Eighth Circuit: North Dakota Need Not Substitute Colorado’s More Generous Death Benefits Rules for Claim Filed in the Peace Garden State

In a case of first impression, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a U.S. District Court decision that had dismissed a widow’s civil action seeking a declaration that N.D. Cent. Code § 65–05–05(2)(2013) was invalid and unenforceable under the Due Process, Equal Protection, and Full Faith and Credit Clauses of the United States Constitution and, therefore, could not be applied to suspend her North Dakota benefits while she sought a hearing on her claim for Colorado benefits [DeCrow v. North Dak. Workforce Safety & Ins. Fund, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 13877 (8th Cir., July 31, 2017)]. Citing Carroll v. Lanza, 349 U.S. 408, 412, 75 S. Ct. 804, 99 L. Ed. 1183 (1955), the 8th Circuit indicated that a State need not substitute the statutes of other states for its own statutes dealing with a subject matter concerning which it is competent to legislate.

Background

Autumn DeCrow is the widow of Deke DeCrow, a Colorado resident killed in a traffic accident while working in North Dakota. DeCrow sought workers’ compensation death benefits from the North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance Fund (“WSI”) and from the Colorado Division of Workers’ Compensation (“DWC”). The employer contested the Colorado claim, but the WSI granted DeCrow’s claim for North Dakota workers’ compensation death benefits in July 2012.

North Dakota & Colorado Statutes at Odds

N.D. Cent. Code § 65–05–05(2) provides that 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. Moreover, if the person seeking benefits is determined to be eligible for benefits through some other state act, no further compensation may be allowed under the North Dakota act, and the person seeking such other benefits must reimburse WSI for the entire amount of benefits paid.

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 [see Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8–42–114.4].

DeCrow alleged that North Dakota’s suspension provision effectively prevented her from seeking benefits under Colorado law, since she was financially dependent on receiving her North Dakota benefits.

Rational Basis

The 8th Circuit noted that the Supreme Court of North Dakota had earlier explained that the State’s statutory exclusivity policy was intended to avoid a duplication of benefits and to compel the claimant to seek his or her remedy in one jurisdiction. The 8th Circuit observed that the statute applied to all claims filed within the state. It added that the suspension and reimbursement statute satisfied the rational basis test.

Full Faith and Credit

As to the widow’s argument that North Dakota’s suspension provision violates North Dakota’s constitutional obligation to provide full faith and credit to Colorado’s death benefits provision, the 8th Circuit disagreed, essentially indicating that the shoe was on the other foot, since DeCrow was seeking to prevent North Dakota from applying its own statute to DeCrow’s claim for North Dakota benefits. North Dakota need not suborinate its policy to the more generous supplemental benefits policy of another State, Colorado.

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