Corbeil v. Emricks Van & Storage

Decision Date19 September 2017
Docket NumberNo. 115,672.,115,672.
Citation404 P.3d 856
Parties Lyle S. CORBEIL, Petitioner, v. EMRICKS VAN & STORAGE, GUARANTEE INSURANCE, and The Workers' Compensation Commission of the State of Oklahoma, Respondents.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

Charles Simons and Katie Samples, Ryan Bisher Ryan Phillips & Simons, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Petitioner.

Bob Burke, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Petitioner.

Donald A. Bullard and Terri J. Phillips, Bullard & Associates, P.C., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Respondents.

COMBS, C.J.:

¶ 1 The question presented to this Court is whether the hernia provision of the Administrative Workers' Compensation Act (AWCA), 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 61, permits an award of up to six weeks of temporary total disability (TTD) for each hernia suffered by a claimant, regardless of whether the hernias occurred, or were repaired, simultaneously. We hold that it does.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2 Petitioner Lyle S. Corbeil (Corbeil) suffered an injury on July 25, 2015, while employed with Respondent Emricks Van & Storage (Employer). Corbeil alleged he had been engaged in strenuous lifting, and noticed pain and swelling on his right side the following day. After reporting his injury, Corbeil was sent to McBride clinic where he was initially diagnosed with a right inguinal hernia. This diagnosis is referred to in Corbeil's First Notice of Claim for Compensation. Corbeil requested medical care and TTD benefits on September 9, 2015. On the same date, Employer initially denied the injury was compensable. Corbeil requested a contested hearing. Prior to the hearing, Employer accepted compensability. Employer provided reasonable and necessary medical treatment to Corbeil and paid out six (6) weeks of TTD benefits from July 29, 2015 to September 8, 2015, at a rate of $571.55 per week.

¶ 3 Eventually, Corbeil's diagnosis was changed from a right inguinal hernia to bilateral inguinal hernias, after a left inguinal hernia was found on December 8, 2015. Surgery was performed on Corbeil to repair the bilateral inguinal hernias on February 2, 2016, after what Corbeil alleges to be a significant delay due to Employer's failure to timely authorize surgery. Corbeil asserts he was not released back to work until March 8, 2016, meaning he was unable to work due to his injury for a period of thirty-one (31) weeks and six (6) days. Corbeil requested an additional period of TTD benefits from Employer, which Employer denied.

¶ 4 Corbeil sought a contested hearing on the sole issue of whether he was entitled to an additional six (6) weeks of TTD due to suffering two hernias, pursuant to 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 61(B)(1). Employer contended Corbeil had received the maximum benefits permitted by the statute. The parties proceeded to a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on July 18, 2016. The parties stipulated to the following: 1) the jurisdiction of the Workers' Compensation Commission (WCC); 2) Corbeil's employment status; 3) Employer's insurance coverage; 4) Corbeil sustained a compensable injury in the form of bilateral inguinal hernias as a result of a single incident occurring in the course and scope of employment on July 25, 2015; 5) Corbeil timely filed a claim for compensation and timely notified Employer of the injury; 6) Employer designated a physician for Corbeil; 7) the amount and payment of TTD and permanent partial disability benefits to date.

¶ 5 At the hearing, Corbeil argued that changes in the provision concerning hernias enacted as part of the AWCA, codified at 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 61, support an interpretation that the triggering event for the award of benefits has changed from "an injury resulting in hernia" to "a hernia". Corbeil further asserted that the TTD limitation provided in 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 61 applies to "a hernia", and because he suffered two hernias, he is entitled to a second six-week period of TTD. Relying on older caselaw from before the enactment of 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 61, Employer argued that a bilateral hernia constituted a single compensable injury.

¶ 6 The ALJ found the changes in 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 61 to be a distinction without a difference. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Corbeil's bilateral hernias were caused by the same accident and surgically repaired at the same time, and so pursuant to 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 61 Corbeil was limited to a maximum of six (6) weeks of TTD.

¶ 7 Corbeil appealed on September 6, 2016, and requested review by the Commission en banc . The Commission held a hearing on December 15, 2016. On December 16, 2016, the Commission affirmed the decision of the ALJ, determining it was supported by a preponderance of the credible evidence and correctly applied the law and, therefore, was neither against the clear weight of the evidence, nor contrary to law.

¶ 8 Corbeil initially sought review in this Court on January 5, 2017.1 On April 10, 2017, Corbeil filed a motion to retain and combine this cause with another pending case.2 On April 25, 2017, this Court granted Corbeil's motion to retain and made this cause a companion case with No. 115,898. The cause was assigned to this office on April 27, 2017.

II.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 9 The law in effect at the time of the injury controls both the award of benefits and the appellate standard of review where workers' compensation is concerned. Brown v. Claims Mgmt. Resources, Inc. , 2017 OK 13, ¶ 9, 391 P.3d 111 ; Holliman v. Twister Drilling Co. , 2016 OK 82, ¶ 5, 377 P.3d 133 ; Williams Co., Inc. v. Dunkelgod , 2012 OK 96, ¶ 14, 295 P.3d 1107. Corbeil's injury occurred on July 25, 2015. As Corbeil's injury occurred after the effective date of the Administrative Workers' Compensation Act (AWCA), 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 §§ 1 - 125, appellate review is governed by 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 78, which provides in pertinent part:

C. The judgment, decision or award of the Commission shall be final and conclusive on all questions within its jurisdiction between the parties unless an action is commenced in the Supreme Court of this state to review the judgment, decision or award within twenty (20) days of being sent to the parties. Any judgment, decision or award made by an administrative law judge shall be stayed until all appeal rights have been waived or exhausted. The Supreme Court may modify, reverse, remand for rehearing, or set aside the judgment or award only if it was:
1. In violation of constitutional provisions;
2. In excess of the statutory authority or jurisdiction of the Commission;
3. Made on unlawful procedure;
4. Affected by other error of law;
5. Clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, material, probative and substantial competent evidence;
6. Arbitrary or capricious;
7. Procured by fraud; or
8. Missing findings of fact on issues essential to the decision.

¶ 10 The issue presented in this cause is one of statutory interpretation. Statutory interpretation presents a question of law which this Court reviews under a de novo standard. Brown , 2017 OK 13, ¶ 10, 391 P.3d 111 ; Lee v. Bueno , 2016 OK 97, ¶ 6, 381 P.3d 736 ; Legarde – Bober v. Okla. State University , 2016 OK 78, ¶ 5, 378 P.3d 562. In conducting de novo review this Court possesses plenary, independent, and non-deferential authority to examine the lower tribunal's legal rulings. Brown , 2017 OK 13, ¶ 10, 391 P.3d 111 ; Lee , 2016 OK 97, ¶ 6, 381 P.3d 736 ; Legarde – Bober , 2016 OK 78, ¶ 5, 378 P.3d 562.

III.

ANALYSIS

¶ 11 This cause concerns the interpretation and application of the current hernia provision of the AWCA, 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 61, which provides:

A. A hernia is not a compensable injury unless the injured employee can prove by a preponderance of the evidence that it meets the definition of "compensable injury" under this act and:
1. The occurrence of the hernia followed as the result of sudden effort, severe strain, or the application of force directly to the abdominal wall;
2. There was severe pain in the hernial region;
3. The pain caused the employee's work to be substantially affected;
4. Notice of the occurrence was given to the employer within five (5) days thereafter; and
5. The physical distress following the occurrence of the hernia was such as to require the attendance of a licensed physician.
B. 1. Notwithstanding the provisions of Section 45 of this act, if it is determined that a hernia is a compensable injury under subsection A of this section, the injured employee shall be entitled to temporary total disability for six (6) weeks.
2. If the injured employee refuses to permit the hernia operation if recommended by a physician, he or she shall be entitled to temporary total disability for thirteen (13) weeks in addition to appropriate medical care.
C. If the injured employee dies within one (1) year as a direct and sole result of the hernia or a radical operation of the hernia, the deceased employee's dependents shall be entitled to death compensation under Section 48 of this act.

Corbeil argues he is entitled to a potential twelve weeks of TTD under the language of this provision because he suffered two hernias.

¶ 12 Employer contends, however, that existing decisions interpreting prior provisions of the since-repealed Workers' Compensation Act support the proposition that bilateral hernias caused by a single work-related accident and repaired at the same time entitle a claimant to one award of TTD benefits within the statutorily-mandated limits. Employer relies upon judicial interpretation of 85 O.S. § 22 (repealed by SB 878, Laws 2011, c. 318, § 87, effective August 26, 2011), which provided in pertinent part:

Hernia : In case of an injury resulting in hernia, temporary total compensation for fourteen (14) weeks, and the cost of an operation shall be payable; provided, in any case where the injured employee has been twice previously operated for hernia in the same area and it is established by opinion of a competent surgeon that further surgery in the same area will not result in full relief of the condition, the Court may then award
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