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Colorado’s workers compensation requirement might be unconstitutional, at least in part?

An interesting case is winding its way through the Colorado courts.

In Colorado employers of three or more must carry workers compensation insurance. In this case, the employer employed typically between two and four individuals. It failed to carry workers compensation insurance for three different periods of time. When that came to the attention of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the company was fined a whopping $841,200.

The company fired back by challenging the constitutionality of the state’s fines. The fines were issued pursuant to the formulas in Colorado workers compensation laws, CRS 8-43-409(1)(b) and Rule 3-6(D), 7 CCR 1101-3. The company, nonetheless, contends that the fines are “excessive” and therefore in violation of the United States Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

In this decision, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the company might have a case. The court first held that the Eighth Amendment does apply to and protects corporations from excessive governmental fines, not just individuals. Next, the Court outlined the test for analyzing whether a fine is “excessive,” in other words, prohibited. Then the Court remanded the case for further consideration by the Court of Appeals under this new test.

In sum, we hold that the Eighth Amendment does protect corporations from punitive fines that are excessive. The appropriate test to apply in assessing whether a regulatory fine violates the Excessive Fines Clause is the “gross disproportionality” test. In assessing proportionality, a court should consider whether the gravity of the offense is proportional to the severity of the penalty, considering whether the fine is harsher than fines for comparable offenses in this jurisdiction or than fines for the same offense in other jurisdictions. In considering the severity of the penalty, the ability of the regulated individual or entity to pay is a relevant consideration. And the proportionality analysis should be conducted in reference to the amount of the fine imposed for each offense, not the aggregated total of fines for many offenses.

Will the company win under this new approach? It’s too soon to tell. Interested readers will want to follow this case as it continues to be litigated.

Source: Colorado Department of Labor and Employment v. Dani Hospitality, LLC, case no. 17SC200 (Colo. 6/3/19).