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(c) 2022 Jon L Gelman, All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

US Supreme Court Holds Washington State’s Workers’ Compensation Law Unconstitutional Under the Supremacy Clause

Washington’s workers’ compensation law discriminates against the Federal Government and its contractors. Because §3172 does not clearly and unambiguously waive the Federal Government’s immunity from discriminatory state laws, Washington’s law is unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause. 

Speaking for a unanimous Court, Justice Breyer stated, “The question before us is whether a Washington State workers’ compensation law falls within the scope of this congressional waiver. The state law, by its terms, applies only to federal workers who work at one federal facility in Washington. The law makes it easier for these workers to obtain workers’ compensation, thus raising workers’ compensation costs for the Federal Government. We conclude that the state law discriminates against the Federal Government and falls outside the scope of Congress’ waiver. We therefore hold that the law is unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause.”


Justices, US Supreme Court.
Credit: Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

In 2018, Washington enacted a workers’ compensation law that applied only to certain workers at a federal facility in the State who were “engaged in the performance of work, either directly or indirectly, for the United States.” Wash. Rev. Code §51.32.187(1)(b). The facility, known as the Hanford site, was once used by the Federal Government to develop and produce nuclear weapons and is now undergoing a complex decontamination process. 


Most workers involved in this cleanup process are federal contract workers—people employed by private companies under contract with the Federal Government. A smaller number of workers involved in the cleanup include State employees, private employees, and federal employees who work directly for the Federal Government. Compared to Washington’s general workers’ compensation scheme, the law makes it easier for federal contract workers at Hanford to establish their entitlement to workers’ compensation, thus increasing workers’ compensation costs for the Federal Government. 


The United States brought suit against Washington, arguing that Washington’s law violated the Supremacy Clause by discriminating against the Federal Government. The District Court concluded that the law was constitutional because it fell within the scope of a federal waiver of immunity contained in 40 U. S. C. §3172. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. 


Held: Washington’s law discriminates against the Federal Government and its contractors. Because §3172 does not clearly and unambiguously waive the Federal Government’s immunity from discriminatory state laws, Washington’s law is unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause. Pp. 3–11. (a) 


This case is not moot. After the Court granted certiorari, Washington enacted a new statute that changed the scope of the original law such that the workers’ compensation scheme no longer applied exclusively to Hanford site workers who work for the United States. But a case is not moot unless the Court can't grant any effectual relief. Mission Product Holdings, Inc. v. Tempnology, LLC, 587 U. S. ___, ___. 


The United States asserts that a ruling in its favor will allow it to recoup or avoid paying millions of dollars in workers’ compensation claims. Washington disagrees, arguing that the new statute applies retroactively and is broad enough to encompass any lawsuit filed under the earlier law. 


But it is not the Court’s practice to interpret statutes in the first instance, Zivotofsky v. Clinton, 566 U. S. 189, 201, nor does the Court know how Washington’s state courts will interpret the new law. It is thus not impossible for the United States to recover money if the Court rules in its favor and the case is not moot. Pp. 3–4. (b) Since McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, this Court has interpreted the Supremacy Clause as prohibiting States from interfering with or controlling the operations of the Federal Government. 


This constitutional doctrine—often called the intergovernmental immunity doctrine—has evolved to bar state laws that either regulate the United States directly or discriminate against the Federal Government or its contractors. A state law discriminates against the Federal Government or its contractors if it “single[s them] out” for less favorable “treatment” Washington v. United States, 460 U. S. 536, 546, or if it regulates them unfavorably on some basis related to their governmental “status,” North Dakota v. United States, 495 U. S. 423, 438 (plurality opinion). 


Washington’s law violates these principles by singling out the Federal Government for unfavorable treatment. The law treats federal workers differently than state or private workers and imposes costs upon the Federal Government that state and private entities do not bear. The law thus violates the Supremacy Clause unless Congress has consented to such regulation through the waiver. Pp. 4–6. (c) 


Congress waives the Federal Government’s immunity “only when and to the extent there is a clear congressional mandate.” Hancock v. Train, 426 U. S. 167, 179. Washington argues that Congress has waived federal immunity from state workers’ compensation laws on federal lands and projects through §3172(a). 


Section 3172(a) says that “[t]he state authority charged with enforcing and requiring compliance with the state workers’ compensation laws . . . may apply [those] laws to all land and premises in the State which the Federal Government owns,” as well as “to all projects, buildings, constructions, improvements, and property in the State and belonging to the Government, in the same way, and to the same extent as if the premises were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State.” 


Washington reads the statute’s language broadly to effectuate a complete waiver of intergovernmental immunity as to all workers’ compensation laws on federal lands and projects, including workers’ compensation laws that discriminate against the Federal Government. 


But one can reasonably read the statute as containing a narrower waiver of immunity, namely, as only authorizing a State to extend its generally applicable state workers’ compensation laws to federal lands and projects within the State. Section 3172’s waiver thus does not “clear[ly] and unambiguous[ly]” authorize a State to enact a discriminatory law that facially singles out the Federal Government for unfavorable treatment. Goodyear Atomic Corp. v. Miller, 486 U. S. 174, 180. Pp. 6–9. (d) 


Washington’s arguments to the contrary are unconvincing. Washington emphasizes that the waiver statute allows a State to apply its workers’ compensation laws to federal premises “as if the premises were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State.” §3172(a). But those words follow the phrase “in the same way and to the same extent” and, read together; the language could plausibly be interpreted to allow only the extension of generally applicable workers’ compensation laws to federal premises. 


The statute thus does not clearly and unambiguously permit the discrimination contained in Washington’s “federal workers only” law. Washington following points to other congressional waivers of intergovernmental immunity that explicitly maintain the constitutional prohibition on discriminatory state laws. But the fact that Congress more explicitly preserved the immunity in different contexts does not mean that Congress waived it in §3172(a). 


Finally, Washington relies on Goodyear Atomic, but that decision said nothing about laws—such as the one here—that explicitly discriminate against the Federal Government. If anything, statements from Goodyear Atomic tend to support, not undermine, the Court’s decision today. Pp. 9–11. 994 F. 3d 994, reversed and remanded. 



Click here to read more about the “supremacy clause” and “workers’ compensation.”


Click here to read more about Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.


Recommended Citation: Gelman, Jon L.,   US Supreme Court Holds Washington State’s Workers’ Compensation Law Unconstitutional Under the Supremacy Clause, Workers' Compensation Blog, June 22, 2022), https://workers-compensation.blogspot.com/2022/06/us-supreme-court-holds-washington.html


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Jon L. Gelman of Wayne, NJ, is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise, Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (Thomson-Reuters). For over five decades, the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman  1.973.696.7900  jon@gelmans.com  have represented injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.


Blog: Workers ' Compensation

Twitter: jongelman

LinkedIn: JonGelman

LinkedIn Group: Injured Workers Law & Advocacy Group

Author: "Workers' Compensation Law" Thomson-Reuters