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The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned a Washington state workers’ compensation law designed for federal contractors working at a nuclear waste site

The state of Washington enacted a workers’ compensation law that applied only to certain workers at a federal facility in the state who were “engaged in the performance of work, either directly or indirectly, for the United States.” The facility, known as the Hanford site, was once used by the Federal Government to develop and produce nuclear weapons, and is now undergoing a complex decontamination process.

Most workers involved in this cleanup process are federal contract workers – people employed by private companies under contract with the Federal Government. A smaller number of workers involved in the cleanup include State employees, private employees, and federal employees who work directly for the Federal Government.

The Washington state law makes it easier for federal contract workers at Hanford to establish their entitlement to workers’ compensation, thus increasing workers’ compensation costs for the Federal Government.

The United States brought suit against Washington, arguing that Washington’s law violates the Supremacy Clause by discriminating against the Federal Government. The United States asserts that a ruling in its favor will allow it to recoup or to avoid paying millions of dollars in workers’ compensation claims.

The District Court concluded that the law was constitutional because it fell within the scope of a federal waiver of immunity contained in 40 U. S. C. §3172. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

In a unanimous 9-0 opinion, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed in the case of United States v Washington, 21-404 (June 2022).

Washington argues that Congress has waived federal immunity from state workers’ compensation laws on federal lands and projects through §3172(a). Section 3172(a) says that “[t]he state authority charged with enforcing and requiring compliance with the state workers’ compensation laws . . . may apply [those] laws to all land and premises in the State which the Federal Government owns,” as well as “to all projects, buildings, constructions, improvements, and property in the State and belonging to the Government, in the same way and to the same extent as if the premises were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution as prohibiting States from interfering with or controlling the operations of the Federal Government. This constitutional doctrine – often called the intergovernmental immunity doctrine – has evolved to bar state laws that either regulate the United States directly or discriminate against the Federal Government or its contractors.

It said that “Washington’s law violates these principles by singling out the Federal Government for unfavorable treatment. The law explicitly treats federal workers differently than state or private workers, and imposes costs upon the Federal Government that state and private entities donot bear. The law thus violates the Supremacy Clause unless Congress has consented to such regulation through waiver.”

The Supreme Court concluded that “the statute thus does not clearly and unambiguously permit the discrimination contained in Washington’s ‘federal workers only’ law” and thus its argument was “unconvincing.”