Mary Ann (Andrade) Williams, whose claim for stress-related mental injuries was denied by the Alaska Workers' Compensation Board (Board), argues that AS 23.30.120(c) and AS 23.30.265(17) are unconstitutional.
II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
Williams, who had held other state jobs since 1974, began working for the State of Alaska, Child Support Enforcement Division (CSED) in 1977. She was a clerk for CSED until 1979, when she was promoted to Child Support Enforcement Officer I. She became a supervisor with the title of Child Support Enforcement Officer II in 1980. Her general duties included preparing intrastate paternity orders and Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement Support Act cases, supervising a team of four people, reviewing case files, distributing the work load to typists, taking telephone calls, preparing affidavits, calculating AFDC arrearages, and meeting walk-in clients.
She became the only paternity establishment officer when a paternity unit was added to CSED in 1987. Williams coordinated paternity establishment, set up blood testing throughout the state, arranged travel and accommodations for clients, and dealt with problem clients who were having blood drawn.
In April 1990 Williams was told that her team needed to file paternity complaints in all its cases by October 1, 1990, to comply with the Family Support Act of 1988. There were approximately 2,400 to 2,600 such cases. Williams testified she found it difficult and stressful to file the required complaints as requested and complete her other work. She also testified that the absence of clerical support staff, the inadequacy of the physical work environment, and the perceived lack of management support created stress for Williams.
Beginning in 1974, Williams sought treatment for gastrointestinal problems, chronic stress anxiety, chronic fatigue, depression, and other problems. During the following years, Williams saw a number of doctors and psychologists. She claimed she felt disoriented, unable to concentrate, very warm, not able to get enough air, panicked, and helpless. She had those feelings primarily while working, however, before quitting her employment in July 1990, she also began to feel that way when not working. She testified, "It had gotten to the point that I was having problems making everyday decisions. As far as putting things into priority order, I just felt overwhelmed. I just would become very anxious."
Williams experienced stress in her personal life as well. In late 1986 her son was arrested for transporting cocaine. In the first half of 1987, her brother-in-law and mother died. Her son and daughter-in-law divorced in late 1986 and engaged in a painful child custody battle. Her daughter-in-law was awarded shared custody of Williams' granddaughter, and moved out of state in 1988. Williams also experienced stress in her relationship with her husband.
In late March 1990 Williams committed to leave state service. She testified that she had decided retirement was "probably the only option that I had. Because I knew I was not going to be able... to stay in the system that much longer."
In April 1990 Williams requested removal from the general CSED work force (supervising and public contact) and asked to work on a special project part time until her October 1990 intended retirement date. She apparently worked on the special project, but
Williams retired under the state's Retirement Incentive Program (RIP) on July 2, 1990. Three days later, she filed a report of occupational injury or illness with the Board, claiming that numerous stress-related physical and mental injuries arose from her employment.
The State controverted Williams' claim, asserting she had not suffered a compensable injury or illness arising out of and in the course of her employment. Williams applied for adjustment of claim, claiming temporary total disability benefits from July 2, 1990, when she retired, permanent partial disability benefits, medical costs, transportation costs, vocational rehabilitation benefits, interest, attorney's fees and litigation costs. Following hearing, the Board dismissed all of her claims.
Williams appealed to the superior court. Alaska R.App.P. 602. The court rejected Williams' claim that AS 23.30.120(c) and AS 23.30.265(17) were unconstitutional and affirmed the Board's denial of benefits for the mental injury claim. The court remanded Williams' physical injury claim for reconsideration or factual findings by the Board.
Before this court Williams argues that the statutes are unconstitutional, and that it was error to affirm the denial of her stress-related mental injury claim.
In 1988 the legislature enacted comprehensive changes to the existing Alaska Workers' Compensation Act (Act). In part, those amendments altered the definition of "injury" with respect to mental injuries caused by work-related mental stress. AS 23.30.265(17).
The 1988 amendments also eliminated the presumption of compensability for stress-induced mental injury claims. AS 23.30.120.
A. Substantive Due Process
Williams argues that when we addressed mental stress claims before the Act was amended in 1988, we rejected for mental
In Fox I, the injured employee suffered a mental disability due to non-traumatic gradual work-related stress. The Board required her to show that her stress was greater than the stress which all employees experienced. Fox I, 718 P.2d at 980. We stated:
Id. at 980-81 (quoting Sara J. Sersland, Mental Disability Caused by Mental Stress: Standards of Proof in Workers' Compensation Cases, 33 Drake L.Rev. 751, 752 (1983-84)). We stated that "[i]t is this inherent difficulty in proving causation that has led courts in many jurisdictions to impose additional definitional limits on the compensability of mental injury caused by mental stress by looking `objectively' at the type and/or degree of the stress." Id. at 981. However, we rejected the "extraordinary and unusual" test as "neither essential nor even germane to the legislative requirement that the injury `arise out of' the employment."
In Fox v. Alascom, Inc., 783 P.2d 1154 (Alaska 1989) (Fox II), we acknowledged that the "legislature overruled this court's decision on this issue by passing legislation creating substantially greater requirements for obtaining compensation for mental injury caused by mental stress than for other injuries."
In Municipality of Anchorage v. Leigh, 823 P.2d 1241 (Alaska 1992), we described the analytical process for determining whether a workers' compensation statute violates substantive due process.
Id. at 1244 (quoting Concerned Citizens of South Kenai Peninsula v. Kenai Peninsula Borough, 527 P.2d 447, 452 (Alaska 1974)).
The legislature's intent in enacting the stress-induced mental injury amendments is clear. Section 1 of the 1988 session law amending the Act provides:
Ch. 79, § 1, SLA 1988. The legislature made a rational policy decision when it enacted the amendments adopting an objective standard to determine whether mental injuries are compensable. While both physical and mental injuries are real phenomena and very important to those who suffer from them, the two maladies are inherently different in ways that justify differential treatment. It is generally easier to verify the existence of a physical injury than a mental injury. Physical injuries are often verifiable either empirically or with diagnostic tests. In contrast, mental injuries are more difficult to verify because the patient's description of his or her condition is often the sole basis for a physician's diagnosis. Consequently, the difficulty in proving the existence of such an injury makes mental injury claims more susceptible to fraud and abuse. In an attempt "to ensure the quick, efficient, fair, and predictable delivery" of medical benefits to injured workers, and to prevent fraud and abuse, thereby reducing costs to employers, the legislature, by enacting the 1988 amendment, removed the presumption of compensability for mental injuries and enacted the "extraordinary and unusual" test.
Williams fails to meet her heavy burden of demonstrating that no reasonable basis exists for those amendments. Thus she fails to demonstrate that the statutes deprive her of substantive due process.
B. Equal Protection
Williams claims that these two statutes arbitrarily distinguish between physically injured and mentally injured workers, violating her rights of equal protection under the state and federal constitutions. This claim substantially overlaps her claim that these provisions violate substantive due process. See Leigh, 823 P.2d at 1247 n. 15. For the reasons stated in the discussion of Williams' substantive due process claims, we conclude that the definition of "injury" and the withdrawal of the presumption for stress-related mental injuries do not violate equal protection. In addition, a traditional equal protection analysis demonstrates how Williams fails to show an equal protection violation.
Alaska's equal protection clause may be more protective of individual rights than the federal equal protection clause. Gilmore v. Alaska Workers' Compensation Board, 882 P.2d 922, 926 (Alaska 1994); State v. Cosio, 858 P.2d 621, 629 (Alaska 1993); State v. Anthony, 810 P.2d 155, 157 (Alaska 1991) (citing Sonneman v. Knight, 790 P.2d 702, 706 (Alaska 1990)). In analyzing equal protection issues under the Alaska Constitution, we have rejected the traditional two-tiered federal approach in favor of a more flexible "sliding scale" test. State v. Erickson, 574 P.2d 1, 11-12 (Alaska 1978).
Alaska Pacific Assurance Co. v. Brown, 687 P.2d 264, 269-70 (Alaska 1984). See also Sonneman, 790 P.2d at 704.
Workers' compensation benefits are merely an economic interest,
Williams argues that the distinction the statute draws between physical injuries and stress-related mental injuries is not sufficiently related to the state's goals. To prevail against that claim, the state need only show that the distinction bears a fair and substantial relationship to the Act's objective.
The distinction between physically injured workers and workers with stress-related mental injuries is substantially related to the state's goal of efficiently and fairly distributing benefits while cutting costs for employers.
C. Procedural Due Process
Williams also claims AS 23.30.265(17) deprives her of procedural due process because it is vague.
We consider three factors when reviewing criminal statutes to determine whether they are void for vagueness.
Id. (quoting Holton v. State, 602 P.2d 1228, 1235-36 (Alaska 1979)).
These factors obviously have little or nothing to do with the present case. First Amendment rights are not involved, the statutes in question prohibit no conduct; and the statutes give rise to neither prosecutorial action in a criminal context nor a civil enforcement action where a litigant may be at risk of losing an important right because the litigant's conduct did not meet a certain standard.
The challenged "extraordinary and unusual ... pressures and tensions" language readily satisfies this test. The language is no more general than numerous other terms which have survived void for vagueness challenges. See, e.g., Coghill, 836 P.2d at 929 ("good
In Village of Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates, Inc., 455 U.S. 489, 102 S.Ct. 1186, 71 L.Ed.2d 362 (1982), the United States Supreme Court stated that a lower degree of exactitude is required for civil than criminal statutes. The Court said:
Id. at 498, 102 S.Ct. at 1193 (footnotes omitted).
Another state court considered a due process vagueness challenge to a similar workers' compensation statute regarding physical stress. In Benoit v. Maco Manufacturing, 633 So.2d 1301 (La. App. 1994), the employee argued that the statute requiring "the physical work stress [to be] extraordinary and unusual in comparison to the stress or exertion experienced by the average employee in that occupation" is so vague as to be incapable of interpretation, and thus constituted a denial of due process. Id. at 1305. Specifically, the employee complained that "average worker" was not defined, and therefore it was impossible to compare stress to the average worker. Id. The Louisiana Court of Appeal stated that "the term `average worker' takes its literal meaning, namely a worker who is `not out of the ordinary.'" Id. (quoting Webster, New Collegiate Dictionary (1981)). Thus, the court held that this term was not so vague as to deny due process because it is clear and unambiguous, requiring no further interpretation for its application and enforcement. Id. Additionally, the court stated that "the test, to determine if the physical stress is extraordinary, is to view the plaintiff's activities as compared to the average worker in his employment and not to just look at the plaintiff's day-to-day activities." Id.
Williams does not contend that the Board has engaged in arbitrary or selective determinations of what constitutes stress-related mental injury, nor does the record contain any such evidence. Moreover, the statutory definition of stress-related injury does not allow the Board undue discretion in determining what constitutes such an injury. While the phrase, "the work stress was extraordinary and unusual," may appear vague at first glance, a closer reading of the statute supplies specific clarifying information. First, whether the employee's work stress was extraordinary and unusual must be viewed in comparison to pressures and tensions experienced by others in a comparable work environment. AS 23.30.265(17). Next, the work stress must be the predominant cause of the mental injury. Id. Additionally, the amount of an employee's work stress is measured by actual events. Id. Finally, the statute lists specific situations in which a mental injury is not considered to arise out of employment.
While the statute must necessarily address the subject broadly because every employee's condition is different, it provides specific information on how to determine whether a stress related mental injury is in fact compensable under the Act. It thus has meaning in itself and through the process of adjudication this meaning will be enhanced. There will, of course, always be borderline and difficult cases, but these are a constant whenever a general standard is applied. We conclude that AS 23.30.265(17) is not void for
We hold that AS 23.30.120(c) and AS 23.30.265(17) are constitutional. We AFFIRM the superior court's resolution of the constitutional issues.
Exercising our discretion, we treat this matter as a petition for review and consider only the constitutional questions. See, e.g., Thibodeau, 595 P.2d at 631; Leege v. Strand, 384 P.2d 665, 666-67 (Alaska 1963); see also Alaska R.App.P. 402(b)(2) (providing that a petition for review may be granted when the "order or decision involves a controlling question of law on which there is a substantial ground for difference of opinion, and an immediate review of the order may materially advance the termination of the proceeding in the other forum").
1988 Senate Journal 2420.
We have upheld Alaska's workers' compensation scheme against an equal protection challenge under the Alaska Constitution as having a "rational basis — even under the `less speculative, less deferential, more intensified means-to-ends' application of that test." Arctic Structures, Inc. v. Wedmore, 605 P.2d 426, 438 n. 41 (Alaska 1979) (quoting Wright v. Action Vending Co., 544 P.2d 82, 87 (Alaska 1975) (footnote omitted)).