Felty v. AT & T Technologies, Inc.

Decision Date16 December 1992
Docket NumberNo. 91-1710,91-1710
Citation602 N.E.2d 1141,65 Ohio St.3d 234
PartiesFELTY, Appellee, v. AT&T TECHNOLOGIES, INC. et al., Appellants.
CourtOhio Supreme Court

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. Only decisions reaching an employee's right to participate in the workers' compensation system because of a specific injury or occupational disease are appealable under R.C. 4123.519.

2. Once the right of participation for a specific condition is determined by the Industrial Commission, no subsequent rulings, except a ruling that terminates the right to participate, are appealable pursuant to R.C. 4123.519. (Afrates v. Lorain [1992], 63 Ohio St.3d 22, 584 N.E.2d 1175, followed.)

This case focuses on whether an Industrial Commission decision to deny an employer's request to suspend an employee from participation in the workers' compensation system is appealable to the common pleas court.

Appellee, Pearl Felty, an employee of appellant AT & T Technologies ("AT & T"), suffered a work-related injury in January 1976. The Industrial Commission ("commission") recognized Felty's workers' compensation claim and AT & T, a self-insured employer, paid compensation and related benefits. Immediately after the injury, for a period of approximately one year, Felty was treated by Dr. Alan Longert.

In September 1985, some years after she stopped seeing Longert, Felty filed a request with the Bureau of Workers' Compensation to change her treating physician to Dr. Walter Hauser. AT & T wrote to Hauser to notify him that it accepted the change and asked that he send to AT & T a report of his medical findings and a proposed course of treatment. AT & T sent a copy of the letter to Felty's attorney, Stanley R. Jurus. Jurus wrote back to AT & T to ask that the company "not correspond" with Hauser. Felty wrote to the commission and expressly revoked all prior medical releases she had executed. When AT & T wrote to Jurus to ask that Felty sign a new medical release, Jurus refused.

AT & T responded by filing a motion with the commission to "indefinitely suspen[d]" Felty's participation in the workers' compensation system "pursuant to 4121-3-12, Industrial Commission Rules and Section 4123.53, Rev.Code pending the claimant's willingness to abide by" the requirements now found in Ohio Adm.Code 4123-19-03(L)(4). The district hearing officer suspended Felty's claim and the regional board of review affirmed.

Felty appealed the regional board's decision to the commission. The commission vacated the regional board's order and denied AT & T's motion requesting suspension of Felty's claim. In doing so, the commission cited this court's decision in State ex rel. Holman v. Dayton Press, Inc. (1984), 11 Ohio St.3d 66, 11 OBR 256, 463 N.E.2d 1243.

AT & T then filed a notice of appeal to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas pursuant to R.C. 4123.519. Felty filed a motion to dismiss AT & T's appeal; she argued that the court did not have subject matter jurisdiction because the commission's decision was not appealable under R.C. 4123.519. The court denied Felty's motion and granted summary judgment in favor of AT & T. The court ruled that the commission's reliance on the Holman case was erroneous and ordered the commission to suspend Felty's claim.

The court of appeals reversed. It held that the commission's decision was not appealable pursuant to R.C. 4123.519. The court wrote that once a claim is allowed, the question of whether a claim should be suspended until a claimant complies does not go to the employee's right to participate. The cause was remanded to the trial court to be dismissed.

The cause is now before this court upon the allowance of motions to certify the record.

Michael J. Muldoon, Hilliard, for appellee Pearl Felty.

Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur and Charles J. Kurtz, III, Columbus, for appellant AT & T Technologies, Inc.

Lee I. Fisher, Atty. Gen., Gerald H. Waterman and Cordelia A. Glenn, Asst. Attys. Gen., for appellant Adm'r, Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

WRIGHT, Justice.

This appeal concerns the question of which Industrial Commission decisions may be appealed to the courts of common pleas. R.C. 4123.519(A) provides that a claimant or an employer "may appeal a decision of the industrial commission or of its staff hearing officer * * * in any injury or occupational disease case, other than a decision as to the extent of disability, to the court of common pleas * * *." We have interpreted this provision narrowly to mean that "[t]he only decisions reviewable pursuant to R.C. 4123.519 are those decisions involving a claimant's right to participate or to continue to participate in the [State Insurance] [F]und." Afrates v. Lorain (1992), 63 Ohio St.3d 22, 584 N.E.2d 1175, paragraph one of the syllabus.

The issue in this case is whether a decision by the commission not to suspend an employee's claim under R.C. 4123.53 and Ohio Adm.Code 4123-3-12 is appealable to the court of common pleas. We hold that it is not.

I

This is another in a line of cases in which this court has struggled to explain litigants' right to judicial review of decisions by the Industrial Commission. Since 1955, when R.C. 4123.519 was enacted by the General Assembly, this court has decided dozens of cases directly involving R.C. 4123.519. Recently three of these cases have been overruled in well-intentioned attempts to settle the law. See State ex rel. Evans v. Indus. Comm. (1992), 64 Ohio St.3d 236, 594 N.E.2d 609 (overruling Gilbert v. Midland-Ross Corp. [1981], 67 Ohio St.2d 267, 21 O.O.3d 168, 423 N.E.2d 847); Afrates v. Lorain, supra (overruling State ex rel. O.M. Scott & Sons Co. v. Indus. Comm. [1986], 28 Ohio St.3d 341, 28 OBR 406, 503 N.E.2d 1032, and Seabloom Roofing & Sheet Metal Co. v. Mayfield [1988], 35 Ohio St.3d 108, 519 N.E.2d 358). Regrettably, even these attempts have failed to provide the workers' compensation bar with the clear direction it must have to effectively and efficiently conduct its practice. 1 1 Hence, we attempt to clarify our recent decisions in light of the present controversy.

II

Litigants may seek judicial review of commission rulings in three ways: by direct appeal to the courts of common pleas under R.C. 4123.519, 2 by filing a mandamus petition in this court or in the Franklin County Court of Appeals,3 or by an action for declaratory judgment pursuant to R.C. Chapter 2721. 4 Which procedural mechanism a litigant may choose depends entirely on the nature of the decision issued by the commission. Each of the three avenues for review is strictly limited; if the litigant seeking judicial review does not make the proper choice, the reviewing court will not have subject matter jurisdiction and the case must be dismissed.

The most limited form of judicial review of commission decisions is by direct appeal to the common pleas court. Because the workers' compensation system was designed to give employees an exclusive statutory remedy for work-related injuries, "a litigant has no inherent right of appeal in this area * * *." Cadle v. Gen. Motors Corp. (1976), 45 Ohio St.2d 28, 33, 74 O.O.2d 50, 52, 340 N.E.2d 403, 406. Therefore, a party's right to appeal workers' compensation decisions to the courts is conferred solely by statute. Id.

R.C. 4123.519 states that only two parties, claimants and employers, may appeal decisions of the commission. These two parties may appeal a decision rendered in "any injury or occupational disease case, other than a decision as to the extent of disability * * *." R.C. 4123.519(A). Read literally, the statute leads to the overbroad rule pronounced in O.M. Scott & Sons Co.: "any order of the commission may be appealed to the court of common pleas by either party unless the order pertains to the extent of disability." Id., 28 Ohio St.3d at 343, 28 OBR at 408, 503 N.E.2d at 1034 (overruled by Afrates supra ). This rule, however, improperly expanded the limited role the courts are to have in the workers' compensation system. This was in large part because the role of the commission and the system itself became far more complex than the drafters of R.C. 4123.519 could have foreseen. "Clear though [R.C. 4123.519] may have seemed to the drafters thereof, the myriad complications of industrial injury, and legislative and administrative efforts to justly cope therewith" led litigants from the commission to the courts "to resolve ensuing conflicts and uncertainties." State ex rel. Campbell v. Indus. Comm. (1971), 28 Ohio St.2d 154, 155, 57 O.O.2d 397, 397-398, 277 N.E.2d 219, 220.

The courts simply cannot review all the decisions of the commission if the commission is to be an effective and independent agency. Unless a narrow reading of R.C. 4123.519 is adhered to, almost every decision of the commission, major or minor, could eventually find its way to the common pleas court. Thus, a long line of cases, with only a few deviations along the way, 5 led to the formulation of this now- settled precept: The only decisions of the commission that may be appealed to the courts of common pleas under R.C. 4123.519 are those that are final and that resolve an employee's right to participate or to continue to participate in the State Insurance Fund. Afrates, supra, paragraph one of the syllabus; Zavatsky v. Stringer (1978), 56 Ohio St.2d 386, 10 O.O.3d 503, 384 N.E.2d 693, paragraph one of the syllabus. This narrow rule is consistent with the goal of creating a workers' compensation system that operates largely outside the courts. See Nackley, Ohio Workers' Compensation Claims (1991) 162-163 ("[p]ublic policy" favors this interpretation because otherwise "common pleas courts could be burdened with de novo review--if not full-blown jury trials--on every ministerial order in every claim").

Notwithstanding the seemingly clear rule of Afrates and Zavatsky, questions persisted concerning the types of decisions that are appealable. The difficulty was the precise meaning of the...

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