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Decrow v. North Dakota Workforce Safety & Insurance Fund

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 31, 2017

Autumn DeCrow Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
North Dakota Workforce Safety & Insurance Fund Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: February 8, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of North Dakota - Bismarck

          Before LOKEN, COLLOTON, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          LOKEN, Circuit Judge.

         Autumn DeCrow ("DeCrow") is the widow of Deke DeCrow, a Colorado resident killed in a traffic accident while working in North Dakota. DeCrow filed for workers' compensation death benefits from the North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance Fund ("WSI") and from the Colorado Division of Workers' Compensation ("DWC"). DeCrow alleges that after Deke's employer contested her Colorado claim, denying workers' compensation liability, the Colorado DWC sent her a notice of her right to a hearing on the Colorado claim. In July 2012, WSI granted DeCrow's claim for North Dakota workers' compensation death benefits.

         In December 2014, DeCrow filed this declaratory judgment action in the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota, seeking a declaration that N.D.C.C. § 65-05-05(2) "is invalid and unenforceable" under the Due Process, Equal Protection, and Full Faith and Credit Clauses of the United States Constitution and therefore cannot be applied to suspend her North Dakota benefits while she seeks a hearing on her claim for Colorado benefits. The district court[1] granted WSI's motion for judgment on the pleadings, dismissing the substantive due process and the equal protection claims because there was a rational basis for N.D.C.C. § 65-05-05(2), [2] and dismissing the Full Faith and Credit Clause claim because the statute "merely purports to define the legal rights of a recipient of WSI benefits in North Dakota." DeCrow appeals the dismissal of all three claims. Reviewing de novo, we affirm. See Huffman v. Credit Union of Tex., 758 F.3d 963, 965 (8th Cir. 2014) (standard of review).

         I. The North Dakota and Colorado Statutory Regimes

         "The North Dakota workmen's compensation statutes provide an exclusive, compulsory, and comprehensive program designed to compensate workers for injuries received in the course of their employment. . . . [T]he Bureau [WSI's predecessor] serves as both the administrator and the insurance carrier." U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co. v. N.D. Workmen's Comp. Bureau, 275 N.W.2d 618, 620 (N.D. 1979). The provision at issue, N.D.C.C. § 65-05-05, "was intended to avoid a duplication of benefits [and] to compel the claimant to seek his remedy in one jurisdiction." Id. at 622 (quotation omitted). In 1979, § 65-05-05 simply provided, "Where the injury is sustained outside the state of North Dakota and compensation is claimed and received through some other state act no compensation shall be allowed under this title." Id. at 621 (emphasis added). The constitutionality of that provision was well established -- "the Full Faith and Credit Clause does not require a State to substitute for its own statute, applicable to persons and events within it, the statute of another State reflecting a conflicting and opposed policy." Carroll v. Lanza, 349 U.S. 408, 412 (1955), citing Pac. Emp'rs Ins. Co. v. Indus. Accident Comm'n, 306 U.S. 493, 502 (1939).

         In this case, DeCrow had claimed but not received Colorado workers' compensation benefits when WSI granted her claim for North Dakota benefits. N.D.C.C. § 65-05-05 as subsequently amended makes her nonetheless subject to its exclusivity principle. Subdivision 2 of the statute now provides:

2. If . . . any person seeking benefits because of the death of an employee, applies for benefits from another state for the same injury, [WSI] will suspend all future benefits pending resolution of the application. If . . . any person seeking benefits because of the death of an employee, is determined to be eligible for benefits through some other state act . . ., no further compensation may be allowed under this title and . . . any person seeking benefits because of the death of an employee, must reimburse [WSI] for the entire amount of benefits paid.

N.D.C.C. § 65-05-05(2). DeCrow alleges that the suspension provision effectively prevents her from seeking benefits under Colorado law, because she is financially dependent on receiving her North Dakota benefits.

         Colorado's workers' compensation statute did not adopt North Dakota's strict exclusivity principle. Rather, Colorado provides "supplemental" benefits to an eligible claimant who is receiving benefits for the same loss from another State:

In cases where it is determined that periodic death benefits granted by . . . a workers' compensation act of another state . . . are payable to an individual and the individual's dependents, the aggregate benefits payable for death pursuant to this section shall be reduced, but not ...

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