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We Won, So Why Are We Still in Court?

Securing Farmworkers’ Right to Workers’ Compensation

By Gail Evans & Elizabeth Wagoner

What do you do when the state simply ignores a constitutional ruling in your client’s favor, neither appealing it nor implementing the decision?

This is the baffling question that the Newonions.jpg Mexico Center on Law and Poverty faced after our 2012 victory on behalf of injured farmworkers in Griego v. New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration. The state district court held that the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act violated the New Mexico Constitution’s equal protection clause. The exclusion exempted New Mexico’s farms and dairies from the requirement to obtain workers’ compensation insurance, meaning that farm and dairy laborers who suffered serious illnesses or injuries, including permanently disabling injuries, had no right to medical care or lost wages under the state workers’ compensation system. The court held that no rational basis justified treating farm and ranch laborers differently from other workers in the state. Our victory, and the strategies we employed to get there, were the subject of a 2013 Clearinghouse advocacy story.

Constitutional Litigation on the Farm and Ranch Laborer Exclusion After Griego

After the district court ruled in Griego that the farm and ranch laborer exclusion was unconstitutional, the state chose not to appeal. Incredibly, however, the state, through the Workers’ Compensation Administration, also continued to deny injured agricultural laborers workers’ compensation benefits in its administrative courts. It claimed that the constitutional ruling was the work of a rogue district court judge and that neither administrative law judges nor farm and ranch employers were bound by the decision. With that interpretation of the law, farm and ranch employers were not inclined to purchase workers’ compensation insurance to cover their workers. The administration’s stance also meant that injured and disabled farm and ranch laborers continued to be subjected to illegal discrimination, receiving no medical care or lost wages after suffering a workplace injury. It took four more years—and several more devastating worker injuries suffered on uninsured farms and dairies—to win a decision from the New Mexico Supreme Court that the farm and ranch laborer exclusion is unconstitutional.

Individual Farmworker Litigation Before the Workers’ Compensation Administration. We first learned that the Workers’ Compensation Administration believed it had no legal obligation to enforce the Griego constitutional ruling through our representation of injured farmworkers before the agency’s administrative courts. One of our clients, Noe Rodriguez, was a dairy worker with Brand West Dairy at the time of his accident. He sustained traumatic brain injury, neck injury, and facial disfigurement when at work he was kicked in the head by a cow on December 23, 2012; he was taken to the emergency room. He filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits on February 28, 2013, against Brand West Dairy and the state Uninsured Employers’ Fund since Brand West Dairy, like many New Mexico dairies, was uninsured. The fund is a pot of money housed at and administered by the Workers’ Compensation Administration. The fund is the statutory “payor of last resort” in workers’ compensation claims; it is supposed to ensure that workers are not left out in the cold when employers do not maintain workers’ compensation coverage. In Rodriguez’s case, however, the administration’s attorneys representing the fund moved to dismiss his claim; they relied on the farm and ranch labor exclusion that had been declared unconstitutional over a year earlier in Griego. The administrative law judge granted their motion but allowed us to introduce into evidence the voluminous record on the constitutional question that we had developed in Griego.

Around the same time another farm laborer, Maria Aguirre, slipped and fell in a wet chili field in southern New Mexico; she broke her wrist. Her employer left her at a medical clinic with no money and no means to get home, let alone any means to pay for her medical bills. Aguirre also filed a claim for workers’ compensation; her claim was thrown out by an administrative law judge, who also relied on the unconstitutional exclusion. Aguirre was unable to get the medical care she needed for her wrist to heal.

Appealing the Workers’ Compensation Administration’s Dismissal of Farmworker Claims. We appealed the dismissal of Rodriguez’s and Aguirre’s claims to the New Mexico Court of Appeals in 2014. We argued that the 2012 constitutional decision in Griego was binding on the Workers’ Compensation Administration, the Uninsured Employers’ Fund, and employers who would seek to rely on the unconstitutional exclusion to deny workers’ compensation coverage to their employees. The cases were consolidated on appeal.

Meanwhile, we went back to the district court in Griego to seek an injunction against the Workers’ Compensation Administration to force it to recognize and apply the Griego constitutional ruling. We won a partial victory there; the district court did enjoin the Workers’ Compensation Administration itself from relying on the exclusion in any of its public statements, in permitting farm and ranch laborers to file claims, and in similar administrative duties. However, the district court also held that it could not enjoin the Workers’ Compensation Administration’s administrative law judges because they were independent members of the judiciary. The district court held that it could not enjoin the fund and credited the fund’s arguments that it was a separate legal entity from the administration and therefore not bound by a ruling against the administration. To the New Mexico Court of Appeals we appealed the partial denial of our motion for an injunction.

The court of appeals held oral argument individual-onions.jpgin Rodriguez and Aguirre’s consolidated cases first. Although our briefing had focused on Griego being binding and having to be applied to our clients’ cases, the court’s questioning, to our surprise, focused on the constitutionality of the farm and ranch laborer exclusion.

The court of appeals ruled in our clients’ favor in Rodriguez on June 22, 2015. The court unanimously agreed with the district court in Griego and relied heavily on the facts developed in that litigation. The exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from workers’ compensation is not “rationally related to a legitimate state interest” and is therefore unconstitutional, the court of appeals ruled. The court also held its ruling retroactive to cases pending as of March 30, 2012, the date of final judgment in Griego. Shortly thereafter, in light of its ruling that the exclusion was unconstitutional, the court of appeals dismissed as moot our Griego appeal on whether the fund should be enjoined.

We celebrated—again we had won. This time, with the court of appeals weighing in, the Workers’ Compensation Administration and farm employers could not argue that they were not bound by the holding. We were a little disappointed that the court had not held that Griego was binding; no state agency should be allowed to ignore a constitutional ruling against it. But we reminded ourselves that a win was a win—in litigation you do not always get to decide how you win.

Litigation Before the New Mexico Supreme Court. Soon afterward, Rodriguez’s and Aguirre’s employers and the state filed with the New Mexico Supreme Court a petition for a writ of certiorari seeking to reverse the New Mexico Court of Appeals’ constitutional ruling and retroactivity ruling. Over our objections, the New Mexico Supreme Court granted certiorari in midsummer 2015.

Then, in late summer 2015, Brand West Dairy moved for an order to stay the precedential value of the court of appeals’ constitutional ruling. As ground for its motion, Brand West Dairy explained that farm employers having to buy workers’ compensation insurance pending the supreme court’s final ruling would be unfair. We opposed the motion and felt confident that we would win—the law is well settled in New Mexico that a court of appeals ruling remains the law of the land even if the supreme court grants certiorari. Also, the workers’ stories were so compelling that we did not see how the supreme court would allow farms to get away with being uninsured when workers were routinely injured doing dangerous farmwork. But we were wrong. The supreme court granted Brand West Dairy’s motion and stayed the precedential value of the court of appeals’ constitutional ruling. That meant that farm employers did not have an obligation to buy workers’ compensation insurance and that the Workers’ Compensation Administration could again dismiss farm and ranch laborer cases in reliance on the exclusion.

During the fall of 2015 we responded to no fewer than four briefs opposing the court of appeals’ ruling. One was from the New Mexico Uninsured Employers’ Fund, which was appealing only the court of appeals’ decision to apply its ruling retroactively to claims filed or pending as of March 30, 2012, the date the Griego decision was issued. The fund argued that for it to pay out on claims that came down before an appellate ruling on the constitutionality of the exclusion would be administratively burdensome and expensive. A second brief was from our clients’ employers appealing the court of appeals’ unconstitutional-exclusion ruling and the retroactivity ruling. A third brief was from the Workers’ Compensation Administration, which filed an amicus brief on the retroactivity issue. The fourth brief came from the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, which argued that the exclusion was constitutional. We filed our answer brief in early January 2016.

New Mexico Supreme Court Ruling. At oral argument before the New Mexico Supreme Court in late April 2016, in response to tough questioning, our opponents struggled to articulate any reason why the exclusion was not arbitrary. The justices seemed unpersuaded, in particular, by the employers’ cost-savings rationales and pointed out that if cost savings were really the purpose of the exclusion, the law would also exempt farm supervisors and packing workers from coverage. However, the justices seemed concerned about the fairness of holding any constitutional ruling retrospective to March 30, 2012, the date of final judgment in Griego, because that affected farm employers who were not parties to that case. The question of whether a declaratory judgment can bind a nonparty was not one we had had an opportunity to brief because the parties’ briefs had focused on whether New Mexico’s three-part retroactivity test mandated a prospective or retrospective ruling. After oral argument, we submitted a supplemental authority letter to give the court the law holding that private parties are not proper parties to constitutional declaratory judgment cases because they cannot defend the constitutionality of laws. Therefore, in our case, private employers were necessarily bound by the government’s decision not to appeal Griego because the government was the only proper party.

The New Mexico Supreme Court issued an opinion on June 30, 2016, much sooner than we had expected. Ruling in our clients’ favor, the court said that the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from workers’ compensation “is nothing more than arbitrary discrimination and, as such, it is forbidden by our Constitution.” The court held that its decision would be given modified prospective application to the two Rodriguez farmworkers’ individual claims and all future claims. This means that workers whose claims fall outside of that time frame—including our many clients who were injured prior to the supreme court’s ruling—will not have a right to workers’ compensation coverage.

It was a major victory for the over 15,000 farm and ranch laborers who will now benefit from the protections of workers’ compensation in our state.

This was, of course, an incredible victory. Four years after our original win in Griego, and seven years after we began litigating the constitutionality of the exclusion, we had a ruling in our favor from the highest court in the state. It was a major victory for the over 15,000 farm and ranch laborers who will now benefit from the protections of workers’ compensation in our state. Moreover, it established a strong legal precedent for ending classifications that treat agricultural workers differently from other employees.

That said, we were highly disappointed that the ruling was not retroactive. We had four disabled farmworker clients with pending claims before the Workers’ Compensation Administration and one disabled farmworker client whose workers’ compensation claim was pending before the New Mexico Supreme Court when the ruling came down. None of these clients would be covered by the supreme court’s ruling. Instead the ruling would apply an unconstitutional and discriminatory law to their claims.

Consistent with the nonretroactivity ruling, weeks after the Rodriguez ruling came down the New Mexico Supreme Court summarily dismissed the case of our farmworker client whose case was pending before the court when it decided Rodriguez. That worker was injured when he was attacked by a bull about a year after Rodriguez and Aguirre had been injured. He suffered a knee injury for which he received no medical treatment, and his disability still prevents him from working. We quickly filed a motion for rehearing at the supreme court; we argued that it was fundamentally unfair and an equal protection violation to deny him workers’ compensation when his case was procedurally identical to Rodriguez and Aguirre’s cases. The supreme court denied that motion. As a result, this worker, and most others injured before the constitutional ruling came down, cannot receive workers’ compensation benefits.

Lessons Learned

Through this litigation, we learned that challenging a law in state court is only the beginning of a long legal battle to ensure that low-income workers are treated fairly. A continuing commitment to litigation—even when the state does not appeal—is necessary to ensure enforcement of the law. Basically we had to find ways to get our case in front of the state’s higher courts, even though we had won in front of the state’s lower court. This is not a unique problem—we have seen it in other states where magistrate judges refused to follow a district court’s ruling that preventing same-sex couples from marrying was unconstitutional. There, as here, even with a lower court on their side, people were prevented by other lower courts from having their rights enforced. We need to prepare ourselves to fight creative legal battles to enforce our constitutional rights in this legal climate of hostility to civil rights litigation.

We also learned the importance of both representing individual workers and litigating the larger systemic constitutional claims. In the end the two overlapped. The record that we developed through Griego was integral to our ultimate victory in Rodriguez. After the district court’s constitutional ruling in Griego, we learned through our representation of individual farmworkers that the Workers’ Compensation Administration was illegally ignoring the law. So that the constitutional issue could get to an appellate court, we filed appeals in every farm and ranch laborer case that we learned about and that did not settle. In each case we introduced the Griego record into evidence.

We need to prepare ourselves to fight creative legal battles to enforce our constitutional rights in this legal climate of hostility to civil rights litigation.

We could not have won these individual cases on appeal without the Griego record demonstrating the lack of a rational basis for the exclusion. The hundreds of uncontested facts in that case included many on which the appellate courts relied in Rodriguez: only 9 percent of New Mexico’s farms are large enough to be subject to workers’ compensation requirements; that 9 percent of farms employs 78 percent of New Mexico’s farmworkers; workers’ compensation insurance costs less than 1 percent of the agricultural industry’s annual profits; and no special administrative difficulties prevent the Workers’ Compensation Administration from administering workers’ compensation to seasonal farmworkers because it already does so in other seasonal industries.

Establishing these facts in the district court case was essential because, under the rules governing the Workers’ Compensation Administration courts, attorneys would have no opportunity to build a record on a constitutional issue during discovery. The discovery rules in Workers’ Compensation Administration courts are limited to the specifics and location of the worker’s injury. Thus, if we had appealed the case of an injured farmworker without first developing a record on the constitutionality of the exclusion, we almost certainly would have failed. However, by relying on Griego in our pursuit of the Rodriguez case, we were able to win at the New Mexico Court of Appeals and ultimately at the New Mexico Supreme Court.

The only aspect of our project that we might have done differently relates to the supreme court’s ruling on the retrospectivity question. The supreme court’s decision on this issue means that farm and ranch laborers who were injured prior to the supreme court’s ruling may not receive the benefit of that ruling even if their cases were already pending before the Workers’ Compensation Administration at the time of the supreme court’s ruling. Whether a different advocacy approach on this issue would have made a difference is unclear because the supreme court plainly expressed concern at oral argument about the financial harm a retrospective ruling might have on uninsured agricultural employers. In our briefing on this issue, we argued that the supreme court should affirm the court of appeals’ ruling that the constitutional decision was retroactive to claims pending as of the date of the Griego ruling (March 30, 2012) because employers should have known at that point to purchase workers’ compensation insurance. The supreme court did not agree. A different approach—which may or may not have been successful—might have been to focus on attacking the balancing test that the New Mexico Supreme Court applied to overcome the presumption that judicial opinions applied retroactively. Our argument would have been, essentially, that applying the unconstitutional exclusion to similarly situated farmworkers who were injured in earlier years and have pending claims violated equal protection and that a balancing test simply was not the correct constitutional approach.

We also learned the importance of having ongoing multiyear funding for systemic litigation. The Public Welfare Foundation funded this work from start to finish—and since no attorney fees are available under our state law, we could not have done seven years of litigation without its support.

Although the fight continues for workers who are not covered by the ruling, we remain thrilled about the constitutional win. We will continue our advocacy for injured farmworkers to ensure that they can access the workers’ compensation system and receive the same benefits available to injured workers across our state. We expect that the agricultural lobby will continue to push for harmful exclusions in the law, and we will continue to challenge such proposals to protect our hard-fought win.

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