The Supreme Court of Ohio recently decided a case limiting a claimant’s ability to delay employer initiated workers’ compensation appeals filed into court.
Depending on the issue, and after exhausting all administrative remedies before the Ohio Industrial Commission, either the claimant or employer may appeal a decision into the court of common pleas. In workers’ compensation appeals, the onus is always on the claimant to file a petition in court demonstrating they have a cause of action to participate or continue to participate in the workers’ compensation fund. This petition equates to a standard complaint filed in traditional lawsuits. Essentially, the claimant always steps into the shoes of the plaintiff, even if the appeal was initiated by the employer.
Due to the unique nature of this method, the claimant was historically able to simply voluntarily dismiss, without prejudice, their petition under Ohio Civil Rule 41(a). In doing so, the claimant would essentially delay the employer’s ability to litigate the contested issue in court. This “stall tactic” typically resulted in an unfair advantage for the claimant, as this allowed the claimant to continue to receive benefits while the matter pended. The delay could last upwards of one year.
To combat this unfair advantage, the state legislature instituted a “consent provision” in 2006 allowing a claimant to only voluntarily dismiss an employer initiated appeal with the consent of the employer. This provision, outlined in Ohio Revised Code 4123.512(D), provides that the claimant may not dismiss the complaint without the employer's consent if the employer is the party that filed the notice of appeal to court pursuant to this section.
This consent provision eventually came under fire when an employer, Ford Motor Company, filed a workers’ compensation appeal into court in 2012. The claimant (and de facto plaintiff) Ferguson sought to voluntarily dismiss the complaint without Ford’s consent. First, Ferguson argued the consent provision violated his equal protection under the law because the provision treated Claimants differently depending on who initiated the appeal. Second, Ferguson argued the provision was unconstitutional as it prevented Claimants from adequately presenting their cases.
Using a constitutional law analysis, both the court of common pleas and the Eighth District Court of Appeals agreed with Ferguson and found the consent provision unconstitutional. Specifically, the Court of Appeals held the consent provision violated the separation of powers doctrine, the Equal Protection Clauses of the Ohio and Federal Constitutions, and the Due Process Clauses of the Ohio and Federal Constitutions.
In the Ferguson decision, the Supreme Court of Ohio overruled the decisions of the lower courts. The Court, turning to prior decisions, found that a workers’ compensation appeal is a special statutory proceeding which allowed the state legislature to initiate and enforce the consent provision.
Moreover, under the Court’s equal protection analysis, Justice DeWine wrote that “in enacting the consent provision, the legislature advanced legitimate state interests in limiting improper payments made during the pendency of appeals and in avoiding unnecessary delay in the appeal process.” Given the fact that this situation does not involve someone alleging race, gender, or national origin discrimination, the government is provided wide latitude to prove there was at least some legitimate state interest for the provision and the provision advanced that interest. Obviously, the state interest was preventing unwarranted payments of benefits while an appeal pended.
Lastly, under the Court’s due process analysis, Judge DeWine applied the same analysis used under the equal protection discussion. Judge DeWine’s opinion pointed to the often-calculated delay on the part of claimants which resulted “in a needless extension of a process designed to run quickly, financial effects on the system as a whole, and a waste of judicial resources.”
What does this mean for Ohio employers? The consent provision law enacted in 2006 is constitutional. Therefore, should an employer appeal a decision into court, the claimant may not voluntarily dismiss the employer initiated appeal without approval from the employer. This will prevent undue delay in court and prevent excessive and unwarranted financial responsibilities on state funded employers, self-insured employers, and the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. As always, please do not hesitate to contact Steve Boggins or any of the experienced workers’ compensation attorneys at RBS to discuss issues pertaining to workers’ compensation litigation.