Garfield County, Kane County and State of Utah v United States and southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

The United States District Court for the district of Utah certified a question to the Court asking if Utah Code 78B-2-201(1) is a statute of repose or a statue of limitations noting the answer may resolve some 12,000 claims of rights of way currently pending in federal court. The Court, 3-2, held 201(1) operates as a statute of limitations in the circumstances of these right of way claims. The majority first held that the certified question should be answered assuming that the United States was a  “person” under 201(1), noting that eh answer will still leave application to the federal courts in live cases and thus the answer will not be an advisory opinion.  It held 201(1) and its predecessor provisions are clearly statue of repose under their plain language as they set a seven-year limit on bringing suit and trigger the running of that period on the state obtaining right or title not when a cause of action accrues. However, the majority applied the absurdity doctrine to apply 201(1) as a statute of limitation as the federal law in question, R.S. 2477 was enacted in 1866 but, there was no judicial or legislative method to asset right of way interests before 1972 and no rights before the federal quiet title act of 1965 could have been asserted and this outcome could not possible have been intended by Utah legislators when they passed 201(1) and its predecessors particularly as the United States can refuse to dispute title and thus allow the repose clock to run leaving Utah with no means of enforcing its rights. It rejected the dissent’s counter arguments holding absurdity doctrine applies even to laws on the books for decades and this is the first time the issue has been presented to the court and the dissent’s view of the absurdity doctrine is inconsistent with Utah precedent as it posits a legislature accepting a seven-year period of property ownership. It rejected arguments  of the United States and Alliance holding the power of federal officials to create new rights of ways is irrelevant to the issue of protecting rights under R.S. 2477 and the fact the United States does not currently interfere the orations of some 12,000 roads does not mean no interference will occur in the future. Judge Voros, sitting by designation, joined by Judge Toomey also sitting by designation, dissented arguing that the result declared absurd by the majority was in fact the law of the land for over a century, Utah had an administrative method to secure its right of way interest under the statute which replaced R.S. 2477 and judicial review was available if it disagreed with the outcome of a given application and, reaching an issue the majority declined to address, argued amendments added to 201 in 2015 do not change the outcome because they would impair the vested rights of the United States in the right of way land in question and they would allow the legislature to dictate the outcome of pending cases which is prohibited by separation of powers and finally argued that the United States is a person under 201(1) as the relevant definition in Utah code 68-3-12(2)(o) includes bodies politic and the federal government is a body politic.

Oliver v Labor Commission

Employer sought review of the Utah Court of Appeals decision reversing the Commission and awarding permanent disability benefits to Oliver. The Court, with Justice Lee concurring in judgment, reversed. The majority noted Utah Code 34A-2-413(1)(c) sets out six elements which a claimant must prove and held the court of Appeals erred in construing two of them. It held the Court of Appeals erred in reading the basic work activities element in 413(1)(c)(ii) to cover any limitation on ability to work however slight as this reading is contrary to the plain language or the statute when read  in context, would render at least two other elements superfluous, did not follow a 2015 Court precedent which declared the basic work activates to cover abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs and would lead to absurd consequences of occasional headaches and similar physical symptoms supporting permanent disability awards. The majority rejected justice lee’s argument that federal law should dictate the meaning of Utah disability law as the legislature decoupled the two bodies of law in 1995 and use different language to describe all the elements of the claim and further noted federal courts have abandoned textual analysis in disability claims to overcome policy concerns about how the program was being administered and those concerns and not present in Utah. It also noted the standard adopted here is consistent with the one that has been used by Commission for many years and thus is not “fuzzy” as charged by Justice Lee. Applying here, the majority held that Commission’s determination that Oliver could perform basic work activates was supported by substantial evidence including the opinions of an independent medical board and video evidence that Olivier could do manual labor consistent with medium duty work. It held the Court of Appeals also erred in analyzing the essential functions element in 413(1)(c)(iii) as the lack of evidence on the issue means Oliver, who bore the burden of proof, failed to prove it. The majority noted the burden on this element is low and can generally be initially satisfied by testimony that the only job claimant was qualified to perform was the job he had when injured. Justice Lee concurred in judgment based on the essential functions element analysis, but, argued the basic work activities standard set out by the majority is wrong because there are no modifiers to “limit’ in 413(1)(c)(ii), the 2015 precedent declared that Utah’s disability statute was drawn from federal disability law and thus he argued that the de minimus standard for “limit’ was also adopted particularly as the 2015 case said nothing on the issue, the change in language supports the de minumus standard as removing “substantial” from the text aligned Utah and federal law, the absurd consequence analysis is also wrong as the limit element merely screen frivolous claims out and other elements defeat claims like  those based on occasional headaches.

Quast v Labor Commission

Employer sought review of the Utah Court of Appeals decision reversing the Commission and awarding permanent disability benefits to Quast. The Court, 4-1, reversed. The majority held that Court of Appeals applied the wrong standard as explained in the Oliver decision and under the correct standard there was substantial evidence in support of Commission’s decision including medical evidence Quast could do light work, evidence she magnified her disabilities and evidence from a vocational rehabilitation specialist that there were jobs in Salt Lake City including housekeeping that Quast could perform. The majority also held Commission erred in placing the burden of proof on employer and the issue of whether or not Quast could perform other work as she bore that burden under the statute. Justice Lee dissented arguing the Oliver standard is wrong and that the case should be remanded for Commission to determine if the other work element was satisfied under the correct burden of proof assignment.