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A few days ago, we reported on the recent case of Nora Clower v. CVS Caremark, in which the Circuit Court of Jefferson County entered an order declaring The Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act unconstitutional. My initial knee-jerk reaction, like the reaction of many others, was that it would have state-wide implications on workers’ compensation law in Alabama. The sky was falling, and the workers’ compensation system as we know it just came to a screeching halt. However, spending a lot of time pouring over the order, the background of the case, and applicable Alabama law, I now have amuch different take on it.
For starters, I think it’s important to give a little more of the relevant background of the case. Clower filed her Complaint on November 20, 2013. In her Complaint, she alleged only a workers’ compensation claim arising out of an alleged accident occurring in and arising out of her employment with CVS on June 30, 2013. Clower did not allege any tort claims against CVS in her original Complaint, and she did not subsequently amend her Complaint to add any other claims against CVS. This is significant, because, ostensibly, if The Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act were to be struck down, the exclusivity provisions of the Act would go down with it.
Next, it’s important to understand that the Court’s May 8, 2017 order declaring the Act unconstitutional did not just come out of the clear blue sky. That order was the Court’s ruling on Clower’s "Motion for Relief: Constitutional Challenge to Two Statutes". Clower filed that motion on January 31, 2017, and CVS filed its response to that motion on February 10, 2017. When Clower filed her motion, she directed it to be served upon Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who was at that time serving his final days as the A.G. The Alabama Declaratory Judgment Act requires, among other things, that when the constitutionality of a statute is challenged, the Attorney General must be served with the pleading which raises the challenge, so that he has an opportunity to defend the statute in question.
As you may recall, then-Senator Jeff Sessions was nominated for the position of United States Attorney General by President-elect Donald Trump shortly after the November election. Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Sessions’ nomination began on January 10, 2017, and Sessions was confirmed on February 8, 2017. Of course Sessions had to immediately resign his Senate seat, and none other than Attorney General Luther Strange was then appointed to take Sessions’ place, on February 9, 2017, thus leaving the Alabama Attorney General position temporarily vacant. Three days later, Steve Marshall was sworn in as the new Alabama Attorney General. Needless to say, there wasjust a little bit of chaos at the Alabama Attorney General’s office between the time Clower filed her motion on January 31 and April 25, when Marshall was finally served with Clower’s motion.
The most important factor in the ultimate implications of the Circuit Court’s decision, however, lies in Alabama Code § 6-6-227. That section, which is part of the Alabama Declaratory Judgment Act, provides in its pertinent part:
"All persons shall be made parties who have, or claim, any interest which would be affected by the declaration, and no declaration shall prejudice the rights of persons not parties to the proceeding..."
In other words, when a party is seeking a declaration of law, such as a declaration by the court that a particular statute is unconstitutional, everyone whose interests would be affected by the declaration must be made a party. In the event that doesn’t happen, the declaration shall not prejudice the rights of anyone who is not a party to the action. InGuy v. Southwest Alabama Council on Alcoholism, 475 So.2d 1190 (Ala.Civ.App. 1985), the Alabama Court of Appeals held that when a party challenges the constitutionality of any provision of The Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act, the provisions of The Alabama Declaratory Judgment Act are triggered. That means that Clower’s motion triggered § 6-6-227. Yet, the only parties to the action are Clower and CVS Caremark. Yes, Steve Marshall was served with the motion, and yes Marshall declined to defend the Act (whether that was due to the curious timing of the motion, or some other reason). However, that does not change the fact that the only parties that would be affected by the Circuit Court’s recent ruling are Clower and CVS Caremark. In any other court, in any other county, involving any other parties, The Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act is still constitutional. The only way that would ever change isif CVS appeals the Circuit Court’s ruling, and the appellate court(s) affirm the Circuit Court.
It may seem like a foregone conclusion that CVS will appeal. I mean, surely CVS Caremark will appeal to avoid the possibility of facing tort liability, right? They may not. Since Clower only alleged a workers’ compensation claim, she would have to amend her Complaint in order to sue CVS in tort. The problem for Clower though, is that every conceivable statute of limitations for any tort claims against CVS have long since expired. If she ever had a viable tort claim against CVS, she can no longer bring such a claim, because it would be time-barred. Additionally, it is possible that Clower could now be judicially estopped from arguing that she is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. In other words, if the Circuit Court’s order becomes final and is never overturned by the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court, Clower could conceivably recovernothing from CVS.
Whether you believe CVS will appeal or not appeal, it should be interesting to see how this plays out in the next 4 months.
About the Author
This article was written by Charley M. Drummond, Esq. of Fish Nelson & Holden, LLC. Fish Nelson & Holden is a law firm located in Birmingham, Alabama dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation cases and related liability matters. Drummond and his firm are members of The National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network (NWCDN). The NWCDN is a national and Canadian network of reputable law firms organized to provide employers and insurers access to the highest quality representation in workers’ compensation and related employer liability fields. If you have questions about this article or Alabama workers’ compensation issues in general, please feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or (205) 332-3414.