The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has issued its long-awaited decision in the Angelotti Chiropractic Inc. v Baker case. In what can only be considered a resounding win for both the legislature’s power to create the workers' compensation system and the Department of Industrial Relation's authority to enforce the provisions of SB 863, the appeals court has, in its 32-page decision, upheld the portions of the lower court's decision that were favorable to the DIR and reversed the portion that had challenged the validity of the statutory scheme. The result is a knockout, but not necessarily final, victory for the legislature and employer community's efforts to rein in lien litigation madness.
One of the hallmarks of the most recent reforms to the worker's compensation system in SB 863 was the adoption of both lien filing and lien activation fees. The intent of the fees was to filter out some of the less valid liens, encourage realistic settlement of liens before litigation and ultimately reduce the backlog of pending liens. Under the structure legislatively created, liens filed before Jan. 1, 2013, (the effective date of the statute) would be subject to an "activation fee" of $100 to actively pursue the lien before the W.C.A.B. Additionally, all pending liens as of Jan. 1, 2013, were required to have paid an activation fee by Jan. 1, 2014, or else be dismissed by operation of law. The second prong of the effort to reduce the backlog was to require lien claimants filing after Jan. 1, 2013, to pay a $150 filing fee. The challenge in this case was to the lien activation fee only, but the case has been watched carefully as similar arguments have been made in opposition to the lien filing fee. For many, Angelotti was considered a bellwether case on the lien fee validity.
Not surprising, shortly after its passage, the issue of the validity of the lien fee provisions in SB 863 was attacked in court with various challenges. In a ruling with what appeared to have the most potential for the challengers, a lower court had previously ruled that the plaintiffs in the Angelotti litigation had demonstrated a substantial likelihood of prevailing in their efforts to have the lien activation fee provisions declared unconstitutional. While by no means final, the resulting decision was accompanied by a temporary restraining order prohibiting the DIR from enforcing the lien activation fee provision. In its decision, the lower court rejected some of the plaintiff's arguments that the lien activation fee violated constitutional prohibitions under the takings clause and the due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. That part of the claim was dismissed. The lower court, however, was much more impressed with the equal protection arguments advanced by the plaintiffs, finding that the different treatment of institutional lien claimants vs. direct medical providers did not constitute a rational distinction. As a result of the temporary injunction, the DWC suspended its enforcement of the lien activation fee provisions but appealed the ruling.
In its decision, the appeals court upheld the district court's rulings dismissing the plaintiff's causes of action based on the takings and due process arguments, finding that the lower court's rationale was well-founded. (The dismissal of those issues had been sought by the Angelotti plaintiffs.) However, in response to the defendant’s appeal of the restraining order and the failure to dismiss the equal protection claim, the court soundly rejected the lower court’s ruling that plaintiffs had established a probability of prevailing on an equal protection argument, reversing that holding and vacating the existing restraining order prohibiting the DIR from enforcing the lien activation fee provisions. That argument was based on the different treatment between institutional lien claimants (such as insurance companies) and private lien claimants (such as individual practitioners).
In reversing the lower court, the circuit court found the distinctions created by the legislature were both rational and within the wide latitude of the legislature to create:
"The legislature's approach also is consistent with the principle that 'the legislature must be allowed leeway to approach a perceived problem incrementally.' Beach Commc'ns, 508 U.S. at 316; see also Silver v. Silver, 280 U.S. 117, 124 (1929) (stating that '[i]t is enough that the present statute strikes at the evil where it is felt and reaches the class of cases where it most frequently occurs.'). Targeting the biggest contributors to the backlog-an approach that is both incremental, see Beach Commc'ns, 508 U.S. at 316, and focused on the group that “most frequently” files liens, see Silver, 280 U.S. at 124,-is certainly rationally related to a legitimate policy goal. Therefore, on this record, 'the relationship of the classification to [the Legislature's] goal is not so attenuated as to render the distinction arbitrary or irrational.'"
The appellate court further noted it was the plaintiff's burden to negate "every conceivable basis" that might have supported the distinction between exempt and non-exempt entities. The circuit (appellate) court said the district court did not put the plaintiffs to the proper test in this regard, instead rejecting the argument made by the defendants (DIR) that the activation fee was aimed at clearing up a backlog of liens. The circuit court found multiple flaws with the lower court’s analysis on this argument, including that it failed to give proper deference to the legislature's fact finding. Instead, the court held the proper application of correct legal principles demonstrated the plaintiffs, rather than showing a likelihood of success, actually showed no chance of success:
"...that plaintiffs have no chance of success on the merits because, regardless of what facts plaintiffs might prove during the course of litigation, 'a legislative choice is not subject to courtroom fact-finding and may be based on rational speculation unsupported by evidence or empirical data.' See Beach Commc'ns, 508 U.S. at 315. Thus, the presence in the commission report of evidence suggesting that non-exempt entities are the biggest contributors to the backlog is sufficient to eliminate any chance of plaintiffs succeeding on the merits."
While the plaintiffs in this matter have further appeal rights, it does not appear that under this decision the plaintiffs will be entitled to a trial at the lower court. The court not only vacated the injunction but took the unusual step of reversing the trial court's denial of defendant's petition to dismiss the equal protection cause of action. As noted in the above quote, the legislative authority to fashion a remedy effectively eliminated any chance of plaintiff's prevailing.
Comments and Conclusions:
While the decision in this appeal took some time to come, the finality of the decision, and the tenor of the court's ruling, will undoubtedly be considered well worth the wait. By reversing the lower court's failure to dismiss the equal protection clause, the appellate court left very little opening for preservation of this lawsuit. While the plaintiffs can both ask for a rehearing and appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, those levels of appeal come with rapidly diminishing probability of success.
With the DIR no longer hamstrung by the restraining order, we can anticipate a rapid enforcement of the lien regulations requiring activation fees. What will be a fascinating sideshow to this will be what happens to the provisions of Labor Code § 4903.06(a)(5), the requirement to pay the activation fee on any pre-1/1/13 lien claim on or before 1/1/14, a date long since passed. The DWC stopped collecting activation fees pursuant to the now vacated restraining order shortly after the TRO issued. Interestingly the language on the W.C.A.B.’s website indicated lien claimants were not obligated to pay the activation fee to appear at a hearing or file a DOR. However, it makes no mention of the dismissal language in 4903.06.
It is highly likely that few if any lien claimants paid activation fees by 1/1/14. It also seems unlikely, though not necessarily impossible, that the DIR or W.C.A.B. will be able to enforce the dismissal by operation by law provisions without allowing some kind of grace period for lien claimants to comply with the activation fee requirement before lowering the boom on liens without such fees. Lien claimants are now in something of a no man's land with the faint hope that a further appeal may save them from the lien activation cost, but the compliance clock will probably be ticking, and once it stops the jig will be up on their liens.
It would certainly make sense for any current lien claimants, especially those who are set for hearings, to start looking into complying with the activation fee requirements. Showing up at the W.C.A.B. on a pre- 1/1/13 lien claim without having paid the activation fee may very well result in dismissal in the very near future. For defendants, with the TRO no longer in force, it is game on as far as activation fees are concerned. I intend to start raising the issue tomorrow…(or at least at my next hearing with a pre-1/1/13 lien claim).
On a side note, a similar case in state court, Chorn v Brown, was also recently decided in an unpublished decision. In that case, a lien claimant had challenged the lien statutes on both activation and lien filing fees. The case has been dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction in the superior court. As a practical matter, the dismissal is really more of a procedural issue than a substantive one. The court of appeal noted the proper remedy for Chorn was to pursue a petition for writ of mandamus in the court of appeal, a step Chorn has actually initiated. However, a petition for writ of mandamus requires an appellate court to decide the issue has merit, a rather dubious proposition at this point. However, it is one more step to finally clearing up the DIR/DWC/W.C.A.B.'s authority to deal with the lien morass that, while somewhat abated in the past couple of years, continues to plague the system.