October 19, 2016
Workers’ Comp and Due Process Don’t Mix
by Daryl Davis
If you are committed to foisting due process concerns onto existing workers' comp systems, you're probably just a lawyer looking for a payday.
If attorneys and judges really want due process with regard to workplace injuries, then they should endorse the workers’ compensation (WC) alternative in Texas that we call nonsubscription. They won’t, even though nonsubscription is consistent with the Fifth, Seventh and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution — the amendments that identify due process as a key component of our national identity. The Fourteenth Amendment is very clear: “[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law . . .” In this legal context, employers are considered persons, so WC statutes mandating them to pay insurance premiums — regardless of fault — are violations of due process. That argument was so powerful it nearly prevented the original enactment of WC laws around the country a century ago.
Unlike WC, Texas nonsubscription never required employees or employers to fully surrender their legal rights to a system of special adjudication, so when employees sue their nonsubscribing employers, the cases are of the big-boy variety: tort. In Texas nonsubscription, we’ve seen about 100 judgments/settlements at or over the $1 million mark — much bigger than what WC constituents are used to. Moreover, our lawsuits in nonsubscription are processed in the civil court system, which is both a hallmark of due process and a reminder of what a day in court really looks like.
By contrast, WC disputes are typically relegated to administrative systems, where attorneys are sometimes tutored on procedure during hearings by administrative law judges. If this sounds like due-process-with-training-wheels, it’s because training wheels are necessary for everyone involved in the system (from lawyers and judges to regulators and legislators) to keep their balance as they attempt to negotiate two types of terrain at once. Due process can be thought of as a reasonably smooth legal pathway that’s been cleared for centuries by lawyers and judges. The special adjudication reserved for WC can be thought of as a smooth but abbreviated fast track that’s subject to change at the will of a legislature. But the fast track to fairness within the confines of WC is now littered with bumps and potholes because judges have permitted lawyers to drag due process procedures into a system of special adjudication that was never designed to accommodate them.
See also: Back to the Drafting Table on Work Comp
To fans of due process, the nonsubscription system in Texas does say: “We will not deprive our employees and employers of their life, liberty or property unconstitutionally.” To fans of special adjudication, the WC system in Texas (and everywhere else) should say: “We understand why an expedited process for solving problems related to workplace injuries appeals to both employers and employees, and we can reduce costs, save time and improve outcomes for injured workers by minimizing attorney involvement.”
So if you are an employer or an employee committed to due process in the world of workplace injury, you should do everything possible to support Texas nonsubscription. But if you are committed to foisting due process concerns onto existing WC systems, you’re probably just a lawyer looking for a payday.
These Aren’t the Droids You Are Looking For
The lack of due process in unconstitutionally seizing property from employers is the obvious and gaping flaw that attorneys and judges don’t want to discuss when promulgating due process in all other areas of WC. They certainly don’t want to alter the funding of WC. Strict due process was a hurdle that WC couldn’t clear when the Grand Bargain was struck in the early 20th century. Due process almost destroyed WC then — and it threatens to destroy it today. Simply stated, strict due process and WC do not mix. This critical warning continues to fall on deaf ears as state Supreme Court Justices from New Mexico to Florida apply due process wherever it is convenient for the legal profession (but not necessarily where it is most critical for injured workers).
When forced to address this unconstitutional seizure issue, the legal community has, thus far, successfully used mind tricks akin to the one made famous by Star Wars’ Obi-Wan Kenobi. Lawyers want us to forget that reduction of legal friction was a key incentive for employers to abandon their due process concerns and accept the Grand Bargain in the first place. Each time a new generation of entrepreneurs asks, “Why do employers have to foot the bill for this whole sprawling WC system?,” legal spokespeople respond, “Everyone already agreed to this,” deftly deflecting through a sort of Jedi mind trick. And when the business owners who have done their research press the matter by asking, “But didn’t everyone also agree to bypass other areas of due process in favor of special adjudication within the confines of WC?” the legal spokespeople wave their hands and shake their heads very convincingly as they chant in unison, “No. That is not the argument you are looking for. ”
As with Kenobi’s lie, there’s no substance to the lawyers’ falsehood beyond the confidence with which they assert it, but the mind trick continues to work. “Well, I guess that isn’t the argument I am looking for,” you might hear from an exasperated CFO. “These attorneys have been trained in the law, so they must know. Carry on.”
Those who lie about due process’ historical place within WC need to know that we are on to them. Their flawed arguments need some work.
See also: What Happened on the Oklahoma Option?
Texas nonsubscription has provided a robust case study in what due process looks like for employers and employees alike. WC worked well under special adjudication for decades. But over the past half century, as layers of procedural due process have been added to WC’s inner workings, the legal community has cried foul about the lack of substantive due process — except it selectively disincorporated that whole funding-by-the-employer component from its argument.
I support due process in Texas nonsubscription.
And I support special adjudication in WC.
Let the legal community dictate what happens in nonsubscription. But let the legislature dictate what occurs in WC — which was the original deal. Mixing them has never worked.