Michael Hathaway v. ST Griswold Company (June 11, 2014)

Michael Hathaway v. ST Griswold Company (June 11, 2014)
Michael Hathaway Opinion No. 04F-14WC
v. By: Phyllis Phillips, Esq.
Hearing Officer
S.T. Griswold & Company
For: Anne M. Noonan
State File No. S-22188
Claimant requests that the Commissioner enter final judgment in accordance with her March 17,
2014 ruling on Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, so that he may take an appeal of the
issues decided therein to the Vermont Supreme Court, pursuant to 21 V.S.A. §672.
Procedural Background
In her prior ruling, Opinion No. 04-14WC, the Commissioner determined as a matter of law that
Defendant was not obligated either to provide vocational rehabilitation services to Claimant as a
consequence of his compensable low back injury or to reimburse him for wages he lost while
attending medical appointments necessitated by that injury. Summary judgment was therefore
granted in Defendant’s favor on those issues. The Commissioner also granted summary
judgment as to the third issue Defendant had presented – whether Claimant’s erectile dysfunction
was causally related to his compensable work injury. However, the ruling left open the
possibility that Claimant might still be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits as a
consequence of deficits in sexual function that could be referable to his injury-related low back
pain. As to this aspect of his claim, summary judgment in Defendant’s favor was denied,
Pointing to the possibility that Claimant might yet be awarded additional benefits, Defendant has
objected to Claimant’s request for final judgment on the grounds that the Commissioner’s ruling
did not finally resolve all aspects of his workers’ compensation claim against it. Therefore, it
argues, any appeal at this point would be interlocutory in nature, and not justified under the
Claimant cites to V.R.C.P. 54(b) in support of his request. That rule authorizes a court to “direct
the entry of a final judgment as to one or more but fewer than all of the claims or parties only
upon an express determination that there is no just reason for delay and upon an express direction
for the entry of judgment.”
I agree with Defendant that the more appropriate authority for evaluating Claimant’s request
derives from Vermont’s Administrative Procedures Act, 3 V.S.A. §§800 et seq. That statute
specifically exempts workers’ compensation proceedings from the requirements relating to how
administrative hearings are conducted, 3 V.S.A. §816(a)(3).1 However, workers’ compensation
proceedings are not exempted from the APA’s provisions as to the judicial review of contested
cases, 3 V.S.A. §815. That section reads as follows:
§815. Judicial review of contested cases
(a) A person who has exhausted all administrative remedies available within the
agency and who is aggrieved by a final decision in any contested case may
appeal that decision to the supreme court, unless some other court is expressly
provided by law. However, a preliminary, procedural or intermediate agency
action or ruling is immediately appealable under those rules if review of the
final decision would not provide an adequate remedy, and the filing of the
appeal does not itself stay enforcement of the agency decision. The agency
may grant, or the reviewing court may order, a stay upon appropriate terms.
The gist of Defendant’s argument is that because summary judgment resolved Claimant’s
entitlement to some, but not all, of the workers’ compensation benefits he claims are owed as a
consequence of his work injury, the Commissioner’s ruling was not a “final determination,” and
therefore not yet subject to appeal.
Careful reading of the Workers’ Compensation Act’s appeal provisions requires a different
interpretation. The appeal permitted, to either the superior court under 21 V.S.A. §670 or to the
supreme court under §672, is of the Commissioner’s “award” in cases where “the compensation
is not fixed by agreement.” 21 V.S.A. §§663(a) and 664; see also, §668 (modification of
awards) and 671 (findings for new award). As typically occurs, the statute thus envisions that as
a result of a single compensable injury a claimant may become entitled to a variety of benefits.
Some of these may be “fixed by agreement,” while others may require a hearing and “award” in
order to resolve. But nowhere does the statute require that all benefits must be either fixed by
agreement or awarded before an appeal can be taken.
Indeed, given the stages through which an injured worker often progresses following a workrelated
injury – from temporary total disability through medical treatment and vocational
rehabilitation, and then return to work and permanency – to impose such a limit on appeals
would be both impractical and unjust. In the time it might take for a claimant’s entitlement to
permanency benefits to ripen, a disputed vocational rehabilitation plan might become stale, or a
medical treatment window might close. Such a result would undermine both the “humane
purpose” for which the workers’ compensation statute was created, Herbert v. Layman, 125 Vt.
481, 485 (1966), and the “speedy and inexpensive” dispute resolution procedure that Workers’
Compensation Rule 7.1000 envisions.
1 In lieu of the process and procedure required under the APA, workers’ compensation proceedings are generally
governed by the Rules of Civil Procedure and Rules of Evidence, but “only insofar as they do not defeat the
informal nature of the [formal] hearing.” Workers’ Compensation Rule 7.1000.
In this case, two of the issues resolved in Defendant’s favor on summary judgment exist entirely
independently. Other than their relation back to his original compensable injury, Claimant’s
claims for vocational rehabilitation benefits and wage reimbursement do not share either a legal
or a factual basis. The Commissioner’s summary judgment ruling finally disposed of both
claims, such that no further administrative remedies are available to him in this forum. It is
appropriate to enter final judgment on these issues, so that Claimant can avail himself of the
appeal rights granted him by statute in a timely fashion.
Claimant’s right to appeal the third issue addressed by the Commissioner’s summary judgment
ruling – whether he is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits causally related to his erectile
dysfunction – stands on a different footing. The nature and extent of any benefits awarded on
account of his reported deficits in sexual function, whether due to erectile dysfunction per se or
alternatively, to his injury-related low back pain, remains to be seen. The Commissioner denied
summary judgment as to the latter theory of recovery, and thus, viewed in terms of a potential
award of benefits, summary judgment has not yet finally disposed of the issue. As Claimant has
not exhausted his administrative remedies, it would be inappropriate to enter final judgment.
1. The Commissioner having previously granted summary judgment in Defendant’s favor,
final judgment against Claimant is hereby entered as to his claim for vocational
rehabilitation benefits causally related to his June 14, 2002 compensable work injury, and
such claim is hereby DISMISSED.
2. The Commissioner having previously granted summary judgment in Defendant’s favor,
final judgment against Claimant is hereby entered as to his claim for wage reimbursement
under 21 V.S.A. §640(c), and such claim is hereby DISMISSED.
DATED at Montpelier, Vermont this 11th day of June 2014.
Anne M. Noonan
Within 30 days after copies of this opinion have been mailed, either party may appeal questions
of fact or mixed questions of law and fact to a superior court or questions of law to the Vermont
Supreme Court. 21 V.S.A. §§670, 672.