May 27, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: Fine to Employer for Workers’ Compensation Insurance Lapse Unconstitutional As Applied

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Dami Hospitality, LLC v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office on Thursday, February 23, 2017.

Dami Hospitality, LLC, operates a motel in Denver, Colorado. For a period in 2006, Dami failed to carry workers’ compensation insurance. It paid the $1,200 fine and obtained insurance. In 2014, the Division of Workers’ Compensation informed Dami that it was again without workers’ compensation insurance and had been for periods during 2006 and 2007, as well as from September 2010 through the date of the division’s notice. Dami admitted receiving the Division’s June 28, 2014, notice, but denied receiving a notice the Division contended it had mailed four months earlier. Dami obtained the necessary insurance by July 9, 2014, but did not otherwise respond to the Division’s letter.

The Division imposed a fine of $841,200 based on C.R.S. § 8-43-409(1)(b)(II) and 7 CCR 1101-3 (Rule 3-6). Dami’s owner, Soon Pak, sent a letter to the Director captioned “Petition to Review,” asking the Director to reconsider the fine. Ms. Pak claimed that she relied on her insurance agent to obtain the necessary insurance and believed the hotel’s insurance policies contained workers’ compensation coverage. She also asserted that the fine was more than her business grossed in a year and it would bankrupt both the hotel and her individually. Ms. Pak’s insurance agent also submitted a letter claiming personal responsibility for the lapse in coverage. In a supplemental order, the Director again ordered Dami to pay the fine, asserting that the previous lapse in coverage should have put Dami on notice as to the need for insurance.

Dami appealed to the Industrial Claim Appeals Panel, which ruled that the Director had failed to consider the factors in Associated Business Products v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office, 126 P.3d 323 (Colo. App. 2005), to protect against constitutionally excessive fines. On remand, without taking additional evidence, the Director reinstated his original fine, concluding that Rule 3-6 inherently incorporated the Associated Business Products factors. Dami again appealed, but this time ICAO upheld the Director’s order. Dami appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

The court of appeals first considered whether Dami was deprived of procedural due process. Dami argued that notice by mail was unreasonable, and that a hearing should have been held before the fine was imposed. The court of appeals disagreed. Dami did not request a prehearing conference when it received the first notice of the lapse in insurance, and Dami did not show that the address the Division had on file was incorrect. Therefore, the court found that Dami was not denied procedural due process.

Dami next contended that the $841,200 fine was constitutionally excessive in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Dami argued that section 8-43-409 is unconstitutional on its face because the General Assembly removed a penalty cap in 2005 and failed to impose a statutory deadline for notice of missing insurance coverage, which therefore granted the Director “complete discretion regarding the timing of notice and thus the size of the fine.” The court of appeals found no facial constitutional error, noting that other penalty statutes have been upheld despite a lack of cap or statutory deadline.

However, the court of appeals agreed with Dami that the penalty was unconstitutional as applied because the Director abused his discretion in applying the Associated Business Products factors to Dami’s situation. Dami also argued that the fine is grossly disproportionate both to its ability to pay and to the harm caused by the lack of workers’ compensation insurance. It asserts the Director should also have considered its ability to pay when weighing the constitutionality of the fine. The court of appeals again agreed that the fine was unconstitutional as applied.

The court of appeals evaluated whether Eighth Amendment protections apply to corporations, and determined that Dami’s status as a corporation did not deprive it of Eighth Amendment protections. The court cited Citizens United for the premise that individual constitutional protections can apply to corporations.

Evaluating the particular fine, the court of appeals determined that the Director abused his discretion in imposing the fine because he did not make specific findings regarding the Associated Business Products factors. The court of appeals found that the uncontroverted facts put Dami at the low end of the reprehensibility scale, since Ms. Pak relied on her insurance agent to supply all necessary insurance coverage and the agent admitted he had not informed Ms. Pak about workers’ compensation insurance. The court also found that because Dami had not had a single workers’ compensation claim in its existence and it had fewer than ten employees, there was no actual harm from Dami’s lack of workers’ compensation insurance and low risk of potential harm. The court noted that the record lacked any evidence of comparable fines because the Division failed to supply it, but the information Dami supplied showed that in FY 2006-2007 the total amount of fines for failure to carry insurance “would be $200,000.” The court of appeals also recognized that the Director should have considered Dami’s ability to pay before imposing the fine.

The court of appeals remanded for reconsideration of the excessive fine in light of the Associated Business Products factors.

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