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Comp commission to hear Dillard's employee injury claim appeal

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An appeal from an Oklahoma Dillard's Inc. employee over denied injury work benefits should be heard by the Oklahoma Worker's Compensation Commission, even though Dillard's has opted out of the state's workers compensations system, a federal court ruled this week.

Jonnie Yvonne Vasquez felt a “pop” in her neck while carrying shoe boxes in the shoe department of a Dillard's store in Shawnee, Oklahoma on Sept. 11, 2014, court records show. Soon afterward, she reported burning pain in her left shoulder, and was transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital.

Hospital physicians diagnosed Ms. Vasquez with an aggravation of a pre-existing injury, which court records show as being cervical spondylosis, or age-related deterioration of spinal discs in the neck.

Oklahoma's Employee Injury Benefit Act, effective Feb. 1, 2014, allows employers to opt out of Oklahoma's workers comp system if they provide alternative coverage for employees who are hurt on the job. Little Rock, Arkansas-based Dillard's has had an alternative benefit plan for the retailer's injured workers since Sept. 1, 2014, according to court filings.

Ms. Vasquez submitted claims to Dillard's for injury benefits on Sept. 11 and Sept. 24, 2014, and Dillard's denied both of those claims in part based on her pre-existing condition diagnosis, records show.

Ms. Vasquez appealed Dillard's benefit determination to the Oklahoma workers comp commission, based on appeal procedures outlined in the Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act, records show. But Dillard's argued that the workers comp commission should not have jurisdiction over its benefit determination since Ms. Vasquez's claim did not arise out of Oklahoma workers comp laws.

Further, Dillard's contended in court filings that the Oklahoma workers comp commission should not decide disputes over the retailer's benefit plan since Oklahoma alternative benefit plans are governed under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The retailer argued that the federal statute should preempt Oklahoma law.

However, the U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City ruled Wednesday that the Oklahoma workers comp commission should consider Ms. Vasquez's benefit appeal. The court found that the Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act states injured employees of nonsubscribing Oklahoma employers can appeal benefit determinations to an en banc panel of the Oklahoma workers comp commission.

The court also noted that Oklahoma case law from this year showed that while the Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act allows employers to opt-out of the state's workers comp system, the still law has ties to Oklahoma's workers comp law.

While “the employer might well be a qualified employer, the action nonetheless arose under the workers' compensation laws of Oklahoma,” the ruling reads.

Ms. Vasquez's case was remanded to the Oklahoma workers comp commission for further proceedings.