U.S. v. Washington: A rock, paper, scissors theory of federal preemption of workers’ comp. laws?

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Summary: When it comes to the interaction of federal law and workers’ compensation, federal laws invoking national security are the rock that crushes state law scissors, but federal laws regulating the domestic economy more are more like paper which cut get by scissors.

The Supreme Court stuck to intergovernmental immunity and stuck it to ill workers at the Hanford nuclear site in eastern Washington state.

In a 9-0 decision written by now retired Justice Stephen Breyer the court held in United States v. Washington, that Washington state could not enact a presumption of compensability under their state workers’ compensation act for workers made ill at the Hanford nuclear site. The court ruled that the presumption unlawfully discriminated against the federal government.

For 30 years the Department of Defense and Department of Energy produced plutonium for nuclear weapons at the Hanford site. The state of Washington passed legislation to make it easier for workers at that site to collect workers’ compensation benefits under their state law. The federal government challenged the law. Ultimately the court relied on the landmark case of McCulloch v. Maryland to hold that Washington’s law impermissibly discriminated against the federal government.

A decision of limited impact?

Justice Breyer’s opinion included no discussion of the merits of presumptions in workers’ compensation or the substance of workers’ compensation laws at all. I was somewhat concerned about where such discussion could lead. The United States Supreme Court had addressed workplace injuries cases involving nuclear plants in the Goodyear Atomic and Silkwood cases.

In both cases the court had rejected arguments from employers that certain workers’ compensation laws and tort laws were impermissible state regulations of an industry that was the regulatory responsibility of the federal government. But there were dissents in both Silkwood and General Atomics that would imply presumptions of compensability would be impermissible burdens on the federal government Fortunately, for worker-advocates, those dissenting opinions weren’t addressed by the court – even in a dissenting opinion.

An outlier decision?

I believe United States v. Washington is an outlier when it comes to the interaction of workers’ compensation laws and federal laws. Recently, the court declined to hear a Minnesota case that would have resolved the issue of whether states can require insurers to pay for medical marijuana. Marijuana is illegal under federal law and many states believe that law preempts state’s from requiring it to be covered under workers’ compensation laws.

Last year the court also declined to resolve a conflict between states and federal circuits as to whether the federal Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) preempted state laws requiring air ambulances charges to be paid at discounted rates under state workers’ compensation laws.  The court also declined to hear challenge under the ADA from airlines against a Washington state law requiring paid leave for airline workers.

So why did the Supreme Court take up the Hanford case? I believe because of the national security implications of the case.

Federal supremacy and national security

Though Justice Breyer didn’t expressly mention national security in his opinion in United States v. Washington, the federal government clearly alluded to it in their brief.  The federal government brought up Hanford’s role in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.

Interestingly enough, in his last reported decision as a Supreme Court justice, Breyer penned the majority opinion in Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety. In that case, a 5-4 majority held that states did not have sovereign immunity from private suits under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

In Torres, Breyer wrote that the authority of Congress to build and maintain the armed forces under Article I, Sec. 10 of the Constitution overrode state sovereign immunity when it comes to suits against states under USERRA.

Though Torres and United States v. Washington lead to opposite outcomes for the employees involved in the case, they both demonstrated how the “rock” of national security beats the “scissors” of state sovereignty when it comes to the Supremacy Clause. Recent Supreme Court decisions relating to the interaction between workers’ compensation law and federal law regulating the domestic economy, show that those federal interests are more like “paper” which gets cut by scissors.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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