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Timothy WALL, Appellant, v. John S. MAROUK, D.O., Appellee.
¶ 1 The dispositive issue presented is whether, in the aftermath of Zeier v. Zimmer, 2006 OK 98, 152 P.3d 861, the legislative amendment to 12 O.S.2011 § 191 , removed the unconstitutional infirmity from the requirement of an affidavit of merit in any civil action for professional negligence. An examination of the Okla. Const. art. 5, § 462 , art. 2, § 63 , 63 O.S.2011 § 1–1708.1C, as well as prior case law, leads to the inevitable conclusion that it did not. We hold that it is a special law regulating the practice of law and that it places an impermissible financial burden on access to the courts.
¶ 2 Appellant Timothy Wall (Patient) filed a petition for medical negligence against Dr. John S. Marouk, D.O. (Physician) on August 11, 2010. The patient alleged that the physician negligently cut the median nerve in his right arm during a carpal tunnel surgery, resulting in loss of feeling in his right fingers. The patient did not attach an affidavit of merit as required by 12 O.S.2011 § 19. The physician filed a motion to dismiss on September 8, 2010, on the grounds that the patient failed to include the affidavit of merit.
¶ 3 In response to the physician's motion to dismiss, the patient argued that 12 O.S 2011 § 19 was unconstitutional based on this court's holding in Zeier v. Zimmer. On December 9, 2010, the trial court entered a certified interlocutory order denying the physician's motion to dismiss, and giving the patient twenty days from the date of the order to file an affidavit of merit pursuant to 12 O.S 2011 § 19 or face dismissal of the cause. On January 3, 2011, the trial court entered an amended certified interlocutory order stating that 12 O.S.2011 § 19 required an affidavit of merit finding the patient's arguments unpersuasive.4 On February 14, 2011, we granted the patient's Petition for Certiorari to Review a Certified Interlocutory Order and stayed proceedings in the trial court pending review on certiorari to consider the constitutionality of 12 O.S.2011 § 19. The cause was assigned to this office on February 28, 2013.
TITLE 12 O.S.2011 § 19 IS A SPECIAL LAW WHICH VIOLATES THE OKLA. CONST., ART. 5, § 46.
¶ 4 Title 12 O.S.2011 § 19 essentially provides that in civil actions for professional negligence, the plaintiff must attach an expert's affidavit. It creates two classes, those who file a cause of action for negligence generally, and those who file a cause of action for professional negligence. The patient argues that § 19 is unconstitutional because it violates the Okla. Const. art. 5, § 46 prohibition on special laws. We agree. The Oklahoma Constitution is a unique document. Some of its provisions are unlike those in the constitutions of any other state, and some are more detailed and restrictive than those of other states. Section 46 is one of these provisions and it specifically prohibits the Legislature from enacting special laws dealing with twenty-eight subject areas.5
¶ 5 A special law confers some right or imposes some duty on some but not all of the class of those who stand upon the same footing and same relation to the subject of the law.6 A law is special if it confers particular privileges or imposes peculiar disabilities or burdensome conditions in the exercise of a common right on a class of persons arbitrarily selected from the general body of those who stand in precisely the same relation to the subject of the law.7 Special laws apply to less than the whole of a class of persons, entities or things standing upon the same footing or in substantially the same situation or circumstances, and thus do not have a uniform operation.8 The shortcoming of a special law is that it does not embrace all the classes that it should naturally embrace, and that it creates preference and establishes inequality. It applies to persons, things, and places possessed of certain qualities or situations and excludes from its effect other not dissimilar persons, things, or places.9
¶ 6 Here, the distillate of art. 5, § 46 is that the Legislature shall not pass a special law regulating the practice of judicial proceedings before the courts or any other tribunal.10 This is precisely the situation we face. Title 12 O.S.2011 § 19 creates a new subclass of tort victims and tortfeasors known as professional tort victims and tortfeasors. In doing so, it places an out of the ordinary enhanced burden on these subgroups to access the courts by requiring victims of professional misconduct to obtain expert review in the form of an affidavit of merit prior to proceeding, and it requires the victims of professional misconduct to pay the cost of expert review.11 It does establish an impermissible special law regulating the practice of judicial proceedings before the courts.
¶ 7 The prohibition against special laws is not new. Even before statehood and the adoption of the Oklahoma Constitution, special laws were not permissible. In Guthrie Daily Leader v. Cameron, 1895 OK 71, 42 P. 635, the Supreme Court of the Territory of Oklahoma held that:
A statute relating to persons or things as a class is a general law. One relating to particular persons or things of a class is special. The number of persons upon whom the law shall have any direct effect may be very few, by reason of the subject to which it relates, but it must operate equally and uniformly upon all brought within the relations and circumstances for which it provides.
Shortly after statehood, we held in Chickasha Cotton Oil Co. v. Lamb & Tyner, 1911 OK 68, 114 P. 333, 333, that the Okla. Const. art. 5, § 46 prohibited the enactment of special or local laws upon any of the subjects named within it, except such local or special legislation upon subjects authorized by other provisions of the Okla. Constitution.
¶ 8 It is undisputed that during the course of litigation the plaintiffs will be required to prove their case, as any other cause requires. They just do not have to provide expert testimony before it can be filed. After the Field Code was replaced by the Oklahoma Pleading Code of 1984, access to the district court was simplified and streamlined.12 It recognized that there was one form of action—a civil action which was applicable to all suits of a civil nature.13 Further, it specified that a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader was entitled to relief was sufficient to constitute a pending claim.14 This form of notice pleading recognized that discovery, pretrial conferences, and summary judgments are more effective methods of performing the functions of disclosing the factual and legal issues in dispute, pretrial planning, and disposing of frivolous or unfounded claims and defenses which historically were performed by the pleadings.15 The requirement of an affidavit of merit before an action can proceed represents a step back from this more open pleading standard, and moreover, does not apply equally to all civil actions but only to a subset of the class—actions for professional negligence.
Title 12 O.S.2011 § 19 is functionally identical to the affidavit requirement found unconstitutional in Zeier v. Zimmer, 2006 OK 98, 152 P.3d 861.
¶ 9 In Zeier v. Zimmer, 2006 OK 98, 152 P.3d 861, we held that a previous incarnation of the affidavit of merit requirement, found at 63 O.S. Supp.2003 § 1–1708.1E was an unconstitutional special law.16 That law required an affidavit in any action for medical liability, whereas the current version of the requirement in § 19 requires the affidavit in actions for professional negligence.17
¶ 10 Interestingly, 12 O.S.2011 § 19 does not define professional negligence in the context of the affidavit requirement, nor does any other section of Title 12, the code of civil procedure.18 Professional negligence is defined only one place in the Oklahoma statutes. The definition is found in the Affordable Access to Health Care Act, the same Act that contained the original affidavit of merit provision we previously held unconstitutional in Zeier. Title 63 O.S.2011 § 1–1708.1C, the Definitions section of the Affordable Access to Health Care Act, defines professional negligence as:
5. “Professional negligence” means a negligent act or omission to act by a health care provider in the rendering of health care services, provided that such services are within the scope of services for which the health care provider is licensed, certified, or otherwise authorized to render by the laws of this state, and which are not within any restriction imposed by a hospital or the licensing agency of the health care provider ․
The same section defines medical liability action as:
3. “Medical liability action” means any civil action involving, or contingent upon, personal injury or wrongful death brought against a health care provider based on professional negligence ․
The medical affidavit requirement we previously found unconstitutional in Zeier was codified at § 1–1708.1E, part of the very same Affordable Access to Health Care Act that contains these two definitions. It appears the Legislature re-enacted the affidavit requirement in a different title using the words professional negligence rather than medical liability but otherwise left the language essentially the same. But, the Legislature did not remove the two definitions from the Affordable Access to Health Care Act.
¶ 11 Codified at 63 O.S. Supp.2003 § 1–1708.1E, the original affidavit requirement provided in pertinent part:
A. 1. In any medical liability action, except as provided in subsection B of this section, the plaintiff shall attach to the petition an affidavit ․
The language of the new affidavit requirement, codified at 12 O.S.2011 § 19 and which we examine today, provides in pertinent part:
A. 1. In any civil action for professional negligence, except as provided in subsection B of this section, the plaintiff shall attach to the petition an affidavit
Both the phrases medical liability action and professional negligence are defined at 63 O.S.2011 § 1–1708.1C, as discussed above, but not in § 19.
¶ 12 It is within the province of the legislative body to define words appearing in legislative acts, and where an act passed by the legislature embodies a definition, it is binding on the courts.19 Title 25 O.S.2011 § 2 provides:
Whenever the meaning of a word or phrase is defined in any statute, such definition is applicable to the same word or phrase wherever it occurs, except where contrary intention plainly appears.
When the provisions of a statute assign one meaning to a word or phrase, its definition will apply in every other instance in which the same word is found anywhere else in the statutory compilation.20 Section 19 does not contain a definition for professional negligence, but because professional negligence is defined in the Affordable Access to Health Care Act at 63 O.S.2011 § 1–1708.1C, the definition that professional negligence means an act or omission by a health care provider rendering health care services is applicable to § 19.
¶ 13 It has long been settled in this state that one cannot do indirectly what cannot be done directly.21 An examination of the definitions for medical liability action and professional negligence illustrates that they are intrinsically tied together. An action for professional negligence is a medical liability action insofar as 63 O.S.2011 § 1–1708.1C is concerned.
¶ 14 Even without the definition of professional negligence found at 63 O.S.2011 § 1–1708.1C there are problems with vagueness. If the Legislature did not intend professional negligence to mean “a negligent act or omission to act by a health care provider in the rendering of health care services,”22 then what did they mean? Black's Law Dictionary defines professional as “[a] person who belongs to a learned profession or whose occupation requires of a high level of training and proficiency.”23 Profession is further defined as:
A vocation requiring advanced education and training; esp., one of the three traditional learned professions—law, medicine, and the ministry.24
Does this mean that one is required to obtain an affidavit of merit pursuant to § 19 before filing suit against any doctor, lawyer or clergyman for negligence in performing their duties? Is professional in this context intended to be broader still? Title 59 of the Oklahoma Statutes, entitled “Professions and Occupations,” contains multiple subchapters that control the licensing and practice of what could be considered various professions in the State of Oklahoma.
¶ 15 For example, 59 O.S.2011 § 15.1A, which provides definitions under the Oklahoma Accountancy Act, defines accountancy as “the profession or practice of accounting.”25 Title 59 O.S.2011 § 396.2, concerning funeral services, defines a funeral establishment partly as “any place where any person or persons shall hold forth and be engaged in the profession of undertaking or funeral directing.”26 Title 59 also contains other chapters for: barbers, cosmetology, plumbers and plumbing contractors, foresters, sanitarians and environmental specialists, bail bondsmen, pawnbrokers, and many more. Title 18 O.S.2011 § 803 provides definitions for the Professional Entity Act which governs the creation of professional corporations in Oklahoma. It includes a broad definition for professional service.27
¶ 16 If the Legislature intended to apply the definition of professional negligence found in 63 O.S.2011 § 1–1708.1C, then the affidavit requirement applies to the same subclass and set of actions as the provision we found unconstitutional as a special law in Zeier. If the Legislature intended to avoid the prohibition on special laws by leaving professional negligence undefined, they have caused more problems than they solved. The provision would, taken to the ultimate logical conclusion, require an affidavit for almost every cause of action.
Because the current incarnation of the affidavit of merit provision codified at 12 O.S.2011 § 19 is functionally the same as the previous unconstitutional provision analyzed in Zeier, it is also unconstitutional.
¶ 17 The affidavit of merit requirement contained within § 19 still divides tort victims alleging negligence into two classes: those who pursue a cause of action for negligence generally and those who name professionals as defendants. It fails the test set forth in Zeier because an additional requirement is added to actions for professional negligence. Not only have we defined what a special law is since before statehood, we have reiterated repeatedly in Reynolds v. Porter, 1988 OK 88, 760 P.2d 816, § 17, 760 P.2d 816, and a long line of other cases, that the Okla. Const. art. 5, § 46 is an absolute and unequivocal prohibition against special legislation in the listed subject areas, in this instance the regulation of judicial proceedings.28
¶ 18 We held in City of Enid v. Public Employees Relations Bd ., 2006 OK 16, ¶ 8,133 P.3d 281, that general laws must apply equally to all classes similarly situated, and apply to like conditions and subjects. We also noted, citing Reynolds, that civil actions may be classified into specific categories of tort actions of a similar nature for statute of limitation purposes, and that doing so would not, for similar and more commanding reasons, constitute a special or local law that would violate the strictures contained in § 46.29 However, we recognized that Reynolds held that a statute carving out a special class of tort victims, those who suffered medical malpractice, for purposes of applying a special three year statute of limitations was a special law.30 Because this Court held in Zeier that the first incarnation of the medical affidavit requirement found at 63 O.S. Supp.2003 § 1–1708.1E was an unconstitutional special law pursuant to the Okla. Const. art. 5, § 46, it would be inconsistent to hold that the current iteration at § 19, incorporating the same class of tort victims, definitions and requirements, is not.
TITLE 12 O.S.2011 § 19 IS AN UNCONSTITUTIONAL ECONOMIC BURDEN ON ACCESS TO THE COURTS PURSUANT TO THE OKLA. CONST. ART. 2, § 6.
¶ 19 The patient also alleges that 12 O.S.2011 § 19 creates an unconstitutional burden on access to the courts by requiring an affidavit of merit for any civil action for professional negligence.31 The Okla. Const. art. 2, § 6 provides that:
The courts of justice of the State shall be open to every person, and speedy and certain remedy afforded for every wrong and for every injury to person, property, or reputation; and right and justice shall be administered without sale, denial, delay, or prejudice.
¶ 20 In Barzellone v. Presley, 2005 OK 86, 126 P.3d 588, we examined the constitutionality of a $349 jury fee imposed by statute. We held that such fees are permissible, as long as they are reasonable, because the right of litigants to access the courts does not mean that they are entitled to do so at no cost.32 However, we were careful to qualify our decision, noting that:
This opinion should not be read as a rubber stamp for any decision the Legislature might make on the amount of fees levied in association with jury trials. The Oklahoma Constitution does not anticipate that litigants will be burdened with the entire bill for maintenance of the court system. Mehdipour v. State ex rel. Dept. of Corrections, 2004 OK 19, ¶ 20, 90 P.3d 546 ․ The constitutional right to a jury trial is a personal right, Massey v. Farmers Ins. Group, 1992 OK 80, ¶ 16, 837 P.2d 880; Jenkins v. State, 1912 OK CR 8, 6 Okla.Crim. 516, 120 P. 298, which the Legislature cannot waive, Massey v. Farmers Ins. Group, 1992 OK 80, ¶ 16, 837 P.2d 880, through creating a fiscal barrier so unreasonable as to eliminate the right itself. When comparing the jury fee charge with a jury proceeding utilizing 6 jurors, it would appear that the $349.00 fee charge approaches the barrier beyond which the charge could not survive constitutional scrutiny.33
¶ 21 A year later, we revisited the issue in Zeier v. Zimmer, Inc., 2006 OK 98, ¶ 19, 152 P.3d 861. There, we agreed with a patient that a statutorily created requirement for the payment of professional services as a prerequisite to filing a petition alleging medical negligence violated the guarantee of access to the courts.34 In Zeier, we calculated that the cost of obtaining a professional's opinion to support the affidavit of merit could range from $500.00 to $5,000.00. This was well above the $349 .00 jury fee we examined and found valid in Barzellone.35 In Barzellone, we noted that the $349.00 jury fee was very close to crossing the line of being an unconstitutional burden on accessing the courts,36 and we held in Zeier that at a cost of $500.00 to $5,000.00, an affidavit of merit would clearly cross beyond that line.37
¶ 22 Barzellone and Zeier illustrate that while reasonable fees to defray the cost of litigation are not a violation of the right of citizens to access the courts, the costs associated with obtaining affidavits of merit go beyond the bounds of reasonableness we set in Barzellone. As such, they create an impermissible hurdle unconstitutionally restricting the right of citizens to access the courts in violation of art. 2, § 6 of the Oklahoma Constitution.
¶ 23 We are not persuaded that, in and of itself, the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act of 2009 indigency provision enacted in 12 O.S.2011 § 19(D) serves to fully remedy these ills.38 The requirements for an indigency exception are set out in 12 O.S.2011 § 192.39 It requires a nonrefundable application fee of $40.00. Although it is considerably less than the cost of complying with the affidavit of merit provisions, $40.00 is still a hurdle to the indigent. The fact that the court may defer the fee if it determines that the person does not have the financial resources to pay at the time does not go far enough. Even so, the fee cannot be waived, only deferred to a later date.40 Access to the courts must be available to all comers through simple and direct means and the right must be administered in favor of justice rather than being bound by technicalities.41 Claimants may not have their fundamental right of court access withheld merely for nonpayment of some liability or conditioned coercive collection devices.42
¶ 24 The Oklahoma Constitution does not anticipate that litigants will be burdened with the entire bill for maintenance of the court system.43 The Oklahoma courts were never intended to be self-funded, and the increasing degree to which they have become so is disturbing. Despite our holding in Fent v. State ex. rel. Dep't of Human Services, 2010 OK 2, 236 P.3d 61, the judicial department of government is burdened with collecting fees for thirty seven entities—only seven of which have a relationship to the third branch of government. The Okla. Const. art. 2, § 6, guarantees the right of individuals to access the courts, and while litigation does not have to be free and entirely at the public expense, at the very least the provision means that justice cannot be for sale. The idea that money cannot be used as a bar to deny justice long predates the Oklahoma Constitution, and is one of the fundamental values of our legal system.44
¶ 25 The Magna Carta, one of the oldest progenitors of American legal principles, states: “We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man, either justice or right.”45 When the cost of obtaining an affidavit of merit in professional negligence actions is added to the already high and increasingly rising cost of using the court system to resolve disputes, the result is that a line is crossed, and litigation costs go from being merely a hurdle to being an unconstitutional burden on accessing the courts.46
¶ 26 Pursuant to art. 2, § 6 of the Oklahoma Constitution, access to the court system is a fundamental right. Likewise, the Okla. Const. art. 5, § 46 prohibition against special laws and the Okla. Const. art. 2, § 6 are intertwined and serve the same ends. This is not new. It has been decided. This is the same issue we addressed in Zeier. Unless we ignore the Okla. Const. art. 2, § 6 and art. 5, § 46, the Oklahoma statute defining professional negligence found at 63 O.S.2011 § 1–1708.1C, and overrule Zeier v. Zimmer, 2006 OK 98, 152 P.3d 861, there is but one result we can reach.
¶ 27 Title 12 O.S.2011 § 19 creates a monetary barrier to access the court system, and then applies that barrier only to a specific subclass of potential tort victims, those who are the victims of professional negligence. The result is a law that is unconstitutional both as a special law, and as an undue financial barrier on access to the courts. Although we express no opinion on the viability of the patient's claim, because we hold 12 O.S.2011 § 19 to be unconstitutional, an affidavit of merit is not required. Therefore, we need not address the patient's claim that his res ipsa loquitur argument would circumvent the requirements of 12 O.S.2011 § 19. The district court's order requiring submission of an affidavit of merit is overruled, and this cause is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
CERTIORARI PREVIOUSLY GRANTED; ORDER OF THE DISTRICT COURT OVERRULED; REMANDED FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS.
¶ 1 I respectfully dissent. I cannot agree that 12 O.S.2011, § 19 is unconstitutional as a special law. The majority opinion asserts that this statute “creates a new subclass of tort victims and tortfeasors known as professional tort victims and tortfeasors.” Oklahoma's case law already recognizes such a “subclass” of tort law, and that is “malpractice.” The rule where medical malpractice against a physician is alleged, whether it is for failure to properly diagnose or treat a patient, is that the physician's negligence must ordinarily be established by expert testimony. Smith v. Hines, 2011 OK 51, ¶ 14, 261 P.3d 1129, 1133; Harder v. F.C. Clinton, Inc., 1997 OK 137, ¶ 14, n. 30, 948 P.2d 298, 305, n. 30; Benson v. Tkach, 2001 OK CIV APP 100, ¶ 10, 30 P.3d 402, 404. The statute merely requires an affidavit at the time of filing. Is it reasonable to require expert testimony in a malpractice case, but forbid the legislature from requiring that an expert submit an affidavit at the front end of a lawsuit? I do not believe it is.
¶ 2 The difference between a standard negligence case and professional malpractice is recognized even in the business law books studied by undergraduates and MBA students.
“If an individual has knowledge or skill superior to that of an ordinary person, the individual's conduct must be consistent with that status. Professionals—including physicians, dentists, architects, engineers, accountants, and lawyers, among others—are required to have a standard minimum level of special knowledge and ability. Therefore, in determining what constitutes reasonable care in the case of professionals, the law takes their training and expertise into account. Thus, an accountant's conduct is judged not by the reasonable person standard, but by the reasonable accountant standard.” Kenneth W. Clarkson, Roger LeRoy Miller & Frank B. Cross, Business Law Text and Cases 139 (12th ed.2012).
¶ 3 Georgia's statute requiring an affidavit is not identical to Oklahoma's statute. However, the reasoning of the Supreme Court of Georgia is pertinent to the construction of Oklahoma's statute. Georgia's statute also requires an affidavit from an expert to be filed with the complaint for professional negligence. Its supreme court recognized that the statute itself did not impose a cost or fee for filing an expert affidavit. Neither does § 19. In addressing a due process argument, Georgia's court observed: “The ‘costs' appellants object to are created by private actors, not any state actor. Since no state actor has exacted the harm of which appellants complain, the statute does not violate the right to due process.” Walker v. Cromartie, 287 Ga. 511, 512, 696 S.E.2d 654, 656 (2010). If this Court reasons that the legislature's requirement of an expert affidavit is financially burdensome, is it somehow less burdensome to require an expert to testify to the negligence of the defendant during the trial stage? Case law requires such expert testimony. Surely it is clear that the cost of an expert affidavit is less than the cost of actual expert testimony, both of which are presently required, one by the legislature and the other by this Court.
¶ 4 The majority protests that court costs have reached the tipping point and can go no higher. The legislature has provided, through the statute, for a simple exemption that may be signed by plaintiffs to express to the court their inability to pay for the § 19 affidavit. The Supreme Court is very liberal and experienced in allowing indigent petitions. I see no reason for this Court to fail to recognize an indigent affidavit for professional negligence cases.
¶ 5 Accordingly, I dissent.
¶ 1 Even though I concurred in result in Zeier v. Zimmer, Inc. ., 2006 OK 98, 152 P.3d 861, I must respectfully dissent from today's pronouncement. There are two major differences in the statute which this Court found unconstitutional in Zeier and in title 12, section 19 of the 2011 Oklahoma Statutes which is before us today. First, section 19 is not limited to medical negligence as was the provision in Zeier but includes all professional negligence. 12 O.S.2011, § 19(A)(1). Second, it provides for an indigency exemption to the certificate of merit requirement. Id. § 19(D).
¶ 2 In Zeier, this Court struck down section 1–1708.1E of the Affordable Access to Health Care Act, 63 O.S.Supp.2003, § 1–1708.1E, which required a certificate of merit only in medical malpractice actions. The Legislature responded to Zeier by enacting title 12, section 19 of the Oklahoma Statutes, which expanded the certificate of merit requirement to all professional negligence. Now section 19 is under attack in this appeal as a special law in violation of article 5, section 46 of the Oklahoma Constitution.
¶ 3 In construing section 19, this Court is guided by the overarching principle that every statute is presumed constitutional and will be upheld until its constitutional invalidity is clearly shown. Wilson v. Fallin, 2011 OK 76, ¶ 21, 262 P.3d 741, 748. Further, this Court is to presume that the Legislature has not done a vain and useless act. Surety Bail Bondsmen of Okla., Inc. v. Insurance Comm'r., 2010 OK 73, ¶ 26, 243 P.3d 1177, 1185. Following these principles leads to the conclusion that the Legislature did not intend the term “professional negligence” to have the identical meaning as “medical liability.” Rather, consistent with these principles, section 19 must be construed as expanding the class to which the certificate of merit requirement applies to include all negligence actions against any professional. Further, this Court itself has taken a more expansive approach by using the term “professional negligence” in reference to actions against lawyers, Leak–Gilbert v. Fahle, 2002 OK 66, 55 P.3d 1054; realtors, Rice v. Patterson, 1993 OK 103, 857 P.2d 71; and engineers, Samuel Robert Noble Foundation, Inc. v. Vick, 1992 OK 140, 840 P.2d 619.
¶ 4 It would certainly have been a vain and useless act for the Legislature to enact a statutory provision that this Court had determined to be unconstitutional only three years earlier. By expanding the class of torts requiring a certificate of merit to professional negligence, the Legislature remedies the concerns this Court expressed in Zeier regarding section 1–1708.1E of the Affordable Access to Health Care Act. I would find that title 12, section 19 of the Oklahoma Statutes does not offend article 5, section 46 of the Oklahoma Constitution.
¶ 5 I would likewise find that section 19 does not offend article 2, section 6 of the Oklahoma Constitution. The impediment that this Court found to the cost of procuring an expert's opinion before trial, the Legislature addressed in title 12, section 19(D) by providing for an indigency exemption and leaving the Judicial Branch with authority to define indigency. See 20 O.S.2011, § 56. Title 12, section 192 imposes a nonrefundable application fee of $40.00 on a plaintiff seeking an indigency exemption but this fee can be deferred. If the $40 fee is a constitutional impediment, then striking only the $40.00 fee for the indigency exemption as violative of article 2, section 6, rather than striking down the certificate of merit requirement, gives the appropriate measure of deference to the Legislature. There are other procedures in place to address any impediment of access to the courts: this Court could define indigency in such a manner as to alleviate any monetary obstruction that the certificate of merit requirement creates.
¶ 6 In deference to the Legislature and the rules of statutory construction, I would construe title 12, section 19 in a way to find that it does not violate article 5, section 46 of the Oklahoma Constitution. I would also exercise this Court's power in as narrow a swath as possible rather than the most extensive.
COLBERT, C.J., REIF, V.C.J., KAUGER, WATT, EDMONDSON, COMBS, GURICH, JJ., concur. WINCHESTER and TAYLOR, JJ., dissent.
Docket No: No. 109005.
Decided: June 04, 2013
Court: Supreme Court of Oklahoma.
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