Firefighters’ Union Challenges Oklahoma’s New Workers Comp Law

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK &#8211 Two lawmakers and the head of a firefighters’ union have challenged a highly touted workers compensation reform law passed earlier this year.

The suit was filed Tuesday with the Oklahoma Supreme Court, asking the court to assume original jurisdiction in determining the constitutionality of Senate Bill 1062.

The measure changed the state’s workers comp system from court-based to administrative and also reduced payments to injured workers.

Tuesday’s suit was filed by Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, and Rick Beams, president of the Professional Firefighters of Oklahoma.

“As a longtime businessman, I recognize that it’s necessary to have workers compensation rates as low as possible,” Coates said. “In fact, I believe we need a workers compensation administrative system, just not the unconstitutional and unworkable system created by Senate Bill 1062.

“It’s wrong that a firefighter or any other injured worker should have to pay back benefits after returning to work. This is just one of many problems with this new law.”

The 47-page petition enumerates sweeping allegations under three general categories: the new workers comp commission violates the constitution’s separation of powers; the law discriminates against certain classes of workers; and it excludes certain injuries and conditions from compensation.

The petition says the SB 1062 violates the constitution’s ban on multisubject bills and its due process clause, and it includes an illegal transfer of money from the General Revenue fund.

“Through the … statute the Legislature is eliminating an Oklahoma worker’s right to be heard before a fair and impartial tribunal,” the petition says.

The suit names Gov. Mary Fallin, who signed the bill, and Attorney General Scott Pruitt as defendants.

Fallin said she was disappointed by the legal challenge.

“For decades, Oklahoma has one of the most expensive and inefficient workers compensation systems in the country, a constant obstacle for business owners looking to expand operations or create jobs,” Fallin said Wednesday.

“I am confident this law is constitutional and hope that once the court reviews the facts in this case, without bias, this much-needed reform will remain on the books,” Senate Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said Wednesday.

Oral arguments before a Supreme Court referee are set for Oct. 16. The state has until Oct. 7 to respond.

Tuesday’s suit adds to the growing number of recent legislation that has been challenged – in many cases successfully. Lawmakers recently concluded a special session to address lawsuit reform after the Oklahoma Supreme Court found that a measure passed in 2009 was unconstitutional.

Both were strongly backed by the State Chamber of Commerce.

Lawmakers, and particularly Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon, have ratcheted up pressure on the state Supreme Court with talk of a constitutional amendment to return the selection of justices to a direct vote of the people, perhaps by partisan ballot.

Since the late 1960s, when a bribery scandal prompted judicial reform, Supreme Court justices have been appointed by the governor from a list of nominees selected by a commission. The justices are then subject to retention ballots every six years.

From The Tulsa World