Oklahoma Supreme Court justices will meet Nov. 25 to discuss whether to assume jurisdiction over a case challenging the constitutionality of a law creating Oklahoma's new administrative workers' compensation system.
Attorneys argued high points of the constitutional challenge Thursday before Supreme Court referee Greg Albert.
“There are some very, very disturbing aspects,” Oklahoma City attorney John McMurry said of the new law, arguing that it should be found unconstitutional on multiple grounds.
Local attorney Robert McCampell countered that the law should be found “constitutional in all respects.”
However, he urged the court to keep the bulk of the law in place and only strike down objectionable portions if it finds any part of the law to be unconstitutional.
Under law, employers could opt out
The new state law would convert Oklahoma from a judicial workers' compensation system to an administrative one and allow employers to opt out of the system as long as they provide equivalent benefits to injured workers.
Proponents of the law say it is needed to make Oklahoma more business-friendly, while opponents claim it is unfair to injured workers because it would reduce their benefits.
McMurry argued the law violates a state constitutional prohibition against logrolling by including more than one topic in a single statute.
He contended the statute covers three major topics — the creation of an administrative workers' compensation system, the adoption of an opt-out provision for employers and the creation of an arbitration dispute resolution system.
McCampbell disputed McMurry's argument, contending all three parts of the law fall under the single topic of workers' compensation reform and simply represent alternate approaches to handling workers' compensation claims.
McCampbell represents the State Chamber of Oklahoma, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce, which asked to intervene in the case to represent the interests of member businesses that would be affected by the new law.
McMurry is representing state Sen. Harry Coates, state Rep. Emily Virgin, the Professional Fire Fighters of Oklahoma and Rick Beams, president of the firefighters' group.
McMurry's clients are asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to take up the case directly, without waiting for a lower court to hear it first, and to rule key provisions unconstitutional.
McMurry argued the section of the law that would allow employers to opt out of the workers' compensation system is an unconstitutional “special law” because it treats some employers and employees differently from others.
Patrick Wyrick, the attorney representing Gov. Mary Fallin, disputed that claim, saying every employer has the option of participating in the administrative system or opting out of it.
Another attorney defended the law by saying every worker has the right to the exact same benefits, regardless of whether the worker's employer chooses to opt out of the system.
McMurry, however, said there are some important differences.
“There is nothing in the statute that would prohibit a retaliatory discharge from an employer who opted out,” he said.
Attorneys also argued over the constitutionality of provisions in the law that prohibit attorney fees for “noncontroverted” claims and medical benefits or services, and that require current American Medical Association guides to be used in evaluating impairment of injured workers.
Report to be presented
Albert said he will present a five-page report on Thursday's proceedings to the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Monday and interested observers should watch the state Supreme Court on Nov. 25 to see what happens next.
Albert said the Supreme Court has several options and listed some of them. The court could decide not to assume jurisdiction. It could ask attorneys to appear before the court for more arguments, or it could rule on the case, he said.
“I don't know what they'll do,” Albert said.