Kansas Supreme Court reverses lower court, upholds state’s worker compensation law

Justices reverse Court of Appeals decision declaring law unconstitutional

The Kansas Supreme Court unanimously reversed a lower court ruling that found a 2013 state worker compensation law to be unconstitutional. Members of the court, seated from left: Justice Eric Rosen; Chief Justice Marla Luckert; Justice Dan Biles. Standing from left: Justice Caleb Stegall; Justice Evelyn Wilson; Justice K.J. Wall. Not pictured: Melissa Taylor Standridge, who was recently appointed to the court. (Kansas Supreme Court/Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas Supreme Court unanimously reversed a lower court ruling that found a 2013 state worker compensation law to be unconstitutional. Members of the court, seated from left: Justice Eric Rosen; Chief Justice Marla Luckert; Justice Dan Biles. Standing from left: Justice Caleb Stegall; Justice Evelyn Wilson; Justice K.J. Wall. Not pictured: Melissa Taylor Standridge, who was recently appointed to the court. (Kansas Supreme Court/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court unanimously reversed a lower appellate court ruling Friday by declaring constitutional an amendment of the state’s worker compensation law guiding assessment of medical impairments that an injured plaintiff viewed as detrimental to people hurt on the job.

The Kansas Court of Appeals in 2018 found changes to the Kansas Workers Compensation Act signed five years earlier by Gov. Sam Brownback to be unconstitutional. However, the state’s highest court disagreed and determined the statute didn’t violate the Kansas Bill of Rights because decisions relying on newer injury evaluation tools were still anchored to medical evidence.

In other words, the assessment method deployed in Kansas for evaluation of workplace injuries was constitutionally sound because it served as a guide and not a mandate.

“Our position has been that the Legislature had authority to update the law as it did,” said Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose office intervened in the case by seeking Supreme Court review. “Today, the Supreme Court agreed. We have successfully defended this duly enacted state law.”

The 2013 Legislature amended state worker compensation law to require use of the Sixth Edition of the American Medical Association guide to evaluate permanent impairment of injuries sustained after Jan. 1, 2015.

Plaintiff Howard Johnson III injured his spine while trying to open a trailer door that was frozen shut while working at U.S. Food Service. He had surgery and returned to work before experiencing health problems and seeking worker compensation benefits. A physician rated Johnson’s impairment as “permanent partial” based on the sixth edition of the AMA’s guide. Johnson appealed the rating and argued use of the sixth edition was unconstitutional because it resulted in lower impairment ratings that deprived workers such as himself of their right to financial compensation.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals agreed with Johnson and struck down the provision in law shifting to the AMA’s sixth edition. The Court of Appeals ordered reinstatement of the fourth edition of the AMA guide, which was in place prior to amendment of the statute.

Under the pre-2015 standard, the Court of Appeals said, Johnson’s injury would have qualified as a 25% disability for a compensation award of $61,000. But under the post-2015 law, his injury was rated at 6% disability justifying an award of $14,000.

Wichita attorney Phil Slape, on behalf of the Kansas Trial Lawyer’s Association, said there was a silver lining in the Supreme Court’s reversal of the Court of Appeals. He interpreted the Supreme Court’s decision as affirmation of the role of physicians in weighing injury cases.

“The decision gives a doctor the leeway to use their education, training and experience to determine the seriousness of a workplace injury to a patient,” Slape said. “Instead of being bound by a cookie-cutter approach imposed by big business to downplay an injury, doctors can use all guidelines available to them to determine how serious an injury is and the impact it will have on their patient’s ability to earn a living and support their families.”

In the Supreme Court opinion written by Justice Caleb Stegall, who was appointed the court by Brownback, said the 2013 amendments “merely reflect an update to the most recent set of guidelines, which serve as a starting point for any medical opinion.”

“Given this,” Stegall wrote, “the challenge under section 18 of the Kansas Constitution Bill of Rights necessarily fails.”

Alan Cobb, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Chamber, said the Supreme Court decision should be viewed as a “big victory for not only the Kansas busines community but also for the Kansas Legislature.”