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

Decision Date21 December 2021
Docket Number20AP-386
Citation2021 Ohio 4494
CourtOhio Court of Appeals
PartiesState ex rel. Christopher R. McDonald [Deceased], c/o Amanda Carpenter, (Dependent), Relator, v. Industrial Commission of Ohio et al., Respondents.

IN MANDAMUS ON OBJECTIONS TO THE MAGISTRATE'S DECISION

On brief:

Graham & Graham Co., L.PA., and Robert G. McClelland, for relator.

Dave Yost, Attorney General, and John R. Smart, for respondent Industrial Commission of Ohio.

Kegler, Brown, Hill & Ritter Co., L.PA., David M McCarty, Randall W. Mikes, and Jane K. Gleaves, for respondent J&J Schlaegel, Inc.

DECISION

DORRIAN, P.J.

{¶ 1} Relator Christopher R. McDonald, deceased ("decedent"), c/o Amanda Carpenter ("Carpenter"), filed this action in mandamus seeking a writ to compel respondent Industrial Commission of Ohio ("commission") to reverse or vacate its order finding Carpenter was ineligible for death benefits because she was not a dependent of decedent pursuant to R.C. 4123.59(D) and issue an order finding that Carpenter is a dependent of decedent.

I. Facts and Procedural History

{¶ 2} This matter arises out of the sudden death of decedent on April 8, 2019. Decedent was killed, while in the course of and arising out of his employment with respondent J&J Schlaegel, Inc., when a trench he was working in collapsed. As relevant to this matter, decedent was survived by Carpenter, who was engaged to be married to decedent at the time of his death, and the couple's two minor children.

{¶ 3} An FROI-1 form signed by Carpenter on April 22, 2019 was submitted to the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation ("BWC"). On April 23, 2019, Carpenter and the couple's two minor children filed an application for death benefits. In an affidavit in support of her application for death benefits dated April 22, 2019, Carpenter stated she had been in a committed relationship with decedent for the past 11 years and was his fiancée at the time of his death. Carpenter and decedent had two minor children together. Carpenter and decedent owned property together with joint rights of survivorship and were jointly responsible for mortgage payments on such property. Carpenter and decedent were jointly responsible for five different credit cards and payments on two vehicles. Carpenter and decedent each held life insurance policies in which the other was named as the sole beneficiary. Carpenter stated that she only worked part-time averaging approximately eight hours per week and decedent provided primary financial support for Carpenter and the couple's two minor children.

{¶ 4} On May 21, 2019, BWC issued an order approving death benefits for the two minor children but denying Carpenter's request for death benefits. On May 24, 2019, Carpenter appealed the BWC order.

{¶ 5} On June 18, 2019, a district hearing officer ("DHO") held a hearing. On June 21, 2019, the DHO mailed an order affirming the BWC's order. Specifically, the DHO found the claim was allowed for death benefits and that the two minor children were wholly dependent on decedent for support and were entitled to death benefits. The DHO, however, found Carpenter did not meet the definition of wholly dependent person entitled to death benefits under R.C. 4123.59(D) because she was not a surviving spouse, pursuant to R.C. 4123.59(D)(1), and case law had not extended the provisions of R.C. 4123.59(D)(2) to an unmarried person in a relationship with decedent. On July 1, 2019, Carpenter appealed the DHO's order.

{¶ 6} On August 7, 2019, a staff hearing officer ("SHO") held a hearing. On August 15, 2019, the SHO mailed an order vacating the DHO's order. The SHO found Carpenter and the two minor children were dependent on decedent at the time of death and were entitled to death benefits. The SHO found Carpenter was not entitled to the presumption of being wholly dependent on decedent for support under R.C. 4123.59(D)(1) as a surviving spouse. Nevertheless, the SHO found the last paragraph of R.C. 4123.59(D) provided for the determination of actual dependency based on the specific facts of each particular case. As a result, the SHO concluded that Carpenter met her burden of proving she was actually wholly dependent on decedent for support at the time of his death because she was a member of the family pursuant to R.C. 4123.59(D) based on the specific facts of the case. On August 28, 2019, the BWC administrator filed an appeal.

{¶ 7} On September 26, 2019, the commission held a hearing. On October 30, 2019, after further review and discussion, the commission mailed an order vacating the SHO's order. The commission ordered medical, hospital, and funeral expenses paid. The commission ordered death benefits to be paid to the two minor children, but denied benefits for Carpenter. The commission found there was no presumption of dependency for Carpenter. Furthermore, the commission found Carpenter was not a dependent of decedent as a surviving spouse under R.C. 4123.59.[1]

{¶ 8} On August 13, 2020, Carpenter filed a complaint for writ of mandamus requesting this court order the commission to reverse or vacate its October 30, 2019 order and grant death benefits to Carpenter. Pursuant to Civ.R. 53 and Loc.R. 13(M) of the Tenth District Court of Appeals, this matter was referred to a magistrate who issued a decision, including findings of fact and conclusions of law, which is appended hereto. The magistrate recommends this court deny Carpenter's request for a writ of mandamus.

{¶ 9} Relator has filed the following three objections to the magistrate's decision:

[I.] THE MAGISTRATE ERRED IN CONCLUDING THAT THE INDUSTRIAL COMMISSION HAD DETERMINED THAT AMANDA CARPENTER WAS NOT A "MEMBER OF THE FAMILY" ENTITLED TO DEATH BENEFITS PURSUANT TO R.C. 4123.59(D)(2).
[II.] THE MAGISTRATE ERRED IN THE ANALYSIS OF STATUTORY INTERPRETATION UPON DETERMINING THAT R.C. 4123.59(D)(2) WAS AMBIGUOUS.
[III.] THE MAGISTRATE ERRED IN CONCLUDING THAT AMANDA CARPENTER WAS NOT ENTITLED TO DEATH BENEFITS DESPITE THE FACT THAT SHE "BEARS TO THE DECEASED EMPLOYEE THE RELATION OF SURVIVING SPOUSE" PURSUANT TO R.C. 4123.59(D)(2).
II. Discussion

{¶ 10} Carpenter raises three objections to the magistrate's decision. In her first objection, Carpenter contends the magistrate misstated the commission's findings with regard to Carpenter's status as a "member of the family" under R.C. 4123.59(D)(2). Carpenter also argues in her first objection that the commission failed to provide any construction of the definition of "member of the family." In her second and third objections, Carpenter contends the magistrate's interpretation of R.C. 4123.59(D) was erroneous. As this matter turns on the operation and meaning of terms contained within R.C. 4123.59(D), we begin by analyzing and interpreting the relevant statutory provisions.

A. Statutory Interpretation

{¶ 11} When interpreting statutory provisions, "our paramount concern is the legislative intent in enacting the statute." State ex rel. Steele v. Morrissey, Aud., 103 Ohio St.3d 355, 2004-Ohio-4960, ¶ 21, citing State ex rel. United States Steel Corp. v. Zaleski, 98 Ohio St.3d 395, 2003-Ohio-1630, ¶ 12." 'If the meaning of the statute is unambiguous and definite, it must be applied as written and no further interpretation is necessary.'" State ex rel. Natl. Lime & Stone Co. v. Marion Cty. Bd. of Commrs., 152 Ohio St.3d 393, 2017-Ohio-8348, ¶ 14, quoting State ex rel. Savarese v. Buckeye Local School Dist. Bd. of Edn., 74 Ohio St.3d 543, 545 (1996). See State v. Porterfield, 106 Ohio St.3d 5, 2005-Ohio-3095, ¶ 11 (stating that "[o]nly when a definitive meaning proves elusive should rules for construing ambiguous language be employed. Otherwise, allegations of ambiguity become self-fulfilling"); State v. J.L.S., 10th Dist. No. 18AP-125, 2019-Ohio-4173, ¶ 71. In determining legislative intent," 'we first review the statutory language, reading words and phrases in context and construing them according to the rules of grammar and common usage.'" In re Acubens, LLC, 10th Dist. No. 17AP-870, 2018-Ohio-2607, ¶ 14, quoting Steele at ¶ 21, citing State ex rel. Rose v. Lorain Cty. Bd. of Elections, 90 Ohio St.3d 229, 231 (2000), and R.C. 1.42.

{¶ 12} Statutory interpretation presents a question of law subject to a de novo standard of review. Natl. Lime & Stone at ¶ 14, citing Ceccarelli v Levin, 127 Ohio St.3d 231, 2010-Ohio-5681, ¶ 8; State ex rel. Peregrine Health Servs. of Columbus, LLC v. Sears, Dir., Ohio Dept. of Medicaid, 10th Dist. No. 18AP-16, 2020-Ohio-3426, ¶ 23. The Supreme Court of Ohio has held that courts" 'must give due deference to an administrative interpretation formulated by an agency that has accumulated substantial expertise, and to which the General Assembly has delegated the responsibility of implementing the legislative command.'" Bernard v. Unemp. Comp. Rev. Comm., 136 Ohio St.3d 264, 2013-Ohio-3121, ¶ 12, quoting Swallow v. Indus. Comm., 36 Ohio St.3d 55, 57 (1988). If the statute in question" 'is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency's answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute.'" Lang v. Dir., Ohio Dept. of Job & Family Servs., 134 Ohio St.3d 296, 2012-Ohio-5366, ¶ 12, quoting Chevron, U.SA., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 843 (1984). See Collateral Mgt. LLC v. Ohio Dept. of Commerce, 10th Dist. No. 20AP-123, 2021-Ohio-1641, ¶ 24, citing Clark v. State Teachers Retirement Sys., 10th Dist. No. 18AP-105, 2018-Ohio-4680, ¶ 38. However, courts grant no deference to an administrative agency's interpretation of a statute when that interpretation conflicts with the express terms of an unambiguous statute. Employer's Choice Plus, Inc. v. Ohio Dept. of Job &...

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