Gamma Healthcare Inc. v. Estate of Grantham

Decision Date03 March 2022
Docket Number2019-CT-00913-SCT
Citation334 So.3d 85
Parties GAMMA HEALTHCARE INC. and Employers Insurance Company of Wausau v. ESTATE OF Sharon Burrell GRANTHAM
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: M. REED MARTZ, D. BETH SMITH

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: STEVEN HISER FUNDERBURG

EN BANC.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI

KITCHENS, PRESIDING JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

¶1. The Workers’ Compensation Commission and an Administrative Judge (AJ) had ordered Gamma Healthcare and Employers Insurance Company of Wausau (Employer/Carrier) to replace Sharon Burrell Grantham's septic and HVAC systems and to pay for insurance on a handicapped-accessible van. The Commission, sua sponte , issued a separate order sanctioning the Employer/Carrier for causing an unnecessary delay by appealing the AJ's order to the full Commission without reasonable grounds. The Employer/Carrier appealed. While this case was pending before the Court of Appeals, Sharon Grantham died. Thereafter, the Court of Appeals dismissed the case as moot. The Court of Appeals applied the general rule followed by federal courts by vacating the outstanding Commission and AJ orders. The appeals court reversed and rendered the Commission's sanctions order against the Employer/Carrier, determining that the Commission had abused its discretion by its imposition of the sanction, reasoning that the Employer/Carrier had a reasonable legal argument for its appeal. Grantham's estate filed a petition for a writ of certiorari , which this Court granted.

¶2. This Court has held

Cases in which an actual controversy existed at trial but the controversy has expired at the time of review, become moot. We have held that the review procedure should not be allowed for the purpose of settling abstract or academic questions, and that we have no power to issue advisory opinions. Insured Sav. & Loan Ass'n v. State [ex rel. Patterson ], 242 Miss. 547, 135 So. 2d 703 (1961) ; McLendon v. Laird , 211 Miss. 662, 52 So. 2d 497 (1951) ; Van Norman v. Barney , 199 Miss. 581, 24 So. 2d 866 (1946).

Allred v. Webb , 641 So. 2d 1218, 1220 (Miss. 1994) (quoting Monaghan v. Blue Bell, Inc. , 393 So. 2d 466, 466-67 (Miss. 1980) ). "Thus, standing must exist when litigation is commenced and must continue through all subsequent stages of litigation, or the case will become moot." Frisby v. City of Gulfport (In re City of Biloxi) , 113 So. 3d 565, 572 (Miss. 2013).1 "A case is moot if ‘a judgment on the merits ... would be of no practical benefit to the plaintiff or detriment to the defendant.’ " Id. (quoting Gartrell v. Gartrell , 936 So. 2d 915, 916 (Miss. 2006) ). "If an appeal involves questions about rights which no longer exist, the appeal will be dismissed." Gartrell , 936 So. 2d at 916 (citing McDaniel v. Hurt , 92 Miss. 197, 41 So. 381, 381 (1906) ). In this case, Grantham's estate "concede[d] that Grantham's death abates the Employer/Carrier's obligations to replace the septic and HVAC system and pay insurance premiums." Gamma Healthcare Inc. v. Est. of Grantham , No. 2019-WC-00913-COA, ––– So.3d ––––, ––––, 2020 WL 7040956, at *1 (Miss. Ct. App. Dec. 1, 2020). In light of Grantham's untimely death and the concession by her estate, we agree with the Court of Appeals that this case is moot.

¶3. However, the main issue is not whether the case is moot. Rather it is whether the Court of Appeals erred by vacating the Commission's and the AJ's valid orders to replace the septic and HVAC systems in a case that became moot on appeal due to circumstances beyond the control of the parties. Additionally, did the court err by following federal vacatur law instead of existing Mississippi law? These are issues of first impression. We find that the Court of Appeals did not err and that the federal vacatur rule is appropriate. The Commission's orders were vacated properly.

¶4. Lastly, Grantham's estate challenges the appeals court's overturning of the Commission's sanctions award. We affirm the Court of Appeals’ reversing and rendering of the Commission's sanctions award.

STATEMENT OF THE FACTS

¶5. The Court of Appeals related the facts as follows:

In October 2015, Grantham experienced permanent paraplegia

as a result of a work-related automobile accident. The Employer/Carrier reported the injury and began paying workers’ compensation benefits and providing medical treatment.

Several months later, disputes arose between Grantham and the Employer/Carrier regarding the scope and nature of necessary modifications to Grantham's home. In August 2016, Grantham filed a petition to controvert with the Workers’ Compensation Commission and a motion to compel the Employer/Carrier to make necessary modifications to her home. In February 2017, Grantham filed a motion to compel the Employer/Carrier to provide a wheelchair-accessible van. In March 2017, the AJ ordered the Employer/Carrier to make necessary home modifications, provide Grantham with a wheelchair-accessible van, and pay "for property/collision insurance premiums associated with the enhanced cost of the handicapped vehicle." The AJ later entered an order clarifying that Grantham would "be responsible for premiums associated with liability and/or uninsured motorist coverage and that the [Employer/Carrier would] be responsible for insurance premiums associated with property/collision coverage for the vehicle." The Employer/Carrier filed a petition for full Commission review of the AJ's ruling on insurance. However, the Commission declined to review the AJ's interlocutory ruling and dismissed the petition without prejudice.
In April 2017, Grantham filed a motion asking the AJ to appoint a "neutral case manager" to assist with recurring disagreements between the parties regarding home modifications. Grantham argued that "a neutral case manager appointed by the Commission to assess, observe and make recommendations to the [AJ] would be in the best interest of [Grantham] and would promote smooth administration of this claim." In response, Employer/Carrier argued that the Workers’ Compensation Law did not authorize the AJ to appoint a neutral case manager and that a neutral case manager was "not needed." In June 2017, the AJ granted Grantham's motion and appointed Barbara Oltremari, a registered nurse, "to perform nurse case management services limited to ... an inspection of [Grantham's] residence to include home modifications and to provide the parties and the [AJ] with a report and opinions as to whether the home modifications are complete, reasonable and adequate for [Grantham's] health and safety." Oltremari performed her inspection and submitted her report in July 2017.
In November 2017, Grantham filed a motion to compel the Employer/Carrier to pay for various home modifications that Oltremari had recommended. Among other things, Grantham asked the AJ to compel the Employer/Carrier "to have [her septic and HVAC] systems evaluated and repaired, if necessary." The AJ granted Grantham's motion.
Evaluations showed that Grantham's "septic system [was] not working at all" and needed to be replaced and that her HVAC system was "extremely old" and also needed to be replaced. The HVAC system failed completely and ceased working after the evaluation was performed. In July 2018, Grantham filed a motion to compel the Employer/Carrier to replace her septic and HVAC systems.
In response, the Employer/Carrier argued that the evaluation of the septic system showed that the system's failure was the result of a myriad of "longstanding" issues that predated and were unrelated to Grantham's injury and were "not the responsibility of the [Employer/Carrier] to remedy." Similarly, the Employer/Carrier argued that the evaluation of the HVAC system showed that the system was already "two to four years beyond its life expectancy at the time of [Grantham's] accident" and revealed "numerous other problems with the system, most of which [were] attributable to lack of maintenance." They argued that the failure of the HVAC system was unrelated to Grantham's work-related injury and was "not the responsibility of the [Employer/Carrier] to remedy."
... In October 2018, the AJ directed the nurse case manager to conduct a new inspection and provide an updated report on the condition of Grantham's home. In November 2018, after considering the nurse case manager's updated report, the AJ ordered the Employer/Carrier to, among other things, replace Grantham's septic and HVAC systems.
The Employer/Carrier filed a petition for full Commission review of the AJ's order. As relevant to this appeal, the Employer/Carrier argued that the AJ's order to replace Grantham's septic and HVAC systems was "beyond the [Employer/Carrier's] obligations [under] Mississippi Code Annotated [section] 71-3-15(1)." The Employer/Carrier also "reurge[d]" its prior petition for review regarding insurance for Grantham's van. Finally, the Employer/Carrier argued that the AJ's reliance on the opinions of a nurse case manager was an abuse of discretion and a due process violation. In a separate motion, the Employer/Carrier asked the Commission to admit additional evidence: a rebuttal report from "Accessible Housing Services."

Id. , at –––– – ––––, 2020 WL 7040956 at *1-2 (alterations in original) (footnote omitted).

¶6. On February 27, 2019, the Commission entered an order affirming the administrative judge's findings and denying the Employer/Carrier's motion. Id. In a separate, sua sponte order, the Commission sanctioned the Employer/Carrier "pursuant to its authority in [ Mississippi Code Annotated Section] 71-3-59 that the Employer/Carrier shall pay reasonable attorney's fees in the amount of $200.00 per hour for a total of 20 hours as a result of instituting an appeal without reasonable grounds and causing unnecessary delay in this matter." The Commission determined that the Employer/Carrier's appeal reviewing the AJ's order to replace the septic and HVAC systems was " ‘without reasonable grounds’ because there was no ‘medical evidence’ to dispute that...

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