An injured oil-field employee claims the state of Wyoming illegally interfered with his right to marry because it included his wife's earnings when calculating his total income in denying him extended workers' compensation benefits.
The case will be watched closely by workers' compensation divisions across the country that use total income to determine benefits eligibility.
The issue arose from a contradictory series of state decisions under which Richard A. Johnson was awarded extended benefits, and then denied them because of his wife's earnings. He saw them reinstated but denied a second time.
When an administrative hearing examiner in July affirmed the state's most recent decision not to continue benefits, Johnson filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming.
George Santini, who represents Johnson and his wife, Ida, in their class-action suit against the state and various officials of the Wyoming Workers' Safety and Compensation Division, argued the denial is unconstitutional because, "effectively, the state is saying that if Johnson's wife earns x, then her husband can't have benefits."
The attorney said this kind of situation could prompt a woman to earn whatever she wants "and just not be married."
"This creates marital discord and interferes with Johnson's right to marry, which is a violation of the 14th Amendment," he said.
The 14th Amendment prohibits any state from making or enforcing a law that "shall abridge the privileges" of any citizen, or deprives "any person of life, liberty or property."
Santini's argument is that the policy pursued by the WSCD to include spousal income "impinges on both their rights to maintain their relations without undue pressure from an outside entity" that says they need to separate.
The lawsuit stems from a 1984 oil-field accident that left Johnson with severe back injuries. In 1989, as a result of those injuries, he was declared by the Social Security Administration to be permanently, totally disabled. In 1993, he was awarded permanent total disability benefits under the state workers' comp act.
That same year, the Wyoming Legislature renewed a 1986 law that said a hearing officer, in determining eligibility, should consider "the income of the employee from all sources including active or passive income, household income and any monthly amount from any government agency."
However, that statute wasn't applied until 1997, when the WSCD issued a proposed rule that incorporated the "all sources" requirement.
Following a public hearing at which outraged workers accused the agency of being anti-family and Johnson said the rule punished his wife, the division dropped the rule. In a sharply contested hearing in 1998, Johnson again was awarded extended benefits, backdated.
He continued to receive the extended benefits until September 2005, when a WSCD claims analyst, invoking the 1993 law, denied the benefits on the basis of total income.
That decision was upheld by the hearing examiner, who noted Johnson's total monthly income was $4,863.17--$1,076 from Johnson's Social Security payments and $3,767 from his wife's earnings--too high for extended benefits.
Court documents show Johnson, 48, who lives in Utah, hasn't worked since his injury and underwent eight back surgeries.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare the 1993 law unconstitutional, reinstate the extended PTD benefits and award unspecified damages.
September 15, 2006
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