Constitutional Law: Equal Protection

MONTANA SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

Big Sky Colony, Inc. v. Dep't of Labor & Industry [12/31/12] 2012 MT 320 A party who asserts an equal protection claim based on a workers’ compensation statute must first demonstrate that the legislature has created a classification that treats two or more similarly situated groups differently.  The Montana Supreme Court held that HB 119 did not treat Hutterite colonies any differently than religious groups which do not prevent ownership of property when the legislation required Hutterite colonies which engage in commercial activities with non-members to maintain workers’ compensation insurance for their members who are engaged in labor on commercial activities.

Caldwell v. MACo Workers' Compensation Trust [07/11/11] 2011 MT 162 The categorical denial of rehabilitation benefits to those claimants who are eligible for social security retirement violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Montana Constitution.  An older claimant’s entitlement to rehabilitation benefits will be limited by consideration of his age, residual physical capacities, and vocational interests under § 39-71-1006(1)(c), MCA.

Satterlee v. Lumberman's Mut. Cas. Co. [11/03/09] 2009 MT 368 The Montana Supreme Court held that while cost alone cannot justify disparate treatment, it was not unreasonable for the Workers’ Compensation Court to consider the government’s interest in assisting the worker at a reasonable cost to the employer as an additional factor justifying disparate treatment of similarly-situated classes.
Satterlee v. Lumberman's Mut. Cas. Co. [11/03/09] 2009 MT 368 PTD benefits are meant to assist the worker over the course of his work life.  When an individual is considered retired, he has, by definition, ended his work life.  In order to achieve the stated purpose of PTD benefits - that wage loss benefits bear a reasonable relationship to actual wages lost -- it is sufficiently rational that such benefits would terminate upon retirement, when actual wages would normally terminate.
Satterlee v. Lumberman's Mut. Cas. Co. [11/03/09] 2009 MT 368 Rational basis review is the traditional level of scrutiny applied to equal protection analyses of workers’ compensation statutes.  Because § 39-71-710, MCA, does not infringe upon the rights of a suspect class or involve fundamental rights, rational basis review is the appropriate level of scrutiny to apply to an equal protection challenge to this statute. 
Satterlee v. Lumberman's Mut. Cas. Co. [11/03/09] 2009 MT 368 The Montana Supreme Court agreed with the Workers’ Compensation Court’s determination that classes were similarly situated where both classes have suffered work-related injuries, are unable to return to their time-of-injury jobs, have permanent physical impairment ratings, and must rely on § 39-71-701, MCA, as their exclusive remedy under Montana law.
Satterlee v. Lumberman's Mut. Cas. Co. [11/03/09] 2009 MT 368 The Montana Supreme Court upheld the Workers’ Compensation Court’s determination that the two classes represented were:  (1) PTD eligible claimants who receive or are eligible to receive social security retirement benefits; and (2) PTD claimants who do not receive and are not eligible to receive social security retirement benefits.
Wilkes v. Montana State Fund [02/05/08] 2008 MT 29, 341 Mont. 292, 177 P.3d 483 The WCC correctly concluded that the sole reliance on actual wage loss in § 39-71-703, MCA, in determining PPD benefits does not violate a claimant’s constitutional right to equal protection. Where the Legislature’s express public policy is that the wage-loss benefit should bear a reasonable relationship to actual wages lost as a result of work-related injury or disease, two putative classes are sufficiently distinguished by actual wage loss.
Bustell v. AIG Claims Service Inc., 2004 MT 362 (No. 04-124) Proper equal protection analysis involves identifying the classes involved, determining whether they are similarly situated and then using the appropriate level of scrutiny to determine if the statute is constitutional.
Bustell v. AIG Claims Service Inc., 2004 MT 362 (No. 04-124) When analyzing workers’ compensation statutes, Montana courts use the rational basis test because the right to receive Workers’ Compensation benefits is not a fundamental right nor does the Act infringe upon the rights of a suspect class. Under the rational basis test, the question becomes whether a legitimate governmental objective bears some identifiable rational relationship to a discriminatory classification.
Reesor v. Montana State Fund, 2004 MT 370 (No. 03-639) Section 39-71-710, MCA (1999), violates equal protection guarantees in that it treats partially disabled claimants disparately because of their age. There is no rational basis for the legislature to provide that a 65 year old worker with an identical injury to a 40 year old worker should receive only an impairment award solely because he has reached retirement age.
Reesor v. Montana State Fund, 2004 MT 370 (No. 03-639) Equal protection claims brought by an injured worker are generally reviewed pursuant to the rational basis test.
Hardgrove v. Transportation Ins. Co. [12/01/04] 2004 MT 340 (No. 03-678) Section 39-72-403, MCA (1983), a statute of repose does not violate the Equal Protection Clauses of the Montana or United States Constitutions where the legislature may have terminated the ability of OD claimants to bring claims more than three years after termination of employment where there were rational reasons the legislature distinguished between workers’ compensation and occupational disease claimants and left this statute of repose in effect for older cases though eliminating the rule prospectively in the 1985 Act.
Schmill v. Liberty NW Ins. [4/10/03] 2003 MT 80 Section 39-72-706, MCA (1997), of the Occupational Disease Act, which requires reduction of disability benefits for non-occupational disease factors, violates the equal protection provisions of the United States and Montana Constitutions where an employee with the same injury, but incurred on a single day or work shift, would receive benefits without apportionment under the Workers' Compensation Act. WCC correctly ordered that claimant receive impairment award without apportionment for non-occupational factors where there would be no reduction under the WCA.
Stavenjord v. Montana State Fund ([4/1/03] 2003 MT 67 Section 39-72-405, MCA (1997), violates the Equal Protection Clause found at Article II, Section 4 of the Montana Constitution where an injured workers' wage supplement is limited to $10,000 under the Occupational Disease Act while a worker with the same injury, but incurred on a single day, would be entitled to $27,027 under the Workers' Compensation Act. Eastman v. Atlantic Richfield Company, 237 Mont. 332 (1989) is not applicable to those wage supplement benefits provided for at section 39-71-703, MCA and section 39-72-405, MCA, since 1987. WCC's order that claimant was entitled to the amount of benefits she would receive under the WCA was affirmed.
Henry v. State Fund, 1999 MT 126 The Occupational Disease Act violates the equal protection clause of the Montana Constitution in failing to provide rehabilitation benefits to occupationally diseased workers. In a case involving a herniated disk, the Court sees on rational basis for treating workers who are injured over one work shift differently from workers who are injured over two work shifts. Providing rehabilitation benefits to workers covered by the WCA, but not to workers covered by the ODA, is not rationally related to the legitimate governmental interest of returning workers to work as soon as possible after they have suffered a work-related injury.
Henry v. State Fund, 1999 MT 126 In addressing an equal protection challenge, the Court must first identify the classes involved and determine whether they are similarly situated. The next step is to determine the appropriate level of scrutiny to apply to the challenged legislation. In so doing, the Court must determine whether a suspect classification is involved or whether the nature of the individual interest involves a fundamental right, either or which would trigger a strict scrutiny analysis. The Court employs a middle-tier scrutiny when the right in question has its origins in the Montana Constitution, but is not found in the Declaration of Rights. If neither strict scrutiny nor middle-tier scrutiny is required, the appropriate test is the rational basis test, which requires the government to show (1) that the statute's objective was legitimate and (2) that the statute's objective bears a rational relationship to the classification used by the legislature. Stated another way, the statute must bear a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental interest.
Henry v. State Fund, 1999 MT 126 Workers' compensation statutes neither infringe upon the rights of a suspect class nor involve fundamental rights which would trigger a strict scrutiny analysis. The test to be applied when analyzing workers' compensation statutes is the rational basis test.
Wieglenda v. State Compensation Insurance Fund/Department of Labor and Industry, No. 97-045 (1997) (Unpublished opinion) In an unpublished, nonciteable opinion, Supreme Court affirmed WCC determination that section 39-71-704(1)(f), MCA (1993) did not deny equal protection or due process by providing that insurer was not required to furnish maintenance care, in this case chiropractic care, to injured worker.
Grooms v. Ponderosa Inn, State Fund, and Department of Labor and Industry, 283 Mont. 459, 942 P.2d 699 (1997) Supreme Court affirms WCC's determination that claimant's right to equal protection of the laws was not violated by the requirement of section 39-71-602, MCA, that she pay for a second panel examination if she is the party making the request for a second examination.
Heisler v. State Compensation Insurance Fund, 282 Mont. 270, 937 P.2d 45 (1997) Where interaction of 1991 statute and 1993 regulation resulted in grant of freedom to chose physician only to claimants insured by Plan 2 insurer, constitutional guarantees of equal protection were violated. A policy of discriminating between injured workers based solely on which insurance plan covers them is not rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest.
 
WORKERS' COMPENSATION COURT DECISIONS
Peters v. American Zurich Ins. Co. [07/31/13] 2013 MTWCC 16 Where any given worker could receive some, all, or none of the fringe benefits identified in both classes, two separate classes of claimants do not exist and no equal protection analysis is necessary.
Benton v. Uninsured Employers' Fund [12/03/09] 2009 MTWCC 37 From the moment a worker is injured in the course and scope of employment, the remedies available to him and the path he follows in seeking redress is determined by whether his employer was properly insured. The distinct process legislatively mandated for insured workers versus uninsured workers leads the Court to conclude that the classes of injured employees at issue in this case are not similarly situated.
Benton v. Uninsured Employers' Fund [12/03/09] 2009 MTWCC 37 For purposes of the Petitioner’s equal protection challenge to § 39-71-520(2)(b), MCA, the Court defined the classes involved as (I) injured workers employed by uninsured employers seeking benefits from the UEF, and (II) injured workers employed by insured employers seeking benefits from the employer’s insurer.
Briese v. Ace American Ins. Co. [02/20/09] 2009 MTWCC 5 Where Petitioner artificially created two classes in his equal protection challenge, Petitioner’s challenge must fail. Two classes do not exist where every claimant is treated equally. While it is true that § 39-71-123, MCA, identifies certain fringe benefits that will be included in a wage calculation and others that will not, the mere fact that certain fringe benefits are or are not included does not create distinct classes of workers.
Horizon Custom Homes v. UEF [02/14/07] 2007 MTWCC 8 The first prerequisite in any equal protection analysis is a showing that the classes at issue are similarly situated. If they are not, the Court need look no further. Since the Court determined that statutorily-defined uninsured employers and employers who do not fall into this category are not similarly situated, Petitioner’s equal protection challenge to § 39-71-520, MCA, must fail.
Wilkes v. Montana State Fund [02/22/07] 2007 MTWCC 9 Petitioner contends that the wage-loss requirement that a claimant must meet to receive PPD benefits for age, education, and lifting, as set forth in § 39-71-703, MCA, violates his equal protection rights. The first prerequisite to any equal protection analysis is a showing that the classes at issue are similarly situated. The two classes at issue in this case are (1) PPD claimants; and (2) claimants who, after reaching maximum medical healing, receive an impairment rating, but return to work and do not suffer an actual wage loss. The classes are not similarly situated. One class – PPD claimants – has suffered a wage loss. The other class of claimants has not. In light of the express public policy that wage-loss benefits should bear a reasonable relationship to actual wages lost, this is a fundamental distinction in ascertaining the similarity of the classes. Section 39-71-703, MCA, is not unconstitutional to the extent it denies PPD benefits for age, education, and lifting to claimants that do not suffer a wage loss.
McCuin v. Montana State Fund [12/21/06] 2006 MTWCC 41 The workers’ compensation system is designed so that the cost of an on-the-job injury is not borne by the injured worker, but by his employer and indirectly by the public via the increased cost of production. When a person is incarcerated, the public bears the cost of the incarceration. Were that person also to receive workers’ compensation benefits, the public would bear the cost of that person’s maintenance twice. A rational basis therefore exists for treating incarcerated individuals differently than the rest of the claimant population under § 39-71-744, MCA.
Satterlee v. Lumberman's Mutual Casualty Company [12/12/05] 2005 MTWCC 55 Section 39-71-710, MCA, which terminates PTD benefits to workers receiving social security retirement benefits or who are eligible for full social security benefits does not violate the equal protection clause of the Montana Constitution. Unlike PPD benefits, which are designed to compensate the claimant for the permanent loss of physical function, PTD benefits are to be paid only for the claimant’s work life. Therefore, even though a rational basis does not exist to terminate PPD benefits when an individual becomes retirement eligible, a rational basis exists for the termination of PTD benefits at such time.
Dickerman v. Transportation Ins. Co. [04/12/05] 2005 MTWCC 19 Equal protection analysis does not encompass an evidentiary trial or fact-finding by a judge or jury. Accordingly, a late proffer of evidence to support an argument attacking the constitutionality of a statute recently held constitutional by the Supreme Court is rejected.
Fellenberg v Transportation Ins. Co. [3/19/04] 2004 MTWCC 29 The Supreme Court rejected equal protection challenges to the Occupational Disease Act (ODA) in Eastman v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 237 Mont. 332, 777 P.2d 862 (1989). In its subsequent decision in Henry v. State Compensation Ins. Fund, 1999 MT 126, 294 Mont. 449, 982 P.2d 456, the Court held that lesser benefits provided in the ODA violated equal protection guarantees but that decision applies only to the post-1987 ODA; Henry did not overrule Eastman even though it may have undermined the rationale for that decision. A lower court cannot overrule a Supreme Court decision, therefore, the Workers' Compensation Court must follow Eastman in a case arising under the 1983 ODA. Affirmed in Fellenberg v. Transportation Ins. Co., 2005 MT 90
Baker v. Transportation Ins. Co. [1/15/04] 2004 MTWCC 5 A statute of repose barring occupational disease claims filed more than three years after the claimant terminates the employment where the exposure occurred does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Montana Constitution since the bar applies to all occupational disease claims and claimants.
Hardgrove v. Transportation Ins. Co. [8/13/03] 2003 MTWCC 57 A statute of repose barring occupational disease claims filed more than three years after the claimant terminates the employment where the exposure occurred does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Montana Constitution since the bar applies to all occupational disease claims and claimants. [Affirmed in Hardgrove v. Transportation Ins. Co., 2004 MT 340 (No. 03-678).]
Reesor v. Montana State Fund [7/22/03] 2003 MTWCC 51 The Equal Protection Clause does not forbid the use of rough yardsticks in furtherance of legitimate governmental purposes. See Reesor v. Montana State Fund, 2004 MT 370 (No. 03-639)
Reesor v. Montana State Fund [7/22/03] 2003 MTWCC 51  Section 39-71-710, MCA (1999), which denies permanent partial disability benefits other than impairment awards to workers receiving social security retirement benefits or who are eligible for full social security benefits does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Workers' compensation benefits are a partial replacement for lost wages. Age and retirement are rough measures of the time workers stop working and stop suffering wage loss. Reversed in Reesor v. Montana State Fund, 2004 MT 370 (No. 03-639).
Polk v. Planet Ins. [5/31/02] 2001 MTWCC 44A The 1993 version of the Occupational Disease Act, which allows costs only where the insurer requests a hearing before the Department or appeals a Department finding of an occupational disease, is unconstitutional since it denies claimants their right to equal protection of the laws. There is no rational basis for denying costs in occupational disease cases while allowing them in workers' compensation cases. Henry v. State Compensation Ins. Fund, 1999 MT 126, 294 Mont. 448, 982 P.2d 456
Schmill v. Liberty NW Ins. [6/22/01] 2001 MTWCC 36 Occupational Disease Act provision which requires reduction of benefits based upon non-occupational factors ( 39-72-706, MCA (1989-1999)) violates the Equal Protection clauses of the United States and Montana Constitutions since there is no equivalent provision in the Workers' Compensation Act. Schmill v. Liberty NW Ins. [4/10/03] 2003 MT 80
Fisch, Frost, and Rausch v. State Fund [4/20/01] 2001 MTWCC 15 Failure to provide impairment awards to permanently totally disabled workers does not violate equal protection rights.
Fisch, Frost, and Rausch v. State Fund [4/20/01] 2001 MTWCC 15 While some permanently totally disabled workers have been or may become entitled to an impairment award, that entitlement is the result of their being permanently partially disabled at the time; thus, there is no discrimination among permanently totally disabled workers with respect to impairment awards.
Fisch, Frost, and Rausch v. State Fund [4/20/01] 2001 MTWCC 15 Distinctions between benefits payable to permanently totally disabled workers and permanently partially disabled workers are rationally related to legitimate differences in the nature of their disabilities.
Fisch, Frost, and Rausch v. State Fund [4/20/01] 2001 MTWCC 15 Permanently totally disabled workers are a separate, distinct class from permanently partially disabled workers. Within the class of permanently totally disabled claimants there is no discrimination as to payment of an impairment award – such award is simply unavailable to all persons who are within that classification.
(VanHorn) Killion v. State Fund [4/22/99] 1999 MTWCC 30 Section 39-71-721(5), MCA, which provides that workers' compensation benefits to a surviving spouse terminate upon remarriage, does not violate constitutional provisions guaranteeing equal protection. The classification involved here marital status is not a suspect classification requiring heightened scrutiny. Eastman v. Atlantic Richfield, 237 Mont. 332, 338, 777 P.2d 862, 865 (1989). In assessing whether the statute bears a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose, the Court is not limited to the legislative record but must consider "every conceivable basis" for the statute. A rational basis for terminating death benefits upon remarriage exists in that death benefits are intended to replace, at least in part, the loss of financial support provided by a deceased spouse. Remarriage provides a new relationship with the same obligation that existed between the claimant and the deceased spouse.
Powell v. State Fund [2/4/99] 1999 MTWCC 10 Section 39-71-1107(3), MCA (1995) does not violate federal or state guarantees of equal protection and substantive due process. To succeed in a constitutional challenge, claimant must persuade the Court beyond a reasonable doubt that the statute is not constitutional. Equal protection provisions do not prohibit different treatment of different groups or classes of people so long as all persons within a group or class are treated the same. The essence of substantive due process is similar as applied to this case; the statute must be reasonably related to a permissible legislative objective. A court considering a constitutional challenge is not limited to reasons for the legislation as set out on the face of the statutes or in legislative history, but may consider any possible purpose of the legislation. Here, while the goal of cost containment alone may not save legislation which treats similarly situated people differently, there are cogent and logical reasons for limiting payments to family members providing 24-hour domiciliary care. Family members providing such care typically reside with the injured worker, meaning they generally continue their ordinary life activities during some of the day, and typically do not provide the trained, focused, professional care given by non-family members who are working away from their own home. These differences justify the statute.
Selley v. Liberty Northwest Ins. Corp. [11/16/98] 1998 MTWCC 82. The distinction drawn by section 39-71-116(30), MCA (1993) between physicians with and without hospital admitting privileges is not unconstitutional. In determining whether the distinction is rationally related to a legitimate government objective, the Court is not limited to the legislative record but must consider any possible purpose of the legislation. A requirement of hospital privileges has legitimate legislative purposes. If a claimant requires hospitalization and her treating physician does not have admitting privileges, another physician must be called in, leading to a likely learning curve and potential additional cost. Moreover, hospital privileges are not granted to every licensed physician and the requirement can serve as a means to filter out the least competent physicians. Although the record contains no question of Dr. Nelson's competence, and suggests he gave up admitting privileges as a result of moving his residence beyond hospital proximity requirements, the distinction nonetheless is rationally related to legitimate governmental purposes. The fact that a legislative classification is "imperfect" does not mean it necessarily violates equal protection. [Note: the WCC's decision was reversed on other ground, with the Supreme Court not reaching the constitutional argument, see Selley v. Liberty Northwest, 2000 MT 76.]
Henry v. State Fund [5/13/98] 1998 MTWCC 42. The failure of the Occupational Disease Act to provide rehabilitation benefits to occupationally diseased workers does not violate the equal protection clause of the Montana or United States Constitutions. [Note: the WCC was overruled in this conclusion in Henry v. State Fund, 1999 MT 126.]
W.R. Grace & Co. and Transportation Ins. Co. v. Riley [3/23/98] 1998 MTWCC 26 Section 39-71-721, MCA (1985), which under section 39-72-701, MCA (1985) applies in an occupational disease case involving death benefits, is not unconstitutional by allowing an insurer to take a credit against future death benefits corresponding to that portion of settlement monies paid to the decedent which are attributable to periods of time after decedent's death. Workers' Compensation statutes need only be justified with a rational basis, which here exists in that the statute avoids duplication of benefits.
Wieglenda v. State Compensation Insurance Fund [10/23/96] 1996 MTWCC 67 Section 39-71-704(1), MCA (1993), and other statutory and regulatory provisions, do not deny equal protection or due process by providing that an insurer is not required to furnish maintenance care. (Note: WCC was affirmed by the Supreme Court in an unpublished, nonciteable opinion, Wieglenda v. State Compensation Insurance Fund/Department of Labor and Industry, No. 97-045 (1997).)
Grooms v. Ponderosa Inn and State Fund [7/16/96] 1996 MTWCC 51 Claimant's right to equal protection of the laws was not violated by the requirement of section 39-71-602, MCA, that she pay for a second panel examination if she is the party making the request for a second examination. (Note: WCC was affirmed on this ground in Grooms v. Ponderosa Inn, 283 Mont. 459, 942 P.2d 699 (1997).)
Zempel v. Uninsured Employers' Fund [2/21/96] 1996 MTWCC 19 UEF's refusal to pay benefits to employee of business wholly owned by enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and operated exclusively within reservation boundaries did not violate equal protection provisions or legal redress clause of Montana Constitution where WCA did not apply to employer under federal law and rational relationship existed between that exclusion and legitimate governmental purpose of encouraging tribal self-sufficiency and economic development.
Montana Schools Group Workers Compensation Risk Retention Program v. Dep't of Labor and Industry Employment Relations Division [06/16/95] 1995 MTWCC 48 The assessments and fees levied against school district group self-insurance association to fund state government costs of administering the Workers’ Compensation and Occupational Disease Acts pursuant to section 39-71-201, MCA, do not violate equal protection principles. Distribution of the assessment among self-insurers in accordance with their gross payrolls may not be the most precise measure of governmental costs attributable to each individual employer, but equal protection does not require mathematical precision and perfect equality, only a rational measure, which is provided by gross payroll.
Simpson v. Lewis and Clark County [02/16/95] 1995 MTWCC 14 Section 39-71-118(f), MCA (1991), which limits workers' compensation benefits available to an individual performing community service work under court order, does not violate constitutional provisions requiring equal protection, full legal redress, or substantive due process, nor does it inflict cruel and unusual punishment. The legislature's decision to provide a more limited benefits package to workers injured while performing court-ordered community service was rationally calculated to encourage public agencies and non-profit organizations to participate in community service programs while still affording some protection to the workers (medical benefits and impairment award).