Duck v. Cox Oil Co., No. W2016-02261-SC-WCM-WC

CourtSupreme Court of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtHOLLY KIRBY, JUSTICE
Decision Date21 November 2017
Docket NumberNo. W2016-02261-SC-WCM-WC


No. W2016-02261-SC-WCM-WC


Mailed September 19, 2017
November 21, 2017

Appeal from the Court of Workers' Compensation Claims
No. 2015-07-0089
Allen Phillips, Judge

The employee in this case worked as a clerk at a convenience store. While at work, the employee orally informed her supervisor that she was quitting and turned to leave the store. On her way out of the store, the employee fell. She later complained of injuries from the fall and sought workers' compensation benefits. The employer denied the claim on the basis that the employment relationship had already ended by the time the injury occurred. The Court of Workers' Compensation Claims awarded benefits. The Workers' Compensation Appeals Board reversed and remanded. The employer then filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted. The employee appealed to the Supreme Court pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-239(c)(7) (2014), and the Supreme Court referred the appeal to the Special Workers' Compensation Appeals Panel pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 51. We hold that the appeal is not barred by the law of the case doctrine and that the employee remained employed at the time the alleged injury occurred for a reasonable length of time to effectuate the termination of her employment, so she was still employed for purposes of the workers' compensation statutes. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-225(a) (2014) Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Court of Workers Compensation Claims Reversed and Remanded

HOLLY KIRBY, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which JAMES F. RUSSELL, J. and RHYNETTE N. HURD, J., joined.

Charles L. Holliday, Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellant, Melissa Duck.

Anne T. McKnight, Michael W. Jones and Fred J. Bissinger, Nashville, Tennessee, for

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the appellees, Cox Oil Company, and Technology Insurance Company.



The relevant facts are undisputed. Melissa Duck ("Employee") worked as a clerk at a convenience store operated by Cox Oil Company ("Employer"). On March 22, 2015, Employee clocked in for work at 2 p.m. At the time, her immediate supervisor, Jason Stanford, was in the process of defrosting and cleaning an ice cream freezer. Mr. Stanford asked Employee to work the main cash register while he finished cleaning the freezer. She told him that she did not want to work the cash register. Mr. Stanford then asked Employee to instead finish cleaning the ice cream freezer while he worked the main register. Employee refused to do that either.

Employee then began gathering her belongings from the front counter. Mr. Stanford asked her if she was leaving, and Employee answered "yes." When Mr. Stanford asked Employee if she was quitting, she responded "yes!" and turned to exit the store. As Employee was leaving, she immediately slipped and fell in a puddle of water on the floor; the puddle was next to the ice cream freezer that she had just refused to clean. Employee later claimed that, right away, she felt pain in her low back, her left arm and shoulder, and in the back of her head.

Employee never reported to work again after that. She later stated in an affidavit that she sent a text message to the store's manager, Jake Flowers, to inform him that she "had quit." Mr. Flowers denied receiving such a text message.

On April 13, 2015, Employee went to the emergency department of Humboldt General Hospital because she "was still in pain and having headaches." On May 19, 2015, Employee filed a Petition for Benefit Determination with the Tennessee Division of Workers' Compensation. Three weeks later, Employer's insurer notified Employee that it was denying her claim because "there is no injury in the course and scope of employment."

Employee then filed a Request for Expedited Hearing regarding medical benefits. She asked for a ruling based on a review of the file without an evidentiary hearing, as the parties did not contest the facts of the case.

The Court of Workers' Compensation Claims heard the case based solely on the

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available affidavits and records. The issue presented was whether Employee was likely to prevail at trial on the merits of her assertion that her injury occurred in the course and scope of her employment. Employee needed a determination in her favor in order to receive benefits pending the trial. Employer contended that Employee had not sustained a compensable work-related injury because she terminated her employment prior to her fall. The trial court adopted Employee's position, that she remained in the course and scope of her employment for a reasonable period of time to exit the premises at the end of her employment. It issued an expedited order on December 11, 2015, granting Employee's request for medical benefits.

Employer filed an interlocutory appeal to the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board. The Appeals Board reversed, concluding that the injury did not arise from the employment because the employment relationship ended before the Employee fell. The claim was remanded for further proceedings.

Once the case was back in the Court of Workers' Compensation Claims, Employer filed a motion for summary judgment. The motion contended that Employee's resignation, immediately prior to her fall, terminated the employment relationship and rendered her injury non-compensable. Finding no disputed material facts, the Court of Workers' Compensation Claims granted Employer's summary judgment motion based on the legal conclusion of the Appeals Board, that there was no employment relationship by the time the alleged injury occurred.

Employee then appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-239(c)(7). The Supreme Court referred the appeal to this Panel pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 51, section 1.


This appeal arises out of the trial court's grant of summary judgment, so we review the trial court's decision de novo with no presumption of correctness. Rye v. Women's Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 250 (Tenn. 2015) (citing Bain v. Wells, 936 S.W.2d 618, 622 (Tenn. 1997)); Parker v. Holiday Hospitality Franchising, 446 S.W.3d 341, 346 (Tenn. 2014). Summary judgment should be granted only when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04; Bryant v. Bryant, No. M201402379SCR11CV, 2017 WL 1404388, at *3 (Tenn. Apr. 19, 2017). Conversely, summary judgment should not be granted when there are genuine disputes of material fact. Rye, 477 S.W.3d at 264-65; Parker, 446 S.W.3d at 346. In the instant case, the material facts are not disputed. We are presented with only questions of

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law, which are reviewed de novo, affording no deference to the decisions of the lower courts. See Rye, 477 S.W.3d at 250.

Law of the Case Doctrine

Initially, Employer asserts that the law of the case doctrine requires this Panel to affirm the grant of summary judgment in favor of Employer. Employer argues that the holding of the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board—that Employee's injury did not arise from her employment because the employment relationship ended before she fell—was not appealed prior to the remand to the Court of Workers' Compensation Claims, so that holding now binds this Panel. We disagree.

"[U]nder the law of the case doctrine, an appellate court's decision on an issue of law is binding in later trials and appeals of the same case if the facts on the second trial or appeal are substantially the same as the facts in the first trial or appeal." Memphis Pub. Co. v. Tenn. Petroleum Underground Storage Tank Bd., 975 S.W.2d 303, 306 (Tenn. 1998). "[I]t is a longstanding discretionary rule of judicial practice which is based on the common sense recognition that issues previously litigated and decided by a court of competent jurisdiction ordinarily need not be revisited." Id. The doctrine "promotes the finality and efficiency of the judicial process, avoids indefinite relitigation of the same issue, fosters consistent results in the same litigation, and assures the obedience of lower courts to the decisions of appellate courts." Id.

"While the doctrine of the law of the case can be a useful tool for the sake of judicial economy and consistency, the doctrine is neither a constitutional mandate nor a

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limitation on this Court's power." State v. Hall, 461 S.W.3d 469, 500 (Tenn. 2015)1; Arizona v. California, 460 U.S. 605, 618 (1983) ("Law of the case directs a court's discretion, it does not limit the tribunal's power."); Culbertson v. Culbertson, 455 S.W.3d 107, 130 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014). It is merely a practice to guide the courts. Creech v. Addington, 281 S.W.3d 363, 383 (Tenn. 2009). Thus, while the law of the case doctrine is a useful tool, we do not allow it to insulate an issue from review and bind a higher court in reviewing decisions from the lower courts that have not yet been passed upon. See Christianson v. Colt Industries Operating Corp., 486 U.S. 800, 817 (1988) ("Just as a district court's adherence to law of the case cannot insulate an issue from appellate review, a court of appeals' adherence to the law of the case cannot insulate an issue from

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this Court's review."); Hamilton-Brown Shoe Co. v. Wolf Bros. & Co., 240 U.S. 251, 258 (1916) ("[A]lthough . . . the interlocutory decision may have been treated as settling 'the law of the case' so as to furnish the rule for the guidance of the referee, the district court, and the court of appeals itself upon the second appeal, this court, in now reviewing the final decree by virtue of the...

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