NM Supreme Court: Workers’ compensation caps for mental impairments are unconstitutional

SANTA FE, N.M. — The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled the caps on workers’ compensation for disabilities from mental impairments are unconstitutional.

Justices ruled that the state Workers’ Compensation Act treats secondary mental impairment claims differently than secondary physical impairment claims.

“Both mentally disabled workers and physically disabled workers are impaired in their capacities to perform work. A mental disability compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act affects workers in the same way as a compensable physical disability does by preventing them from earning a wage because of an on-the-job accident,” the Court wrote.

The ruling stems from a case involving Ana Lilia Cardenas. Cardenas is a special education teacher who injured her knee while working for Aztec Municipal Schools.

Workers can get 7-200 weeks of benefits for a scheduled accidental injury, like a knee injury. As a result, a judge awarded Cardenas 150 weeks of benefits for that injury.

Cardenas also suffered a subsequent mental impairment which, under the WCA, is eligible for compensation as a nonscheduled injury.

Nonscheduled injuries are often more difficult to assess and evaluate. They often involve more complex issues and may have a greater impact on the worker’s ability to perform their job.

The WCA offers 500 or 700 weeks of benefits for these injuries, such as physical impairments. The law, however, ties the benefit period for secondary mental impairments to the period of the original physical injury.

It’s why Cardenas appealed, arguing the law violated equal protection. The Court of Appeals favored that argument. Then, the Aztec school district and its insurer asked the state Supreme Court to review the decision.

The Court sided with Cardenas and the CoA appeals ruling. Justices ruled the WCA would’ve treated a subsequent physical impairment as a distinct and separate injury but not a mental impairment.

“The idea that mentally disabled workers may be entitled to recover less compensation than physically disabled workers is contrary to the purposes of the Act, which guide our equal protection analysis,” the Court wrote.

Justices ruled unanimously in favor of Cardenas.