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In 2012, California enacted Senate Bill 863 in part to combat an acute “lien crisis” in its workers’ compensation system. In an effort to clear an enormous and rapidly growing backlog of these liens, SB 863 imposed a $100 “activation fee” on entities like plaintiffs for each workers’ compensation lien filed prior to January 1, 2013. Plaintiffs sued in federal court, claiming that SB 863 violates the Takings Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.

The trial court issued a preliminary injunction in plaintiffs’ favor as to the Equal Protection claim, but not as to the other claims. Defendants appealed the district court’s issuance of the preliminary injunction and its denial of the motion to dismiss the Equal Protection claim. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeal reversed and vacated the injunction in the published case of Angelotti Chiropractic Inc. v Christine Baker.

The panel held that the district court properly dismissed the Takings Clause claim because the economic impact of SB 863 and its interference with plaintiffs’ expectations was not sufficiently severe to constitute a taking. The panel further concluded that the lien activation fee did not burden any substantive due process right to court access and also rejected plaintiffs’ claim that the retroactive nature of the lien activation fee violated the Due Process Clause.

Vacating the district court’s preliminary injunction, the panel held that the district court abused its discretion in finding that a “serious question” existed as to the merits of plaintiffs’ Equal Protection claim. Applying rational basis review, the panel held that Labor Code § 4903.06(b), which exempts certain entities other than plaintiffs from having to pay the lien activation fee, was rationally related to the goal of clearing the lien backlog. The panel also reversed the district court’s denial of defendants’ motion to dismiss the Equal Protection Clause claim because the panel’s ruling on the preliminary injunction necessarily resolved the motion to dismiss.

Here, one “plausible policy” goal, for the imposition of the lien activation fee is to help clear the lien backlog by forcing lienholders to consider whether a lien claim is sufficiently meritorious to justify spending $100 to save it from dismissal. In turn, the California Legislature’s decision to impose the activation fee on entities like plaintiffs, while exempting other entities, is rationally related to the goal of clearing the backlog because the Legislature might have rationally concluded that the nonexempt entities are primarily responsible for the backlog. In this regard, the Commission Report states that ten of the eleven top electronic lien filers are independent providers. Thus, the Legislature could have rationally found that independent service providers bore primary responsibility for the lien backlog, and therefore elected to focus on those entities in imposing the activation fee.