Oklahoma’s High Court Strikes Down Another Provision of the State’s Workers’ Comp Law

October 16, 2017 by

The Oklahoma Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 3, with one recusal, has overturned another part of Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation law.

The Court on Oct. 3 ruled in Brandon Gibby v. Hobby Lobby, filed by Hobby Lobby Stores employee Brandon Gibby, that a provision in the state’s Administrative Workers’ Compensation Act that punishes injured workers for missed medical treatments is unconstitutional.

Under the challenged provision, an injured worker who misses two or more scheduled appointments for treatment without a valid excuse would no longer be eligible to receive benefits under the act. Section 57 (B) of the statute states that the “inability to get transportation to or from the appointment is never an extraordinary circumstance or valid excuse.”

Gibby was injured when he fell from a pallet jack at work in February 2014. Hobby Lobby provided temporary total disability and medical benefits to Gibby following his injury, but objected when the employee sought permanent partial disability benefits. According to the Court’s written opinion, the employer asserted that the law’s forfeiture provision prohibited Gibby from receiving additional benefits because he had missed medical appointments without a valid excuse.

The Court found, however, that the forfeiture provision violates the adequate remedy provided by the workers compensation “Grand Bargain,” under which the employee gives up the right to sue an employer for negligence in return for guaranteed medical and wage benefits, and the employer’s exposure to liability is reduced.

The Court said Hobby Lobby had argued that section 57 of the AWCA served “as a legislative incentive to injured workers to keep their medical appointments.” Hobby Lobby also maintained the provision allows injured workers “to reach maximum medical improvement as soon as possible. … while providing cost savings to employers and preventing fraud and abuse.”

However, the Court, stated in its written but unpublished opinion that: “It defies logic to conclude that arbitrarily cutting off all vested benefits and statutory indemnity furthers any of those goals. We reiterate, taking away an employee’s vested benefits because of missed appointments — an action based on fault of the employee — is invalid in a no-fault system.”

In conclusion, the Court said that the state’s legislature “failed to draft the section 57 forfeiture provision within the parameters of the Oklahoma Constitution. As a result, it violates the adequate remedy provision of Article II, Section 6 of the Constitution, which is the basis for the Grand Bargain.”

The Oklahoman reported that with the current ruling, 44 provisions of the state’s Administrative Workers Compensation Act enacted in 2013 have been struck down.

The AWCA was created by Senate Bill 1062, which passed in 2013. It changed Oklahoma’s court-based system to an administrative structure, replacing the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Court with the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission.

The bill also allowed Oklahoma employers to opt out of the workers’ compensation system and administer work related injury benefits to employees through a qualified benefit plan. The opt out portion of the law was ruled unconstitutional by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in September 2016.