State ex rel. DiGiacinto v. Indus. Comm'n of Ohio

Decision Date03 March 2020
Docket NumberNo. 2018-0953,2018-0953
Parties The STATE EX REL. DIGIACINTO, Appellee, v. INDUSTRIAL COMMISSION of Ohio, Appellant, et al.
CourtOhio Supreme Court

The Bainbridge Firm, L.L.C., Kara S. Dolan, and Casaundra L. Johnson, Columbus, for appellee.

Dave Yost, Attorney General, and Eric J. Tarbox, Assistant Attorney General, for appellant.

Per Curiam.

{¶ 1} The Tenth District Court of Appeals granted a limited writ of mandamus ordering appellant, the Industrial Commission of Ohio, to (1) vacate its decision denying the application of appellee, Paul A. Digiacinto, for permanent-total-disability ("PTD") compensation and (2) hold a new hearing on Digiacinto's application. The commission appealed. We reverse the Tenth District's judgment.

A. Injury and Claim History

{¶ 2} Digiacinto suffered a workplace injury in August 2001. His workers' compensation claim was approved for health issues relating to his back. He received temporary-total-disability ("TTD") compensation that ended in June 2003. In November 2003, a United States Social Security Administration administrative-law judge ("ALJ") granted Digiacinto's request for social-security disability benefits. The ALJ found that Digiacinto was severely impaired and disabled under the federal Social Security Act but that he retained the capacity to perform "the exertional demands of no more than sedentary work."

{¶ 3} In June 2006, Digiacinto applied for PTD compensation. In January 2007, a staff hearing officer ("SHO") denied his application. Based on a medical doctor's opinion that Digiacinto was capable of medium-level work, the SHO found that he could return to his former employment, which was in the medium-exertion category. Alternatively, the SHO found that based on his age, education, and work experience, Digiacinto could be retrained to perform entry-level unskilled and semi-skilled sedentary and light jobs. The SHO concluded that Digiacinto was capable of sustained gainful employment and therefore was not permanently and totally disabled.

{¶ 4} In August 2013, Digiacinto filed a second application for PTD compensation. In January 2014, after a hearing, an SHO denied that application as well. Based on a medical doctor's opinion that Digiacinto could perform sedentary work and on his age, education, and work history, the SHO concluded that Digiacinto was not permanently and totally disabled. In 2014, psychological conditions were added to Digiacinto's approved claim. The commission granted Digiacinto TTD compensation from August 8, 2014, through November 24, 2015.

B. Current PTD-Compensation Claim

{¶ 5} In July 2015, Digiacinto filed a third application for PTD compensation. He supported that application with the report of Dr. Marian Chatterjee, a psychologist, who opined that Digiacinto was unable to engage in sustained remunerative employment due to his allowed psychological conditions. In addition, Dr. Nicholas Varrati opined that Digiacinto was unable to engage in sustained remunerative employment due to his allowed physical conditions. The Bureau of Workers' Compensation argued that Digiacinto had voluntarily abandoned the workforce for reasons unrelated to his approved conditions, because he had last worked in December 2001 and had not sought work or participated in vocational rehabilitation since then. In response, Digiacinto presented a copy of the November 2003 decision by the federal ALJ.

{¶ 6} In its decision, the commission noted that in January 2007, it had found Digiacinto to be capable of medium-duty work, including his prior position, and in January 2014, it had found him to be capable of sedentary work. Despite these findings, the commission observed, Digiacinto had not sought work or pursued vocational rehabilitation at any time between June 2003, when his first period of TTD compensation was terminated, and February 2014, when his TTD compensation was reinstated. The commission concluded on this basis that Digiacinto had voluntarily abandoned the workforce, rendering him ineligible for compensation. It therefore denied Digiacinto's application for PTD compensation.

C. Mandamus Action

{¶ 7} Digiacinto sought from the Tenth District a writ of mandamus ordering the commission to vacate its order denying his application for PTD compensation. He argued that the commission abused its discretion by failing to find that the 2003 federal ALJ's decision excused him from searching for work, thereby preserving his eligibility for PTD compensation. 2018-Ohio-1999, 2018 WL 2317695, ¶ 63.

{¶ 8} A magistrate recommended that the court reject Digiacinto's argument and deny the writ. Id. at ¶ 64. The magistrate first observed that the commission's order did not mention the ALJ's decision. Id. at ¶ 78. But the magistrate concluded that this was not an abuse of discretion, because under State ex rel. Lovell v. Indus. Comm. , 74 Ohio St.3d 250, 658 N.E.2d 284 (1996), the commission is required to cite only the evidence that it relies on , and the presumption of regularity that attaches to commission proceedings permits the assumption that the commission considered all of the evidence before it. 2018-Ohio-1999 at ¶ 79. The magistrate therefore concluded that the commission had considered the ALJ's decision but rejected it as unpersuasive. Id. at ¶ 80.

{¶ 9} The magistrate further concluded that the ALJ's decision could not have been used to advance or defeat Digiacinto's PTD-compensation claim because the medical impairments underlying that federal social-security decision included medical conditions that were not allowed conditions for purposes of Digiacinto's state workers' compensation claim. Id. at ¶ 82-84, citing State ex rel. Waddle v. Indus. Comm. , 67 Ohio St.3d 452, 454, 619 N.E.2d 1018 (1993) (a PTD-compensation award cannot be based on a nonallowed condition).

{¶ 10} Digiacinto objected to the magistrate's conclusions that the commission actually considered the ALJ's decision and that the ALJ's decision cannot be used to support a showing that Digiacinto was incapable of returning to work and therefore did not abandon the workforce. Id. at ¶ 16.1 The Tenth District sustained both of Digiacinto's objections.

{¶ 11} As to the first objection, it concluded that "the ALJ's decision would seem to carry considerable weight in the commission's determination of Digiacinto's capability to work and, consequently, whether he left the workforce of his own volition," and therefore, "the magistrate could not presume that the commission had considered ‘all the evidence’ before it, specifically the ALJ's decision." 2018-Ohio-1999 at ¶ 23. As to the second objection, the Tenth District concluded that Digiacinto had submitted the ALJ's decision to show that he did not abandon the workforce—not to establish his entitlement to PTD compensation—so the magistrate improperly focused on the fact that the ALJ's decision was based in part on nonallowed conditions. Id. at ¶ 26-29.

{¶ 12} The Tenth District held that the commission's failure to mention the ALJ's decision in its order was an abuse of discretion. Id. at ¶ 23. It therefore granted a limited writ ordering the commission to vacate its order and conduct a new hearing in accordance with the court's decision. Id. at ¶ 31.

A. Mandamus Standard

{¶ 13} The commission is the exclusive finder of fact in workers' compensation matters; a court's role in adjudicating a mandamus complaint is to determine whether the commission abused its discretion by entering an order that is not based on some evidence in the record. See State ex rel. Manpower of Dayton, Inc. v. Indus. Comm. , 147 Ohio St.3d 360, 2016-Ohio-7741, 65 N.E.3d 751, ¶ 11.

B. The Commission Was Not Required to Discuss the ALJ's Decision

{¶ 14} The commission argues that the Tenth District erred by holding that it was required to discuss the ALJ's decision in its order denying Digiacinto's application for PTD compensation on grounds of voluntary abandonment of the workforce. We agree.

{¶ 15} The commission is required to consider all of the evidence that is properly before it. State ex rel. Buttolph v. Gen. Motors Corp., Terex Div. , 79 Ohio St.3d 73, 77, 679 N.E.2d 702 (1997). But the commission is not required to list in its order each piece of evidence that it has considered. Id. ; see also State ex rel. Metz v. GTC, Inc. , 142 Ohio St.3d 359, 2015-Ohio-1348, 30 N.E.3d 941, ¶ 14. Rather, the commission's order need list only the evidence that the commission relied on in reaching its conclusion. Buttolph at 77, 679 N.E.2d 702 ; Metz at ¶ 14.

{¶ 16} "[B]ecause the commission does not have to list the evidence considered, the presumption of regularity that attaches to commission proceedings * * * gives rise to a second presumption—that the commission indeed considered all the evidence before it." Lovell , 74 Ohio St.3d at 252, 658 N.E.2d 284, citing State ex rel. Brady v. Indus. Comm. , 28 Ohio St.3d 241, 503 N.E.2d 173 (1986). However, under our decision in State ex rel. Fultz v. Indus. Comm. , 69 Ohio St.3d 327, 329, 631 N.E.2d 1057 (1994), there is an exception to this rule: if the commission does list the evidence it considered but omits a particular piece of evidence from that list, this court will presume that the commission overlooked it. See also State ex rel. Scouler v. Indus. Comm. , 119 Ohio St.3d 276, 2008-Ohio-3915, 893 N.E.2d 496, ¶ 17.

{¶ 17} If that evidence "could influence the outcome of the matter in question," this court will return the matter to the commission for further consideration. Id. ; see also Fultz at 329, 631 N.E.2d 1057 ("Because these reports could be the key to the success or failure of claimant's application, the cause must be returned to the commission for further consideration"). But "[w]here the omitted evidence ‘is incapable of supporting a result contrary to that already reached by the commission,’ failure to consider it is not fatal and...

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