State ex rel. Case v. Industrial Com'n of Ohio, 86-667

Decision Date26 December 1986
Docket NumberNo. 86-667,86-667
Citation504 N.E.2d 30,28 Ohio St.3d 383
Parties, 28 O.B.R. 442 The STATE ex rel. CASE, Appellant, v. INDUSTRIAL COMMISSION OF OHIO, Appellee, et al.
CourtOhio Supreme Court

The parties' stipulation of the partial record and exhibits, together with the pertinent findings of fact made by the court of appeals referee, 1 reveal the following sequence of events.

Appellant Vernella Case's employment with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company ("Goodyear") ceased on July 23, 1974. During her employment she was repeatedly exposed to, among other things, paint fumes and fiberglass dust in the course of performing her job duties sanding fiberglass fenders. Shortly after leaving Goodyear, appellant filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits, alleging she was unable to work because of bronchitis and injury to her lungs as a result of her exposure to the aforementioned fumes and dust particles. Over a year later, the administrator issued an order denying the occupational injury claim. He stated, inter alia, that:

"The Administrator finds that although proof on file shows that the claimant has contracted the disease of 'Acute Bronchial Allergic Reaction', the same is not causing total disability and it is, therefore, found that under the provisions of Section 4123.68 of the Ohio Revised Code no benefits and/or compensation can be paid at this time in this claim."

Appellant timely sought review of the order by the regional board of review which, nearly two years later, affirmed the administrator's order.

Again, appellant promptly sought further administrative review by the appellee, Industrial Commission. The claim was referred to the commission's medical section for an examination and report concerning the extent of appellant's impairment. Nearly two years later, on March 20, 1980, the order of the regional review board was affirmed by the commission.

Since appellant was receiving no workers' compensation benefits, she timely appealed the commission's ruling to the Court of Common Pleas of Jackson County which, after over three years of pendency, dismissed the appeal on July 8, 1983. The trial court reasoned that the administrative decision was one involving extent of disability from which, under R.C. 4123.519, judicial appeal does not lie.

Appellant then submitted a claim for the determination of the percentage of permanent partial disability. (This claim is not before this court in this appeal.) Concurrent with the administrative proceedings on her second application, appellant also filed an original action in mandamus on August 16, 1984 in the Court of Appeals for Franklin County. Appellant requested that the appellate court grant her a writ ordering appellee to vacate its order of March 20, 1980 and to issue an order finding that appellant is entitled to temporary total disability from the date she last worked for Goodyear (July 23, 1974) until she returned to work for another company (July 23, 1976). The matter was referred to a referee for a report and recommendation. The referee essentially found that the claim file did not contain "some evidence" supporting the commission's order. The referee also rejected appellee's contention "that laches apply to bar relator's action." The referee recommended that a writ of mandamus issue ordering the commission to, inter alia, vacate its order.

Objections to the referee's report were filed which the appellant court viewed as being "two-fold in nature." Pertaining to the first, the appellate court rejected appellee's contention that the referee failed to apply the appropriate standard for determination of whether appellant was temporarily and totally disabled under R.C. 4123.56. However, on the second issue, two members of a divided appellate court agreed with appellee's contention that laches should be a bar to issuing the writ. Noting that appellant did not seek the issuance of the writ until over four years after the issuance of the commission's final order, the court found the delay to be both unreasonable in length and prejudicial to appellee. Accordingly, the court of appeals denied the writ of mandamus.

Judge Whiteside's dissenting opinion in the appellate court stated that he would "adopt the referee's report and recommendation." The dissent indicated that most of the delays were attributable to the pendency of the administrative and judicial proceedings. As concerned appellant's unsuccessful pursuit of a remedy at law, Judge Whiteside stated that appellant " * * * should not be found guilty of laches for litigating that issue in the common pleas court before bringing this action in mandamus. Only if we were to hold that relator had an adequate remedy of appeal of the common pleas court judgment to the court of appeals should resort to mandamus be denied. However, the adequacy of that remedy of appeal would depend on whether relator has a clear legal right to appeal the administrative order from which the appeal was taken. As indicated, the resolution of the issue is not clear, and there is no reported decision determining whether a claimant in an occupational disease case has the right of appeal under R.C. 4123.519 from an order denying participation in the workers' compensation fund because the extent of disability is not sufficient to permit such participation."

Concluding that the majority's cited case authority was not in point, the dissent opined that laches should not predicate the denial of the writ since the action was commenced " * * * approximately one year after the expiration of * * * [relator's] time for appeal from the common pleas court dismissal of her appeal."

The cause is now before this court upon an appeal as of right.

Larrimer & Larrimer, Richard S. Hunter and Craig Aalyson, Columbus, for appellant.

Anthony J. Celebrezze, Jr., Atty. Gen., and Michael L. Squillace, Columbus, for appellee.

PER CURIAM.

Our first query is whether the court of appeals erred in holding that laches bars appellant's action in mandamus. The doctrine of laches is based upon the maxim vigilantibus non dormientibus jura subveniunt (the laws aid the vigilant, and not those who slumber on their rights). In our unanimous opinion in Connin v. Bailey (1984), 15 Ohio St.3d 34, 35, 472 N.E.2d 328, we set forth the applicable law as follows:

" 'Laches is an omission to assert a right for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time, under circumstances prejudicial to the adverse party. It signifies delay independent of limitations in statutes. It is lodged principally in equity jurisprudence.' "

In order to invoke the doctrine, the following must be established:

"Delay in asserting a right does not of itself constitute laches, and in order to successfully invoke the equitable doctrine of laches it must be shown that the person for whose benefit the doctrine will operate has been materially prejudiced by the delay of the person asserting his claim." Smith v. Smith (1959), 168 Ohio St. 447, 156 N.E.2d 113 , paragraph three of the syllabus, approved and followed in Connin, supra, 15 Ohio St.3d at 35-36, 472 N.E.2d 328. Accord Kinney v. Mathias (1984), 10 Ohio St.3d 72, 461 N.E.2d 901.

The longstanding purpose of the doctrine is that a court will not aid in enforcing " ' * * * stale demands, where the party has slept upon his rights, or acquiesced for a great length of time. * * * ' " Piatt v. Vattier (1835), 34 U.S. (9 Pet.) 405, 416, 9 L.Ed. 173. Justice Story, who delivered the opinion of the court in Vattier, explained that " '[n]othing can call forth this court into activity but conscience, good faith and reasonable diligence. Where these are wanting, the court is passive and does nothing; laches and neglect are always discountenanced; and therefore from the beginning of this jurisdiction there was always a limitation of suit in this court.' * * * " Id. at 416-417.

As applied to this scenario, we believe it was reasonable in 1980 for appellant to pursue the denial of workers' compensation benefits by first pursuing an action at law in the common pleas court. 2 The court below noted in pertinent part, that " * * * much of the intervening [i.e., approximately three of the four years] time was spent litigating the jurisdictional aspects of a direct appeal from that order in common pleas court for which jurisdiction was appropriately [arguably, see fn. 2, supra ] denied because the order was not appealable pursuant to R.C. 4123.519 * * *."

We believe that the record, far from exhibiting a negligent omission in appellant's assertion of her rights, is replete with diligent and timely assertions of her claimed rights, both administratively and judicially.

Appellant waited approximately one year to commence this extraordinary action following the expiration of her time for appeal from the common pleas court dismissal. Under the circumstances, this period simply does not constitute the unreasonable length of time necessary for appellee to successfully invoke the equitable doctrine of laches as a bar. Cf. State, ex rel. Inland Division, v. Adams (1982), 1 Ohio St.3d 44, 45, 437 N.E.2d 605 (complaint for a writ of mandamus filed in the court of appeals sixteen months following the Industrial Commission's final order). Additionally, the remainder of the four-year delay was chiefly occasioned by the pendency of the trial court action and not by appellant's abandonment of her claim. Since we find that this original action was seasonably commenced in the court of appeals, we conclude that the court of appeals erred in rejecting the referee's recommendation that laches not bar the action.

In In re Petition for Mallory (1985), 17 Ohio St.3d 34, 476 N.E.2d 1045, we stated, with all justices concurring, that "[i]n an appeal as of right from a judgment of the court of appeals involving an extraordinary writ, this court will consider the case as if the action originally had been filed here." See, also, e.g., State, ex rel. Gatlin, v. Yellow Freight...

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