Griego et al. v. WCA et al.; CV 2009-10130 (New Mexico’s Second Judicial District Court)
In New Mexico, a state district court judge recently ruled that it is unconstitutional to exclude farm and ranch laborers from the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act (“Act”). Despite the fact that agricultural occupations are consistently ranked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics among the most dangerous occupations in the nation, New Mexico’s Act, like many other states, excluded farm and ranch laborers from mandatory coverage.
In 2009 the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty brought a civil rights lawsuit under the New Mexico Constitution in state district court against the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration, alleging that the farm and ranch laborer exclusion (“exclusion”) was an unconstitutional denial of equal protection to New Mexico’s agricultural workers. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three dairy workers who were severely injured on New Mexican dairies in the scope and course of their employment, as well as two organizational plaintiffs who serve the New Mexican agricultural worker community. The plaintiffs sought injunctive and declaratory relief, as well as workers’ compensation coverage. They argued that the farm and ranch laborer exclusion creates a class of similarly situated individuals who are treated dissimilarly, and that this dissimilar treatment was not substantially related to an important government interest nor was there a rational basis for it.
The State provided two main justifications for the exclusion: 1) that providing workers’ compensation to farm workers would be administratively infeasible; and 2) that forcing agricultural employers to provide workers’ compensation would be economically devastating to those employers. The plaintiffs provided evidence that these purported reasons for the exclusion were not rational. In response to the first argument, plaintiffs presented evidence from several witnesses, including attorneys, insurance company representatives and state workers’ compensation agency representatives from large agricultural states, including Colorado, Arizona and California, showing that those states provide workers’ compensation to agricultural workers in the same way they cover all other workers. As to the economic impact argument, plaintiffs developed evidence to prove that the cost of covering agricultural workers would be less than 1 percent of the agricultural industry’s profit margin.
Additionally, the plaintiffs provided evidence that farm and ranch laborers are a “sensitive class” under the state equal protection clause, setting forth historical facts about the treatment of farm and ranch laborers over the past century, the retaliation they face when they complain about working conditions, and their current dangerous and difficult working conditions. Plaintiffs argued that there is no rational reason or any important government interest which justifies treating farm and ranch laborers differently from other workers for purposes of workers’ compensation and that the very purpose of the law—to get injured workers back to work quickly and efficiently—as well as the interests of the public, are best served by including farm and ranch workers in workers’ compensation.
In December of 2011, the state district court declared the exclusion unconstitutional, holding that there was no rational basis in the law for distinguishing agricultural workers from all other workers in the state. It is worth pointing out that New Mexico has a “heightened” rational basis test. Unlike in federal court, where the government simply needs to put forward a reason to justify discrimination, in New Mexico courts, the state’s purported reasons must be supported by evidence in the record. In other words, the state cannot just assert reasons for discriminating against a group; instead, the state must point to facts in the record to show that these reasons are legitimate. New Mexico’s heightened rational basis test is the reason the plaintiffs prevailed in this case.
The State has appealed whether a state district court judge has authority over the Workers’ Compensation Administration. New Mexico precedent, as well as general theories of constitutional law dating back to Marbury v. Madison, indicate that the district court does have this authority.
Agricultural exemptions from workers’ compensation laws are based on the antiquated notion that our country’s agricultural industry is made of up of small family farms. While 50 years ago this may have been the case, U.S. agriculture is now a highly industrialized industry that should have to follow the same labor laws as all other industries, particularly when their workforce is made up of low-income, vulnerable workers. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty hopes that this case serves as model litigation for other states who still have agricultural exclusions in their workers’ compensation statutes.
For more information please contact Maria Martinez Sanchez or Gail Evans at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty at (505) 255-2840.
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