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Satterlee v. Lumberman's Mutual Casualty Co.

Court of Workers Compensation of Montana

December 12, 2005

CATHERINE E. SATTERLEE, et al. Petitioners
v.
LUMBERMAN'S MUTUAL CASUALTY COMPANY, et al. Respondents/Insurers.

          Submitted: October 7, 2005

          ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          JAMES JEREMIAH SHEA JUDGE.

         Summary: The petitioners filed a motion for partial summary judgment seeking to have this Court declare section 39-71-710, MCA[1], as it applies to permanent total disability benefits, unconstitutional under the equal protection clause found in Mont. Const., Art. II, § 4. The petitioners also moved for partial summary judgment upon the grounds that section 39-71-710, MCA, unlawfully delegated legislative power to the federal government.

         Held: Partial summary judgment is denied. Section 39-71-710, MCA, is constitutional as applied to PTD benefits. There is no violation of Petitioners' right to equal protection. A rational basis exists to justify the disparate treatment of similarly situated classes. Furthermore, there is no unlawful delegation of legislative power.

         Topics:

Constitutional Law: Equal Protection. Section 39-71-710, MCA, which terminates PTD benefits to workers receiving social security retirement benefits or who are eligible for full social security benefits does not violate the equal protection clause of the Montana Constitution. Unlike PPD benefits, which are designed to compensate the claimant for the permanent loss of physical function, PTD benefits are to be paid only for the claimant's work life. Therefore, even though a rational basis does not exist to terminate PPD benefits when an individual becomes retirement eligible, a rational basis exists for the termination of PTD benefits at such time.
Benefits: Permanent Total Disability. Section 39-71-710, MCA, which terminates PTD benefits to workers receiving social security retirement benefits or who are eligible for social security benefits does not violate the equal protection clause of the Montana Constitution. Unlike PPD benefits, which are designed to compensate the claimant for the permanent loss of physical function, PTD benefits are to be paid only for the claimant's work life.
Constitutions, Statutes, Rules, and Regulations: Montana Code Annotated: Section 39-71-710, MCA, which terminates PTD benefits to workers receiving social security retirement benefits or who are eligible for full social security benefits does not violate the equal protection clause of the Montana Constitution. Unlike PPD benefits, which are designed to compensate the claimant for the permanent loss of physical function, PTD benefits are to be paid only for the claimant's work life. Therefore, even though a rational basis does not exist to terminate PPD benefits when an individual becomes retirement eligible, a rational basis exists for the termination of PTD benefits at such time.
Delegation of Legislative Power: Section 39-71-710, MCA, which provides that PTD benefits terminate upon an individual's receiving social security retirement benefits or eligibility for social security retirement benefits, does not unlawfully delegate legislative power to the federal government. The Legislature may lawfully make a law which delegates a power to determine some fact or state of things upon which the law makes, or intends to make, its own actions depend.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         ¶1 Catherine Satterlee, James Zenahlik, Joseph Foster, and Doris Bowers (hereafter collectively referred to as the petitioners) are workers who have been denied permanent total disability (PTD) benefits because they are considered retired under the definition of retirement created by the Montana Legislature in section 39-71-710, MCA. The petitioners contend that section 39-71-710, MCA, is violative of the Montana Constitution's prohibition against denial of equal protection. The Montana Supreme Court recently decided the case of Reesor v. Montana State Fund, 2004 MT 370, 325 Mont. 1, 103 P.3d 1019 (2004), in which the Court found section 39-71-710, MCA, unconstitutional as it applied to permanent partial disability (PPD) benefits because it violated Reesor's right to equal protection under the Montana Constitution. In light of Reesor, this Court must now decide whether section 39-71-710, MCA, is unconstitutional as it applies to PTD benefits.

         STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         I. Summary Judgment

         ¶2 Subsection (1)(a) of Rule 24.5.329 of the Workers' Compensation Court Rules provides that, a "party may . . . move for a summary judgment in the party's favor upon all or any part of a claim or defense." The petitioners, as the moving parties, bear a two-prong burden of establishing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Moore v. Does, 271 Mont. 162, 895 P.2d 209 (1995). If the petitioners fail to establish either prong, summary judgment must be denied. Mathews v. Glacier Gen. Assur. Co., 184 Mont. 368, 603 P.2d 232 (1979). Here, there are no consequential facts which are in dispute and this matter is ripe for summary judgment.

         II. Constitutional Challenge

         ¶3 The party challenging the constitutionality of a statute bears the heavy burden of proving the statute unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt. Henry v. State Compensation Ins. Fund, 1999 MT 126, ¶11, 294 Mont. 449, ¶11, 982 P.2d 456, ¶ 11.

The constitutionality of a legislative enactment is prima facie presumed, and every intendment in its favor will be presumed, unless its unconstitutionality appears beyond a reasonable doubt. The question of constitutionality is not whether it is possible to condemn, but whether it is possible to uphold the legislative action which will not be declared invalid unless it conflicts with the constitution, in the judgment of the court, beyond a reasonable doubt.

Stratemeyer v. Lincoln County, 259 Mont. 147, 150, 855 P.2d 506, 508-09 (1993).

         ¶4 In this case, the petitioners face that heavy burden. Every possible presumption must be indulged in favor of the constitutionality of a legislative act, and if any doubt exists, it must be resolved in favor of the constitutionality of the legislative act. Powell v. State Compensation Ins. Fund, 2000 MT 321, ¶ 13, 302 Mont. 518, ¶ 13, 15 P.3d 877, ¶ 13. Therefore, this Court must presume that section 39-71-710, MCA, is constitutional and, if in doubt, it must resolve the issue in favor of the respondents. As demonstrated below, the petitioners have not met their burden.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Section 39-71-710, MCA, is constitutional as it applies to PTD benefits.

         ¶5 In its entirety, section 39-71-710, MCA, reads as follows:

(1) If a claimant is receiving disability or rehabilitation compensation benefits and the claimant receives social security retirement benefits or is eligible to receive or is receiving full social security retirement benefits or retirement benefits from a system that is an alternative to social security retirement, the claimant is considered to be retired. When the claimant is retired, the liability of the insurer is ended for payment of permanent partial disability benefits other than the impairment award, payment of permanent total disability benefits, and payment of rehabilitation compensation benefits. However, the insurer remains liable for temporary total disability benefits, any impairment award, and medical benefits.

         ¶6 In Reesor, the Montana Supreme Court found that this provision was effectively an age limitation on PPD benefits which was unconstitutional. Specifically, the Court held: "We conclude that the disparate treatment of partially disabled claimants based upon their age, because they are receiving or are eligible to receive social security retirement benefits, is not rationally related to that legitimate governmental interest." Id., ΒΆ 19. Obviously, this Court is bound by Montana Supreme Court precedent. ...


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