Court wants to examine new workers’ comp appeal law
For the second time in a month, the Mississippi Supreme Court has called into question the constitutionality of a new law designed to streamline the appeals process for disputes arising from administrative decisions.
The court has asked for briefs related to a law the Legislature passed last session that provides for a direct appeal to the state’s high court in workers’ compensation cases. Old law mandated an appeal to a decision rendered by the Mississippi Workers Compensation Commission first go to a chancery court.
The Supreme Court has asked for briefs from Attorney General Jim Hood and Sysco Food Services and its insurance company, which are involved in the dispute. The briefs are due the second week of September. The Court entered a similar order in July asking for briefs related to the constitutionality of a new direct-appeal law for certificate of need decisions made by the Mississippi State Department of Health.
At that time, Mississippi College law professor Matt Steffey told the Mississippi Business Journal a law designed to remove one stop in the court process “quite unusual.” The Supreme Court asking for briefs related to either, Steffey said, indicates it has some serious reservations about it passing constitutional muster.
The workers’ comp bill’s successful run through the Capitol to Gov. Haley Barbour’s desk is something Perry Nations has worked, he said, five years to see happen.
“We figured there might be a challenge to it at some point because you’re bypassing a level of the court system,” said Nations, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Mississippi.
His affinity for the bill, Nations said, is its design that has the potential to save his members time in the court system and money on legal fees, and to ensure a faster reward for an injured employee. He noted that there exists a statute that allows workers’ comp issues to be expedited through the trial court system, but that rarely is true.
“In actuality, probably the average time of the appeal to the courts from the commission is anywhere from one to three years,” Nations said.
That backlog has a multiplier effect down the line.
“Sometimes we run five or six years behind on getting (fiscal) years closed,” Nations said. “We’re still closing some years in the ‘90s waiting on all these cases to settle. This would allow us to settle our books, and we’ll know where we stand quicker. I know it’s a legal decision, but I think it would be a good business decision.”
Ron Aldridge, executive director of the Mississippi National Federation of Businesses, took a more lukewarm approach.
“We watched it (during the legislative session) but we didn’t go out on a limb on it this time,” he said. “In the past we’ve opposed it, but that was prior to seeing some of the statistics (on how many cases were appealed eventually to the MSSC) on it. We were concerned at the time that you would lose the ability to go to a local court on the front end. Once we saw those statistics, and it became clear that the vast majority had their appeals exhausted, it was hard to fight it.”
Law requires any company with five or more employees to carry workers’ comp liability insurance.
“It’s a routine thing,” Aldridge said. “It can be a lot of headache.”
Billy Ware, president of Mid-State Construction in Jackson, said his company has 65 employees, and that what he called “problem cases” arising from workers’ comp are rare.
“That said,relief is never timely,” he said. “It’s a good thing when you can take a level of the court system out of it. This could certainly speed up the process. It’s probably not something I’ll have ton of personal involvement in; but from a business standpoint, it makes a lot of sense.”