By Jane Salem, staff attorney, Nashville
Happy New Year! Every January, we post a series of articles summarizing the appellate opinions from the previous year. This year is no exception.
Here’s the roadmap for this article. We’ll start with a few words about the year generally, followed by the “rule” for these articles. Then we’ll look just at the six Supreme Court Panel cases from 2022.
This past year saw a change in leadership at the Bureau. Administrator Abbie Hudgens passed the mantle to Troy Haley, the former legal services director.
Regarding the workers’ compensation court system, we have a few new faces due to retirements. Judge David Hensley stepped down from the Appeals Board, and the governor appointed Judge Meredith Weaver to replace him. At the trial court level, Judge Deana Seymour left, replaced by Judge Shaterra R. Marion and a new staff attorney, Taylor Skees.
The year also—thankfully—ushered in a return to normal to some degree after the worst of COVID-19. We’ve returned to in-person settlement approvals and Appeals Board oral arguments. We also had a well-attended educational conference. We’re proud to say that overall, the Bureau weathered the pandemic with minimal disruption, and we thank the practicing bar and other stakeholders in large part for helping to keep the system running smoothly.
As for the rule for these articles, we have just one: please read the cases! Remember that this is just my take on the legal proposition that any opinion stands for, and that many opinions have more than one key ruling. Thanks.
State Court Opinions
The first panel opinion came down in early March, and it reviewed a chancery court decision. (You’ll notice fewer of them as the years pass.)
In Cummings-Boyd v. Law Offices of Jeffrey A. Garrety, the Panel affirmed a trial court’s post-judgment order for medical treatment. The carrier had relied on a utilization review denial, upheld by the medical director. But the court and Panel agreed that their opinions didn’t rebut the authorized treating physician’s opinion on reasonable necessity. The Panel modified the order, however, to omit the predetermined approval of future medical treatments. It reminded that trial courts don’t have the authority to prescribe the exact future treatments employers must provide.
In April, the Panel released Carr v. Windham Prof’ls, another case where the medical experts clashed, this time on causation. The Panel held that, although a physician had never met or treated an employee, the trial court properly accepted his opinion, where he reviewed the most complete set of medical information in arriving at his conclusion and was the most detailed in his analysis. In contrast, the other expert merely suggested a work-related connection to the injury was “possible” and didn’t consider the employee’s full work history.
Later that month, a Panel issued an opinion reiterating that courts should rarely award costs for unauthorized treatment. But this case, Russell v. Aluma-Form, presented circumstances where it was proper. Specifically, the employee was told by three authorized doctors that they couldn’t offer much more for him, a safety manager directly told him to seek additional care on his own insurance, and the employee kept the employer informed of his actions.
Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims Opinions
The remaining 2022 Panel opinions all originated in the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims and were reviewed by the Appeals Board.
In summer, a Panel affirmed the Appeals Board regarding an employee’s attorney’s fees in Henderson v. Pee Dee Country Enterprises. The statute says “the department” shall deem a fee to be reasonable if it doesn’t exceed 20 percent of the award. Since that language was present before and after the Reform Act, the Panel reasoned that the legislature intended it to mean that trial courts have no discretion to award a lesser amount, as the trial court initially did.
In October, a Panel decided the trial court and Appeals Board got it right in Moore v. Beacon Transport, a case with multiple conflicting medical causation opinions. The Panel reasoned that one of the employee’s experts acknowledged that the other experts’ differing conclusion regarding whether an injury was caused by trauma was “not unreasonable;” that expert didn’t review later diagnostic testing; and the employers’ physicians gave detailed deposition testimony, while one of the employee’s experts offered his opinions solely on Bureau forms.
The last Panel opinion of the year was Summers v. RTR Transp. Servs., where the trial court correctly held that a surviving spouse didn’t carry his burden to show that commutation of the award was in his best interest and that he could wisely manage the money, given his other assets and that commuted awards should be the exception, not the rule. However, the trial court erred when it declined to commute his attorney’s fee award to a lump sum. The Panel pointed out that the Supreme Court previously rejected the argument that a lump-sum payment is inappropriate because benefits would cease if the surviving spouse died or remarried.
In the next article, we’ll look at Appeals Board opinions from last year on all things medical.
Photo by Kim Weaver, paralegal, Knoxville.