Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Six-Month Statute of Limitation Is Unconstitutional

Oklahoma's 2005 amendments to the Workers' Compensation Act included a shortened period of time for terminated workers to file claims. Normally an injured employee must file a claim within two years of the date of injury or the date of last payment of compensation or medical benefits. Otherwise, the claim is barred; and benefits will be denied when the "statute of limitations" defense is asserted. 

The 2005 legislative change added a special provision that stated "[p]ost-termination injury claims shall be filed within six (6) months of termination of employment." Although many court-watchers had believed that the new law was unconstitutional, it was not effectively challenged until the case of Ponca Iron & Metal v. Wilkinson, 2010 OK 75, __ P.3d __. 

Jackie Wilkinson worked for Ponca Iron & Metal until her employment terminated on December 18, 2005. She filed her claim for compensation (Form 3) more than six months later. Employer argued that the six-month limitation barred her claim, but her attorney argued that the provision was unconstitutional. The trial court denied the limitations defense, awarded benefits and held that this section "unreasonably singles out employees who have been terminated and have sustained cumulative trauma injuries. The law is in direct conflict with the general two year statute of limitations for cumulative trauma injuries and arbitrarily puts an unfair burden on these claimants."

The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision without addressing the constitutional issue, and the Supreme Court granted review to address a question of first impression. 

In a 7-2 opinion the Supreme Court held the six-month limitation violated the prohibition against special laws found in Art. 5 §46 of the Oklahoma Constitution. "[S]pecial laws are all those that rest on a false or deficient classification [and] create preference and establish inequality." Barrett v. Board of County Comm'rs of Tulsa County1939 OK 68, ¶0 (syllabus 3) and ¶7, 90 P.2d 442, 443 and 446.

Accordingly, the Court held "The classification of injured employees on the basis of continued versus terminated employment is a false and deficient classification of the larger class of injured employees because it creates preference for members in the continued employment group and results in unequal treatment for certain members of the terminated group that bear no reasonable relationship to curtailing retaliatory claims or preventing stale claims. Hence, we find the action of the Legislature to be unreasonable in their creation of this particular statutory classification. We hold the 2005 amendment to §43(A) adding the six-month statutory limitations period is unconstitutional."

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