U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Washington workers' comp law for nuclear site

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A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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  • State's 2018 law applied to workers at federal nuclear site
  • Supreme Court said law discriminated against federal government

(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday said the state of Washington could not in a 2018 law lower the bar for federal contractors who work at a decomissioned nuclear weapons plant to receive workers' compensation benefits.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the unanimous court that the state could not single out the Hanford, Washington facility in the law because the federal government had not explicitly waived its typical immunity from discriminatory state laws with respect to workers' compensation.

The law created a presumption that certain medical conditions of workers at the U.S. Department of Energy facility were caused by their employment there, making it easier for them to qualify for workers' compensation benefits.

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Washington passed the law after news reports revealed that dozens of workers at the Hanford, Washington nuclear facility had become ill and were denied workers' compensation because of their status as federal contractors.

The Hanford site was used to manufacture weapons-grade plutonium from 1944 to 1989 and cleanup operations are expected to last another six decades.

Federal law permits states to extend their generally applicable workers' compensation laws to federal contractors who work within their borders.

But the government in its challenge to Washington's law said that did not mean states could pass workers' compensation laws singling out specific federal facilities.

A federal judge in Seattle disagreed and dismissed the lawsuit, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year affirmed. The appeals court said the federal government had waived its typical immunity from discriminatory state laws by allowing states to apply workers' compensation requirements to federal sites.

But the Supreme Court on Tuesday said that waiver must be clear and unambiguous, and it was not in the federal law involving workers' compensation.

Earlier this year, Washington amended its law to apply more broadly to any employee at a nuclear waste site. The court on Tuesday said those changes did not moot the case, because the federal government can still seek to recoup money it paid out under the original law.

In a statement, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, said the ruling will have little practical impact because of the recent amendments to the law.

“Hanford workers, and all others working with dangerous radioactive waste, remain protected," Ferguson said.

The case is United States v. Washington, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 21-404.

For DOJ: Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar

For Washington: Noah Purcell of the Washington Attorney General's office

Read more:

SCOTUS will review Wash. workers' comp law for federal contractors

IN BRIEF: State can ease workers’ comp burden for nuke site’s fed contractors – 9th Circ.

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.