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A worker who was injured at a tribal casino in New Mexico is not entitled to workers compensation benefits through the state, despite her employer’s lack of a comp program.
In Mendoza v. Isleta Resort & Casino, the Supreme Court of New Mexico unanimously dismissed a lawsuit Thursday brought by an injured custodian after holding that the New Mexico Workers Compensation Administration did not have jurisdiction of her comp claim.
Custodian Gloria Mendoza injured her knee while working at Isleta Resort & Casino, which is located on the Pueblo of Isleta. She filed a notice of injury and was told her claim was denied because she failed to report her injury within 24 hours.
She then filed a claim with the New Mexico Workers Compensation Administration, but because her injury occurred within the Pueblo’s sovereign jurisdiction, the administration dismissed the claim for lack of jurisdiction. However, the administration held a conference on the matter, in which a mediator determined in a non-binding decision that tribal code did not mention workers compensation as a part of its jurisdiction. The director recommended that the worker’s claim be considered compensable under the state’s Workers Compensation Act and said that the Pueblo’s third-party administrator was acting in bad faith. The casino and the TPA rejected the recommendation and filed a motion to dismiss, which was accepted.
Ms. Mendoza appealed to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, arguing that because the Pueblo had no workers compensation program in place the state program became the default. The appellate court reversed the decision and remanded it back to the administration for further proceedings.
The parties petitioned the Supreme Court of New Mexico for review, and it reversed the appellate court ruling. The Supreme Court held that although there was no definitive language shifting jurisdiction of comp claims from the Pueblo of Isleta to the state’s workers comp administration, there was also no evidence of intent by Pueblo to shift jurisdiction of those claims.
The court did not dispute the mediator’s finding that the Pueblo does not appear to have an operating workers compensation program but found that this deficiency did not permit the administration to exercise jurisdiction over Ms. Mendoza’s claim.
The supreme court held that the Pueblo’s sovereign status left the justices with “no means to make a tangible determination of prejudice” and dismissed the case with a warning that insurers should not presume “that a tribe’s involvement in a case will always necessitate dismissal.”