferred upon his or her termination for misconduct--it is deferred immediately upon the return to work. Therefore, an employee could not "reap rewards in the form of disability payments" based upon a subsequent termination as the Attorney General suggests. As the deferral provision is written, the employer is encouraged to allow the injured worker to return to work only until the deferred award is exhausted. The deferral provision then incentivizes the employer to terminate the employee for misconduct--a very broadly defined term under the AWCA.39 So after re-employing the injured worker for only a short time, the employer pays no permanent partial disability benefits to an employee who was admittedly injured on the job and the employer may "legally" rid himself of the undesirable employee. Termination for misconduct becomes a second-stage defense to avoid paying an award for an admitted or adjudicated compensable injury that occurred in the course and scope of employment.

25 Permanent partial disability benefits, and workers' compensation benefits generally, are not "rewards" or punishment--these benefits replace something the employee lost for which the employer is liable. Workers' compensation is an administrative remedy that exists in lieu of other remedies at law. The AWCA, and its predecessor the Workers' Compensation Code,40 is based on exclusivity, meaning the employee relinquishes a common-law right to bring an action in district court against his or her employer41 while the employer relinquishes certain common-law defenses available in civil actions and is required to "secure compensation as provided under this act to its employees for compensable injuries without regard to fault."42 The deferral provision coupled with misconduct reinstates the concept of fault into a no-fault system and results in a forfeiture of benefits by the injured employee.

26 We also note that Section 45(C)(5)(c) provides that "[i]f the employee refuses an offer to return to his pre-injury or equivalent job, the permanent partial disability award shall continue to be deferred and shall be reduced by seventy percent (70%) of the employee's average weekly wage for each week he refuses to return to his pre-injury or equivalent job."43 But if the employee accepts the offer to return to his or her pre-injury job, the award is still deferred under 45(C)(5). The statutory deferral scheme is intended to deny permanent partial disability benefits to the majority of injured employees by operation of law. The deferral scheme creates blanket immunity for employers with regard to payment of permanent partial disability benefits and punishes all employees who suffer compensable, admitted injuries.44

27 In Torres we said that our "constitutional analysis must be based upon what the legislation actually accomplishes . . . ."45 In actuality, despite the fact the Commission continues to presume that an employee's loss of earning capacity is measured by the degree of physical disability sustained and is arbitrarily fixed by statute, the monetary award based on the physical disability rating to the employee's body becomes meaningless once the employee returns to work. An injured employee who returns to work receives no compensation for the physical injury sustained and no compensation for a reduction in future earning capacity, upending the entire purpose of the workers' compensation system, which is to compensate "for loss of earning power and disability to work occasioned by injuries to the body in the performance of ordinary labor." Evans & Assocs. Util. Servs., 2011 OK 81, 14, 264 P.3d 1190, 1195. Further, taking away an employee's permanent partial disability benefits because of misconduct--a term based on fault of the employee--is invalid in a no-fault system. The deferral provision of 45(C)(5) tramples the due process rights of injured workers and is unconstitutional under Art. 2, 7 of the Oklahoma Constitution.46

The Deferral of Permanent Partial Disability Benefits to a Subclass of
Injured Workers is an Unconstitutional Special Law in Violation of Art. 5,
59 of the Oklahoma Constitution

28 Section 46 of the AWCA presents additional constitutional problems. Section 46(C) makes the deferral provision of 45(C)(5) applicable only to injuries to the body as a whole or "other cases."47 The deferral provision does not apply to injuries to scheduled members under 46(A).48 Section 46(C) is a special law that creates a subclass of employees subject to differential treatment.

29 In Grant v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 2000 OK 41, 5 P.3d 594, this Court said: "For a special law to be permissible, there must be some distinctive characteristic warranting different treatment and that furnishes a practical and reasonable basis for discrimination. If there is neither a distinctive characteristic upon which a different treatment may reasonably be founded nor one which furnishes a practical and real basis for discrimination between the two groups within the class, the distinction becomes arbitrary and without relation to the subject matter."49

30 Under the AWCA, the Legislature has arbitrarily determined that employees who suffer injuries to scheduled members and who receive permanent partial disability awards under 46(A) are unable to return to work, and thus, entitled to receive the permanent partial disability award. But even an employee who suffers the total loss of use of a hand, for example, may in some circumstances be able to return to his or her pre-injury job. We find no valid reason for the differential treatment of injured employees under 46(A) and 46(C). Although the Legislature has the power to exclude classes of employees from coverage under the workers' compensation system generally, the Legislature is without power to vary the effect of a permanent partial disability award by excluding one group of claimants from benefits accorded other permanent partial disability recipients.50 The deferral of permanent partial disability benefits to a subclass of injured workers is an unconstitutional special law under Art. 5, 59 of the Oklahoma Constitution.

Outcome: We conclude that scheduled members are exempt from the AMA Guides under the AWCA. We also hold that the permanent partial disability deferral provision of 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 45(C)(5) is an unconstitutional violation of due process under Art. 2, 7.51 Sections 45(C)(5)(a-e) are invalid and stricken. The deferral of permanent partial disability benefits to a subclass of injured workers under 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 46(C) is an unconstitutional special law under Art. 5, 59.52 Only that portion of 46(C) that makes the deferral provision applicable to injuries to the body as a whole or "other cases" is invalid. Any definitional provisions found in 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 2, as discussed herein, are invalid to the extent they are inconsistent with the views expressed today. On remand, the Commission, through its ALJs, shall take all action necessary to implement today's pronouncement.


WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION ORDERS IN THE ABOVE-
STYLED AND NUMBERED CAUSES VACATED; ABOVE-STYLED AND
NUMBERED CAUSES REVERSED AND REMANDED FOR PROCEEDINGS
CONSISTENT WITH TODAY'S PRONOUNCEMENT

Plaintiff's Experts:

Defendant's Experts:

Comments:



 
 
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