NM: Supreme Court Rules Injured Tribal Casino Worker Cannot Seek Benefits Through State Workers’ Comp Program

                               

Sante Fe, NM (WorkersCompensation.com) - The state Supreme Court ruled today that tribal sovereignty precludes an Isleta Pueblo casino employee injured on the job from bringing a claim against the Pueblo or its insurer under the state workers’ compensation program. 

In a unanimous opinion, the state’s highest court reversed a decision by the Court of Appeals to allow Gloria Mendoza to proceed with a claim for benefits filed with the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration (WCA).  

Ms. Mendoza injured her knee while pushing chairs at the casino on Aug. 24, 2015. The Pueblo’s third-party workers’ compensation insurance administrator denied a claim by Ms. Mendoza. She then filed for benefits through the state program, but the WCA dismissed the claim because the pueblo cannot be sued in a state court or administrative proceeding without its consent under the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity. 

Ms. Mendoza appealed the decision. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Ms. Mendoza, determining that the Pueblo had waived sovereign immunity under a 2015 tribal-state gaming compact to allow workers’ compensation claims in the state program and that Ms. Mendoza could bring a claim solely against the Pueblo’s insurer and insurance administrator if there was no waiver of sovereign immunity.   

The Supreme Court disagreed in an opinion written by Justice C. Shannon Bacon. The justices concluded that the compact “contains no express and unequivocal waiver of the Pueblo’s immunity from suit in the WCA.” Therefore, Ms. Mendoza could not bring claims against the Pueblo in state court. 

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