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Appellate Courts "Grappling" with Conflicting High Court Decisions By Heather Scofield, Reporter (WorkCompCentral.Com)

The Alabama Supreme Court on Friday reinstated a trial court decision in favor of a worker who claimed he injured his back while at work, but the long, circuitous route that was required to bring resolution to that case will likely stand in front of other claimants until the high court clarifies conflicting decisions that it made in the past, attorneys say. Stephen Christie, a partner with the Miller, Christie & Kinney law firm in Vestavia Hills, Ala., and member of the Workers' Compensation Defense Institute, said the high court's reversal of the Court of Appeals in the case is a symptom of problems caused by conflicting rulings the high court has made in the past.

"This is a conflict we're seeing over and over again," Christie said. "It’s an issue that really does need some further clarification and it's going to have to come from the Supreme Court." In Ex Parte Windell Caldwell Sr., No. 1110513, the claimant asked the Supreme Court to overturn an appellate decision that reversed a trial court decision to award benefits in a case where there was disagreement about whether Caldwell's injury occurred at work.

One of the Supreme Court justices presiding over the case, Judge Glenn Murdock, stated that the conflict stems from the high court's own decisions in 2003 and 2008. Tracy Cary, who is a partner with the Morris, Cary, Andrews, Talmadge & Driggers law firm in Dothan, represented Caldwell. He said his client had to wait two years for his case to be decided. "We're very relieved (about the Supreme Court ruling)," Cary said. "But it’s kind of frustrating for an injured worker who’s left in limbo while things run their course.”

Central to the Caldwell case and others like it are the state Supreme Court's decisions in Ex Parte Southern Energy Homes, 2003, and Ex Parte McInish, 2008. In McInish, the Supreme Court explained that the responsibility for making credibility determinations and weighing evidence in a case fall to the trial court. The court said an appellate court cannot reverse a trial court decision based on a particular finding of fact if the finding is supported by substantial evidence presented in the case in such a way that "fair-minded persons in the exercise of impartial judgment can reasonably infer the existence of the fact sought to be proved." The Southern Energy Homes case, however, conflicts somewhat with principles embodied in state law and the McInish case, the July 20 opinion said. That case used a "totality-of-the-evidence approach" in its findings, the opinion said. "The reason we are here, and the real reason the Court of Civil Appeals was so divided in its approach to this case, is in fact the holding of this court in Southern Energy Homes," Murdock wrote in the Caldwell opinion.

In the Caldwell case, Windell Caldwell applied for workers' compensation benefits from his longtime employer, West Fraser Inc., after he said he hurt his back while working on a mulching machine. But in the trial court hearing on the matter, testimony conflicted as to whether Caldwell properly reported the injury to his supervisors and to the medical providers who treated him during the first few days following the accident. Caldwell testified he did inform his supervisors and the medical providers of the accident immediately. But supervisors at the company said Caldwell reported only that he had back pain and did not say the pain was connected to an injury or accident at work. And medical records for Caldwell's first few efforts to get his injury treated also indicated he did not report that he had been injured at work. The medical records began to reflect a report of a workplace injury only after Caldwell secured an attorney in the case four days after he hurt his back, according to court documents. The trial court awarded Caldwell benefits in the case, citing his long and stable history with the company and the plausibility that the first few medical reports contained erroneous exclusion of a workplace injury being reported. The medical providers were not called as witnesses in the case, court documents said, and the trial court was left without benefit of hearing their version of events.

But the Court of Appeals later proffered up a split decision on the case that reversed and remanded the trial court's decision, arguing that Caldwell's claims were not supported by "substantial evidence," as state law requires, because he lacked documentation to prove he reported his injury as work-related to the company and medical providers in the case immediately after the alleged accident. The majority in that decision, West Fraser Inc. v. Caldwell, concluded the trial court had given Caldwell the "benefit of the doubt" based on his work history with the company. Judge Tommy Bryan, one of two dissenting judges in the appeals court case, said he would have awarded benefits because medical personnel may have failed to properly transcribe Caldwell's injury report. The lower court should have deference in deciding Caldwell's credibility on that matter, Bryan said.

The state's Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Bryan in its July 20 ruling. Despite "some inconsistencies in the evidence," the court found that Caldwell's injury was compensable and supported by substantial evidence provided during the trial court proceedings after the accident. The situation and Caldwell's claims were not "so implausible in substance that a fair-minded person exercising impartial judgment could not reasonably infer from it causation," the court wrote in the opinion. Given that the trial court's decision did stem from substantial evidence presented in the case, the decision should stand, and the appellate court erred in overturning it, the Supreme Court opinion said.

The appellate court decision in Caldwell's case conflicted with the McInish case, the justices said. But the conflict was understandable, "unavoidable" even, given the Supreme Court decision in Southern Energy Homes, the July 20 opinion said. Murdock borrowed terminology in his written opinion on the Caldwell case from one of the three dissenting opinions published in the Southern Energy Homes case to reflect his opinion. The Southern Energy Homes case overruled "so much bedrock workers' compensation precedent," Murdock wrote. "Unless and until this departure from the 'bedrock' principles reviewed at the outset of this writing is revisited and removed from our jurisprudence, it is inevitable that we will continue to see cases in which the appellate courts are asked to decide how much is enough -- how much evidence in favor of the employer is enough to outweigh the evidence in favor of the employee," Murdock wrote. "The struggle to answer this question has always been, and should again be, consigned solely to the trial courts." Christie agreed and called the situation a "Catch 22" for the appellate courts. "It’s a very difficult balance for them to strike," Christie said. "How do you answer that question (of substantial evidence) without reweighing the evidence?"

As more cases like the Caldwell case move their way to the Supreme Court, Christie speculated there might finally be a resolution. "Someone will ask the Supreme Court to consider addressing the issue," Christie said. Cary said he would welcome a fix. Everybody in workers' compensation benefits from more clarity in law, he said. "If they’re able to make (this issue) clearer, I’m sure everyone would welcome that," Cary said.