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Workers comp arguments will begin today

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The New Mexico Supreme Court is expecting a full house for oral arguments today on a hotly disputed question: Is the exclusion of farm and ranch workers from the Workers Compensation Act unconstitutional?

The Court of Appeals and a District Court judge in Albuquerque both have ruled that is unconstitutional because it treats similar groups in different ways.

The high court agreed to review the decision, and three entities besides the actual parties have stepped in to file friend-of-the-court briefs – the Workers Compensation Administration, New Mexico Trial Lawyers and the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau. Attorneys for those groups will be allowed time to argue along with lawyers for Noe Rodriguez and Maria Aguirre, workers injured on the job but denied coverage for their injuries. That means the arguments could easily take two hours in the small, historic courtroom that typically sees few visitors.

Supreme Court Clerk Joey Moya is arranging for overflow seating elsewhere in the building where spectators can watch the argument by video link.

Rodriguez sustained a traumatic brain injury, neck injury and facial disfigurement after being kicked by a cow and sued Brand West Dairy. Aguirre, who slipped picking chiles in a muddy field, sued M.A. & Sons Chili Products and the Food Industry Self Insurance Fund of New Mexico.

The workers, both injured in 2012, are represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which litigated an earlier case challenging the farm workers’ exception and won a declaratory judgment from 2nd Judicial District Judge Valerie Huling that the exclusion is unconstitutional. That case went back to the Workers Compensation Administration and was not reviewed by an appellate court.

In the Rodriguez case, employers urge reversal of the appeals court ruling, especially the court’s decision to make it apply retroactively to the date in 2012 when Huling’s ruling was effective.

Workers compensation would be impractical to administer to an itinerant workforce, they say, as well as an additional cost burden that would affect the most vulnerable small-scale farmers the most. And the Legislature spoke clearly and unambiguously when it created the farm and ranch workers exemption in 1937.

The farm and livestock bureau brief contends state agricultural economists put a price tag of $85 million total – $14.6 million to primary crops, $11.5 million to the beef and cattle industry and almost $60 million to the dairy industry. Government controls on agricultural prices make it hard to pass on extra costs to customers, the bureau says. It also claims potential harm to the unique culture of New Mexico’s small farms.

Rodriguez’s lawyers dispute the farm bureau price tag and say there is no firm legal rationale for denying coverage to farm and ranch workers. There’s no real difference between workers who fall under the farm and ranch exception and others, their briefing says, and the cost of workers compensation coverage doesn’t justify unequal treatment.

The farm bureau’s statistics about small farms’ low income levels are “irrelevant since small farms will not be impacted.” The vast majority of the state’s 24,721 farms will continue to be exempt because they have fewer than three employees, according to the Center on Law and Poverty.

Trial lawyers say the case is, at its core, “about the sanctity of the rule of law.” They say the Workers Compensation Administration is bound by Huling’s ruling in the earlier case.

The Workers Compensation Administration contends the Court of Appeals improperly extended jurisdiction of that agency to agricultural employers without the affected employers being party to the case before Huling.