April 20, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: No Constitutional Violation by Using ALJs in Workers’ Compensation Proceedings

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Sanchez v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office on Thursday, May 18, 2017.

Workers’ Compensation Act of Colorado—Constitutionality—Separation of Powers—Equal Protection.

Claimant sustained a back injury at work lifting a hydraulic unit from his truck. Within two months he was back to work and placed at maximum medical improvement. Soon thereafter he complained of excruciating lower back pain, but both his original doctor and a specialist concluded that this new lumbar strain was not work-related but related to normal age-related degenerative changes.

Claimant sought temporary partial disability (TPD) benefits from the date of his injury and temporary total disability (TTD) benefits from when his low back pain flared up. An  administrative law judge (ALJ) rejected the request for benefits, finding that (1) his lower back pain was unrelated to his work injury, and (2) because he had continued working, claimant had not suffered a wage loss and was not entitled to either TPD or TTD benefits. The ALJ dismissed his requests. The Industrial Claim Appeals Office (Panel) affirmed but remanded the case to the ALJ to determine whether claimant was entitled to change his physician.

On appeal, claimant argued the separation of powers doctrine is violated by having workers’ compensation cases heard in the executive branch. In rejecting this argument, the court of appeals followed Dee Enterprises v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office, which held that the statutory scheme for deciding workers’ compensation cases does not violate the separation of powers doctrine.

Claimant then argued his equal protection claims should be analyzed under the strict scrutiny standard. The court held that the rational basis test applies to equal protection challenges in the workers’ compensation context. Under that test, “a statutory classification is presumed constitutional and does not violate equal protection unless it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the classification does not bear a rational relationship to a legitimate legislative purpose.”

Claimant argued that his and other workers’ compensation litigants’ rights to equal protection were violated because workers’ compensation cases are not heard by judges. The court concluded that legitimate governmental goals provide a rational basis for employing executive branch ALJs and the Panel to decide workers’ compensation cases. The court rejected claimant’s contention that his right to equal protection was violated because his claim was heard by an ALJ and the Panel.

Claimant then contended that the Panel’s dual role as decision-maker and then-named litigant if a case is appealed “reeks of impropriety.” The requirement that the Panel be added as a party is not arbitrary and serves the purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act of ensuring thorough and expeditious review and enforcement of ALJ and Panel orders.

Claimant also challenged on equal protection grounds C.R.S. § 8-43-404(5)(a)(II)(A), which exempts governmental entities and health care providers from providing an injured worker with a list of four physicians from whom the worker may seek medical care for his injury. The court concluded that a rational basis exists for excluding employees of those two types of employers from the four-physician referral requirement. Thus, there was no equal protection violation.

The court rejected claimant’s three non-constitutional arguments, which were that: (1) the exemption from the four-physician referral requirement did not apply because claimant’s employer did not meet the requirements of C.R.S. § 8-43-404(5)(a)(II)(A); (2) substantial evidence did not support the ALJ’s factual findings; and (3) the ALJ made numerous evidentiary errors.

The Panel’s order was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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