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2003 MTWCC 51
WCC No. 2002-0676
MONTANA STATE FUND
DECISION AND JUDGMENT
AND REMANDED 12/22/04 in
Summary: Claimant was receiving social security retirement benefits at the time he suffered an industrial accident. He received an impairment award but was denied other permanent partial disability (PPD) benefits pursuant to section 39-71-710, MCA (1999), which provides that persons who are receiving social security benefits or are eligible for full social security retirement benefits are ineligible for PPD benefits other than an impairment award. Claimant challenges the constitutionality of section 39-71-710, MCA, on equal protection grounds and seeks full PPD benefits.
Held: Section 39-71-710, MCA, is constitutional. Receipt of retirement benefits or eligibility for such benefits is a rough yardstick for determining whether there will be future wage loss. Such rough measures do not violate equal protection guarantees.
¶1 The sole issue in this case is the constitutionality of section 39-71-710, MCA (1999), insofar as that section denies permanent partial disability (PPD) benefits to workers receiving social security retirement benefits or who are eligible for full social security retirement benefits.
¶2 The parties submit the issue on an agreed statement of facts. Those facts are as follows:
(Joint Stipulation of Facts at 1-2.)
¶3 39-71-710. Termination of benefits upon retirement.
¶4 In challenging the constitutionality of section 39-71-710, MCA, claimant carries a heavy burden. He must persuade the Court beyond a reasonable doubt that the section is indeed unconstitutional. Grooms v. Ponderosa Inn, 283 Mont. 459, 467, 942 P.2d 699, 703 (1997).
¶5 Equal protection of the laws is guaranteed under both the United States and Montana Constitutions. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The corollary protection in the Montana Constitution is in Article 2, section 4, which provides, "No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws." The provisions "provide generally equivalent but independent protection." Emery v. State, 177 Mont. 73, 79, 580 P.2d 445, 449 (1978).
¶6 The equal protection guarantee does not forbid different treatment of different groups or classes of people. "[M]ost laws differentiate in some fashion between classes of persons. The Equal Protection Clause does not forbid classifications. It simply keeps governmental decision makers from treating differently persons who are in all relevant respects alike." Nordlinger v. Hahn, 505 U.S. 1, 10 (1992) (emphasis added) and see Davis v. Union Pacific R. Company. As stated in Zempel v. Uninsured Employers' Fund, 282 Mont. 424, 432, 938 P.2d 658, 663 (1997), "[I]t is critical to recall that equal protection does not require that all persons be treated alike regardless of whether their circumstances are the same; it requires only that all persons be treated alike under like circumstances."
¶7 In this case, a younger worker below the social security retirement age who suffers the same injury and disability as Mr. Reesor is eligible for additional PPD benefits based on age, education, lifting restrictions, and wage loss. § 39-71-703, MCA (1999). The only difference between the younger worker and Mr. Reesor is age and, in turn, eligibility for or receipt of social security retirement benefits.
¶8 The equal protection question is whether the unequal treatment of workers receiving social security benefits, or who are deemed retired, "rationally furthers a legitimate state interest." Nordlinger, 515 U.S. at 10. While claimant urges a heightened scrutiny, the Montana Supreme Court has consistently held that classifications in workers' compensation matters are not subject to heightened scrutiny. Powell v. State Compen-sation Ins. Fund, 2000 MT 321, ¶ 21, 302 Mont. 518, 15 P.3d 877. I am not persuaded by claimant's argument that heightened scrutiny should apply in this case because the classification at issue in this case is based on age. Age distinctions are often found in the law. Butte Community Union v. Lewis, 219 Mont. 426, 712 P.2d 1309 (1986), cited by claimant in support of his argument is inapposite. In that case, the Supreme Court held that classifications concerning welfare benefits were subject to heightened, middle-tier scrutiny because welfare is considered sufficiently important that the Constitution makes specific provision for welfare benefits.(1) Id. at 434, 712 P.2d at 1313. Claimant concedes that age is not a protected class in the Montana Constitution but argues that his "right of pursuing life's basic necessities", Art. II, § 3, Montana Constitution, provides a basis for heightened scrutiny. However, claimant's right to work or pursue necessities is not at stake in this case. I therefore find no basis for departing from the traditional "rational basis" test.
¶9 I have previously addressed the constitutionality of section 39-71-710, MCA, under the rational basis test. In Black v. MDMC/Benefis Healthcare, 2001 MTWCC 47, I upheld the constitutionality of the 1997 version of section 39-71-710, MCA. The 1999 version of the section is identical to the 1997 version.
¶10 In Black I surveyed decisions from other jurisdictions. Black at ¶ 36. While I found a split of authority concerning age-related limitations on benefits, a majority of jurisdictions have upheld the constitutionality of age-related, retirement based limitations on benefits. Id. I pointed out in Black that "workers' compensation, unemployment and old age (social security retirement) benefits all serve the singular purpose of replacing lost wages and are therefore interrelated." ¶ 38. I further pointed out that while not every worker retires at age 65, that age is a "rough" predictor of retirement from the labor market, and thus a rough predictor of the end of wage loss. Finally, I relied on Kimel v. Board of Regents, 528 U.S. 62, 83-84 (2000), which held that states may discriminate on the basis of age without violating equal protection guarantees. In that case, the United States Supreme Court expressly held that "a State may rely on age as a proxy for other qualities, abilities, or characteristics that are relevant to the States legitimate interests." ¶ 39 (original bolded; underlining added).
¶11 I refer the reader to the full text of the Black decision, which is attached. I find no reason to depart from what I said and held in Black. Accordingly, I conclude that section 39-71-710, MCA (1999), on its face and as applied in this case, does not violate the claimant's right to equal protection of the laws. Therefore, he is not entitled to PPD benefits other than the impairment award already paid.
¶12 The provisions of section 39-71-710, MCA (1999), which deny PPD benefits other than impairment awards to workers receiving social security retirement benefits or who are eligible for full social security retirement benefits does not violate the equal protection clauses of the Montana and United States Constitutions. Claimant, who was receiving social security retirement benefits when injured at work, is not entitled to PPD benefits. His petition is dismissed with prejudice.
¶13 This Judgment is certified as final for purposes on appeal.
DATED in Helena, Montana, this 22nd day of July, 2003.
1. Article 12, section 3 (3) of the Montana Constitution provides:
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