Thursday, August 10, 2017
I am deeply indebted to my Harvard torts professor, David Rosenberg, for instilling in me early-on the notion that no legal rule has been so ineluctably established that it can't be challenged. It is in that spirit that I have questioned the coherence of the substantial evidence "regime" under which Wyoming courts review workers' compensation cases. The article is here, and the abstract follows:
In Wyoming, as in almost all states, facts in contested workers’ compensation cases are developed within an administrative agency. When agency factual findings are challenged in court, the level of judicial deference applied to the agency is important and may be outcome determinative. Wyoming courts claim to apply the “substantial evidence” standard of review, often expressed as evidence that a “reasonable mind could accept” as supporting an agency determination. The Wyoming Supreme Court, however, also sometimes upholds workers’ compensation agency decisions that are deemed “not contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence.” It is unclear whether this latter formulation is an odd version of the substantial evidence, or is another standard altogether.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark opinion in Universal Camera stands for the proposition that the decision of an administrative agency should be supported by more than just any evidence. While most agree that courts are not authorized to substitute their judgment for the decision of administrative agencies, Universal Camera established a court should not be required to acquiesce to an agency when it cannot in good conscience agree with it. The “overwhelming weight” standard seems in significant tension with this latter principle because it has at times been applied extremely deferentially by Wyoming courts. This article demonstrates, however, that the overwhelming weight standard was mistakenly adopted by the Wyoming courts in the nineteen-seventies based to a substantial degree on an outdated administrative law encyclopedia entry. The article argues that the standard should either be abandoned or much more clearly explained, especially in light of its questionable origins. The overwhelming weight standard, the article contends, is inconsistent with a contemporary legal understanding of substantial evidence. Furthermore, the overwhelming weight standard threatens to routinely deprive injured workers of benefits. Such an outcome is especially inappropriate in Wyoming, the constitution of which ensures that labor has “just protection” under law; provides citizens a fundamental right to access courts to assert claims for personal injury; forbids laws limiting damages for injury and death; and voids any agreement by an employer with an employee waiving a right to recover damages for death or injury. The article underscores that highly deferential judicial standards of agency review shift power to the executive branch, a policy choice should be made cautiously and explicitly, not arrived at accidentally.
Michael C. Duff