Saturday, September 24, 2016

Breaking Down Rodriguez v. Brand West Dairy & the Farm-Ranch Worker Exclusion

At first blush, nothing was especially remarkable about the workers’ compensation claims of chile picker Maria Aguirre and dairy worker and herdsman Noe Rodriguez, claims that would have the effect of extinguishing the Farm-Ranch workers exclusion last June in Rodriguez v. Brand West Dairy, 378 P.3d 13 (NM 2016).  Aguirre slipped in a field and broke her wrist while picking chiles. Rodriguez was pushed up against a door and “head-butted” by a cow. Each injury would almost certainly have been compensable under general principles of workers’ compensation law in that they arose “by accident arising out of and in the course of employment.” Neither claim was accepted as compensable during early-stage, administrative claims processing, however. Certain categories of agricultural workers had always been denied coverage under the New Mexico workers’ compensation law. Indeed, the exclusion is currently in effect in seventeen states. In most of these states, employers take on workers’ compensation coverage voluntarily, and many larger employers immunize themselves from tort liability, the immunity being available only to employers covered by a workers’ compensation statute. The claims eventually became noteworthy because of how the New Mexico Supreme Court analyzed them.   

The U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures broad latitude to enact laws treating similarly situated individuals differently. Generally, if a state legislature has a rational basis for treating workers differently from the general population, or for treating one group of workers differently from another group, the legislation creating the differing treatment will be upheld provided it is both solely economic and rationally related to a legitimate state interest. The burden is on the plaintiff to prove that it is neither. This lowest, rational-basis judicial scrutiny contrasts with intermediate scrutiny, which is reserved for laws creating sex-based classifications or for legal restrictions based on illegitimacy. When intermediate scrutiny is triggered, the burden is on the state to show that the law or policy being challenged furthers an important government interest by methods substantially related to that interest. The most in-depth judicial review is termed strict scrutiny and is triggered when a fundamental constitutional right is infringed, or when state action applies to a suspect classification, such as race or national origin. A good deal of criticism has been leveled at this taxonomy because it effectively limits review of most legislative action creating classifications of persons to a rational basis review that tends to summarily uphold the legislative action. 

Federal constitutional law equal protection analysis does not necessarily apply to its state counterparts, however. Many U.S. state constitutions include some version of an equal protection clause, though the wording often varies from state to state. Some states appear to apply the equivalent of federal equal protection analysis to state provisions, but they are not required to do so, and commentators (including the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan) have frequently observed that in some instances state constitutions can be greater repositories of rights than the federal constitution.        

Workers’ compensation laws are in most states deemed economic and, accordingly, under both the federal constitution and closely parallel state constitutions, legislation pertaining to those laws is subject to deferential rational basis review. For this reason, if legislation involving workers’ compensation laws—including classifications excluding certain workers from coverage—is “rationally related to a legitimate state interest,” it will pass constitutional muster. Commonly, legislatures will effectuate changes to workers’ compensation laws to lower costs for employers doing business within their states. Challengers to such changes have difficulty contending that fostering a vigorous business climate is not a legitimate state interest, or that reforms centered on reductions in workers’ compensation costs are not “rationally” related to such an interest.

This returns us to the Rodriguez case, in which the New Mexico Supreme Court, purporting to apply rational basis review, proceeded to reject each of the state’s justifications for exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from the workers’ compensation statute. Extended discussion of each of the justifications is beyond the scope of this post, but the opinion generated a vigorous dissent which argued that to claim the justifications were not rational was impossible. The Court claimed to apply a "modern articulation" of the rational basis test, what some commentators term “rational basis with bite.” Nevertheless, it is difficult to escape the impression that the Court was in fact practicing a kind of intermediate scrutiny, in effect placing the burden on the state to show that the exclusions furthered an important government interest and were substantially related to that interest. 

What is remarkable about Rodriguez is not simply the willingness of a court to use the “rational basis with bite” standard in state constitutional review of a workers’ compensation law. Doing so is in fact not uncommon. What was uncommon was the Court’s invalidation of a statutory exclusion roughly a century old on the grounds that it was not rational. The decision may have impact because it suggests that mere durability of workers’ compensation rules will not insulate them from eventual and heightened judicial scrutiny. It will offer solace to critics who recently contended that the original quid pro quo of the workers’ compensation Grand Bargain from a century ago—the exchange of tort for statutory rights—will no longer withstand scrutiny as adequate or rational.

Michael C. Duff

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