By Jane Salem, staff attorney, Nashville
When I used to teach civil procedure as a law professor, I would begin the year by telling my students that “civil procedure is the etiquette of ritualized battle.” The phrase, which did not originate with me, captured the point that peaceful, developed societies resolve disputes by law rather than by force.
I remember my law school civil procedure professor telling us something along those lines on the first day of class as well. After a thrilling (italics in lieu of the sarcasm font) discussion of International Shoe Co. v. Washington, I thought, “Ugh, what have I gotten myself into?”
Maybe some of you legal wonks and gunners fondly remember “minimum contacts” from that case, but I wasn’t impressed at the time. Honestly, I’ve had little use for that particular case in the real world. But the more you’re in the real world, the more you realize that these civ pro professors are correct: You have to know the rules to have a fighting chance at winning. (And jurisdiction is a critical consideration; perhaps International Shoe deserves a second look.)
In the five and one-half years since the Reform Act took effect, the Tennessee Supreme Court Special Workers’ Compensation Panel and the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board have already tackled some fairly weighty cases with important civil procedure rulings.
Stated another way, these are cases that are significant in the real world of workers’ comp practice in Tennessee–in my opinion. Because remember, I’m a staff attorney, highlighting cases for your consideration, but I’m not speaking for the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims. My sole purpose is to draw attention to opinions that might have an impact on your next case. Please read them in their entirety and draw your own conclusions. Thanks.
This week, I’ll look at some of the early opinions and segue into summary judgment.
The germinal cases
It took a while for cases with these issues to work their way through the system, so 2016 was a big year for the Appeals Board.
Let’s start with the granddaddy, Syph v. Choice Food Grp. In this April 2016 opinion, the Appeals Board held that the Rules of Civil Procedure apply to “any action taken in, or pleading filed with, the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims,” and not just at formal hearings.
The Board majority opinion reasoned, “An alternative approach which applies the Rules of Civil Procedure and the Rules of Evidence only at formal hearings could result in parties being free to submit inadmissible information and documentation prior to a formal hearing while such filings are not subject to procedural and evidentiary rules; yet, the very same information and documentation would be subject to the rules if offered as evidence during the course of the hearing.”
Syph is also noteworthy for the majority ruling that “when an employer seeks dismissal of an employee’s claim for workers’ compensation benefits pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-239(d)(4) and/or Tenn. Comp. R. & Regs. 0800-02-21-.14(3), in circumstances where the trial court previously denied temporary disability or medical benefits on grounds of noncompensability, the trial court must treat the motion for dismissal as one filed pursuant to any applicable rule of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure,” i.e. Rule 56, summary judgment.
Since Syph’s release, employers have increasingly filed summary judgment motions, and the above-mentioned court rule regarding dismissals, Tenn. Comp. R. & Regs. 0800-02-21-.14(3), was amended to conform with the decision; see Tenn. Comp. R & Regs. 0800-02-21-.15(3) (August, 2019).
Not long after Syph, the Appeals Board issued Valladares v. Transco Prods., which yielded several important civil procedure rulings. First, the Board held that the trial court didn’t err when it allowed a party to argue a position at a motion hearing although the party failed to file a timely written response, so unopposed motions may still be considered on the merits. Second, the Court didn’t err by holding an initial hearing (now called a scheduling hearing) although no one requested it, since courts have discretion to control the pace of litigation through case supervision and docket management, although this power is not unlimited. Third, the Board reiterated that a petition for benefit determination is the functional equivalent of a complaint.
As to how to commence an action, the Appeals Board held that the court clerk, not a Bureau ombudsman, is the designated entity for filing a petition for benefit determination in Vickers v. Amazon.
So, per Valladares, a petition for benefit determination is a complaint—does that mean the other party has to file an answer? The Appeals Board said no in Morgan v. Macy’s, reminding that Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-239(c)(1) states that the Rules of Civil Procedure apply in the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims “unless an alternate procedural or evidentiary rule has been adopted by the administrator.” The court rules set forth the procedures for commencing a claim, requiring mediation, identifying issues in a dispute certification notice, and presenting those issues to a workers’ compensation judge for resolution. But, “none of these rules require the employer to file a formal answer, although employers are given an opportunity to list defenses to the claim on the dispute certification notice. Thus, to the extent that these specific rules are in conflict with the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, the rules adopted by the administrator control.”
The contents of that petition and other pleadings are the only documents to be considered for a Rule 12.02 Motion to Dismiss, the Board held in early 2017 in Palmer v. Hardy. A Rule 12 motion “challenges only the legal sufficiency of the complaint, not the strength of the plaintiff’s proof or evidence,” and when matters outside the pleadings are introduced, the motion should be treated as one for summary judgment.
Summary judgment opinions
Many cases have considered the propriety of summary judgment orders. Among the first was Payne v. D and D Elec., where the Appeals Board reversed a denial of summary judgment, finding that the pro se employee submitted no evidence to suggest that his injury arose primarily out of and in the course and scope of his employment. The employee then sought review from the Supreme Court Panel, which affirmed the Board.
In 2018, in Rye v. Calsonic Kansei N.A., Inc., the Appeals Board affirmed a trial court denial of summary judgment, where the judge concluded that the parties were essentially asking him to review and weigh conflicting expert testimony and make credibility determinations.
The Appeals Board vacated a denial of summary judgment in Johnson v. Loomis Armored, where the trial court reasoned that the injured worker hadn’t completed treatment and discovery was incomplete under the scheduling order. The Board highlighted language from Rule 56.02 that a party may move for summary judgment “at any time.” The Board further noted that Rule 56.07 allows a nonmoving party to ask for a continuance to obtain affidavits, depositions and other discovery.
More recently, last year the Appeals Board reversed a summary judgment denial in King v. Kasai N.A., Inc., where the trial court found disputed facts, but they weren’t material to medical causation, the essential element that the employer’s motion sought to negate.
Another noteworthy opinion from 2019 is Williams v. SWS, LLC, where the Supreme Court Panel reminded that “questions involving the commencement of the running of the statute of limitations in workers’ compensation cases most often are factual in nature,” and “summary judgment should be entered cautiously with respect to such issues.”
Next week, I’ll look at other dispositive motions, motions to amend, relief from judgment and discovery.