Washington Workers’ Compensation law, which only applies to federal contract employees at a federal facility within the state, made it easier for federal contractors rather than state or private employees to receive workers’ compensation, according to the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruling the 21st of June.

The U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause generally protects our federal government from laws of the state which directly regulate and discriminate against the government. In the United States v. Washington Washington case, the Supreme Court concluded that the state law discriminated against the federal government.

The law was not within the limits of Congress the exemption of state employees law on compensation that applies to projects of Federal government, in the same manner as if the property was subject to the exclusive control by the states.

“We notice a common trend in state legislatures continuing to expand their programs for workers’ compensation and focusing on improving access to treatment, speeding up the process, and making it easier for people to obtain compensation,” said Debra Doby, an attorney at Vaughan Baio & Partners in New York City. “This decision is certainly an important reminder to state legislatures that any changes made to workers legislation on compensation should be made fair and equitable to all entities, not just those in the Federal Government.”

Background

The law was passed by the state legislature in 2018 and was only applicable to federal contractors, not federal employees. The site that was once used to create and manufacture nuclear weapons. The site produced huge amounts of radioactive and chemical waste. Following the Cold War, the federal government began to decommission and clean up the nuclear facility. A majority of the employees are federal contract workers. A lesser proportion of employees comprise state employees and employees working for private businesses that are not contracted with the federal government.

Comparatively to the general state workers’ compensation system, the Washington law allowed federal contract workers working on the location to prove their rights towards workers’ compensation by making it a presumption that certain ailments result from the cleaning and cleanup. The presumption can be disproved with solid and convincing evidence. The presumption is also held throughout the entire working life of a person.

The United States sued Washington, asserting that the law violated the Supremacy Clause, disqualifying the Federal government. The court of district appeals ruled that the law was within the definition of the waiver of immunity by the federal government, which is constitutional. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Court’s Remaining

The Supreme Court reversed and held that the law violated the Supremacy Clause.

First, The Supreme Court found that the case was not a moot point even though it was the case that Washington had passed a new law that applied the presumption more generally to anyone working at a radiologically dangerous waste disposal facility.

It was believed that the U.S. maintained that if the Supreme Court ruled in its favor, it would be able to recover or reduce the amount of between $17 million to $37 million in claims for workers’ compensation which lower courts have ruled under the prior law. In the end, however, the Supreme Court determined that the U.S. might recover the money when the court ruled against it.

The court further pointed out that the state law did not discriminate against Federal government contractors when it gave them less favorable treatment or negatively treated the contractors because it was related to their governmental status.

“Washington’s law violates these principles by excluding Federal government officials for unfair treatments,” the Supreme Court declared. This is because the U.S. also had not specifically authorized any state to pass a discriminatory law that singles off the Federal government as the source of unfair treatment.

The court said that waivers of intergovernmental immunity must be narrowly interpreted, “at least where a state declares that Congress has given up immunity from state laws that discriminate.”

Close examination of similar laws

The Supreme Court’s decision shows that “if there’s any evidence of discrimination which increases the cost for the Federal Government, these laws will be put under strict examination,” Doby said.

In the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity, states’ laws can’t make it more costly for the federal government to perform its duties unless laws are imposed in a nondiscriminatory manner, according to Crystal McElrath, an attorney is working with Swift Currie in Atlanta.

“As we begin a new election season, this decision could impact the kind of promises to voters that prospective legislative representatives make to their constituents.” said the attorney general. “State legislators cannot punish or target the federal government to rectify a social injustice without federal government’s permission.”

McElrath concluded that “States who wish to broaden workers’ compensation insurance to cover specific conditions must do it with the help of private and federal employers, or ensure that any law that targets federal workers is within the most narrow interpretation of the Congress-approved waiver of immunity between the federal and state governments.”

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