Willis v. Ohio Dep't of Transp.

Decision Date12 April 2016
Docket NumberNo. 15CA13.,15CA13.
Citation50 N.E.3d 581
Parties Michael E. WILLIS, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. OHIO DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, (ODOT) and Stephen Buehrer, Administrator, Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation, Defendants–Appellees.
CourtOhio Court of Appeals

David R. Spears, Spears & Associates Co., L.P.A., Ironton, OH, for appellant Michael Willis.

J. Miles Gibson, Isaac Wiles Burkholder & Teetor, LLC, Columbus, OH, for appellee Ohio Department of Transportation.

Michael DeWine, Ohio Attorney General and Latawnda N. Moore, Assistant Attorney General, Columbus, OH, for appellee Stephen Buehrer, Administrator, Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

HOOVER, J.

{¶ 1} Plaintiff-appellant Michael E. Willis (Willis) appeals a decision from the Lawrence County Common Pleas Court granting summary judgment in favor of defendants-appellees Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and Stephen Buehrer, Administrator, Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation (BWC). Willis brought an appeal before the Lawrence County Common Pleas Court from an Ohio Industrial Commission (“Commission”) order pursuant to R.C. 4123.512. Willis specifically appealed the denial of his request to participate in the Ohio workers' compensation fund for the condition of post-laminectomy syndrome. Willis and ODOT both filed separate motions for summary judgment. ODOT argued that a workers' compensation claim is not recognized for a symptom such as post-laminectomy. The Administrator joined ODOT's motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of ODOT and the Administrator.

{¶ 2} Willis now presents two assignments of error challenging the trial court's decision to grant summary judgment in favor of ODOT and the Administrator. First, Willis argues that the trial court erred in finding that post-laminectomy syndrome is a symptom and not a medical condition. Second, Willis argues that the trial court committed reversible error when it indicated that mandamus would be his appropriate course of action in this case.

{¶ 3} The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of ODOT and the Administrator because it found that post-laminectomy syndrome is a symptom rather than a condition and is not compensable under Ohio workers' compensation law. The trial court relied upon Edney v. Life Ambulance Serv., Inc., 10th Dist. No. 11AP–1090, 2012-Ohio-4305, 2012 WL 4321163 and other appellate decisions that found certain symptoms do not rise to the level of a condition for purpose of workers' compensation claims. However, a BWC policy specifically recognizes “postlaminectomy syndrome ” as an allowed condition in a workers' compensation claim. We find that Edney is distinguishable from the case at hand because the claimant in Edney requested recognition of a generic condition of chest pain. Here, Willis sets forth a specific condition of post-laminectomy syndrome that the BWC has recognized as allowable. We find that the trial court erred in relying on Edney to find that post-laminectomy is not a compensable condition.

{¶ 4} We also find that the trial court's conclusion prevented it from addressing the question of fact of whether Willis may participate in the workers' compensation fund for the condition of post-laminectomy. We decline to answer that question of fact here. Therefore, Willis's first assignment of error is sustained; and the trial court's decision granting summary judgment in favor of ODOT and the Administrator is reversed.

{¶ 5} Willis's second assignment of error asserts that the trial court committed reversible error by suggesting that mandamus would be the appropriate action to obtain the relief he desires. Because our disposition of his first assignment of error reversed the trial court's decision granting summary judgment, Willis's second assignment of error is rendered moot.

{¶ 6} Therefore, we reverse the decision of the trial court granting summary judgment in favor of ODOT and the Administrator and remand this cause to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Facts and Procedural Posture

{¶ 7} We note that of the three parties to this appeal, only Willis provided a statement of facts. The Administrator accepted and adopted the statement of the case and statement of facts set forth by Willis in his appellate brief. Like the Administrator, ODOT failed to provide a statement of facts and also failed to provide a statement of the case. However, ODOT did not adopt the facts as set forth in Willis's appellate brief. Therefore, besides what is contained in the parties' motions in the trial court below, Willis's statement of facts is uncontroverted.

{¶ 8} Willis suffered an injury in February 1990 while he was employed by ODOT. Willis then sought to participate in the workers' compensation fund for his injuries. Willis's claim, number PEL235134, was allowed for multiple conditions including disc displacement, sciatica, bulging disc at L4–L5 and L5–S1, and left lateral herniated disc at L5–S1.

{¶ 9} In March 2004, Willis underwent lumbar spinal surgery. The BWC and the Managed Care Organization approved and paid for the operation. Willis was able to return to work thereafter. However, Willis sought additional treatment for his back in 2012. Willis received treatment from Dr. David Caraway. Dr. Caraway recommended and requested that Willis be evaluated for a spinal cord stimulator trial. Both the BWC and the Commission denied Willis's request for a spinal cord stimulator. The Commission concluded that the treatment of a spinal cord stimulator was directed at non-allowed conditions.1

{¶ 10} In response to the denial of treatment, Willis requested that the condition of post-laminectomy syndrome be added to his claim. According to Willis, the district hearing officer granted his request. However, at the next level, the staff hearing officer vacated the decision of the district hearing officer and denied Willis's request. Willis then filed an appeal of the staff hearing officer's decision with the Commission. The Commission refused to hear the appeal of the staff hearing officer's order.

{¶ 11} In October 2013, Willis filed a notice of appeal with the Lawrence County Common Pleas Court pursuant to R.C. 4123.512. Soon after, Willis filed a complaint.

{¶ 12} In February 2015, ODOT filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that post-laminectomy syndrome is a description of Willis's pain after a failed spinal surgery and that subjective pain syndromes are not allowable. ODOT attached an affidavit of Dr. Edwin Season to its motion for summary judgment. Dr. Season opined that post-laminectomy syndrome is a description of Willis's pain after a failed spinal surgery, and not an allowed condition.

{¶ 13} Willis also filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing (1) that post-laminectomy syndrome is a condition, not a symptom, (2) that the BWC has made a specific rule that post-laminectomy syndrome is a compensable injury, and (3) that both medical opinions before the trial court are consistent with the criteria needed to diagnose post-laminectomy syndrome. Willis attached both the affidavit of Dr. Season and an affidavit from Dr. D.J. Carey II to his motion for summary judgment. In his affidavit, Dr. Carey states that Willis has clearly met all the criteria for the diagnosis of post-laminectomy syndrome.

{¶ 14} Thereafter, the Administrator filed a motion joining ODOT's motion for summary judgment. We note that in the motion, the Administrator stated that the Commission was not a party to this action and “Thus, the commission's policies have little if nothing to do with the issue at hand. Instead, if Willis chooses to challenge the commission's denial of a pain pump (the issue at the heart of this case), his remedy is to challenge that decision in mandamus.”

{¶ 15} In April 2015, the trial court found that Willis's requests “deal with a symptom rather than a condition and are not compensable under Ohio Workers' Compensation Law.” The trial court also stated, “Additionally, both parties' Counsel seem to agree that a mandamus action against the Ohio Industrial Commission is the appropriate way to try to obtain the relief which Plaintiff desires concerning his failed lumbar back syndrome, i.e. post-laminectomy syndrome.” Thus, the trial court overruled Willis's motion for summary judgment and granted summary judgment in favor of ODOT and the Administrator.

{¶ 16} In June 2015, the trial court filed its judgment entry stating, “Accordingly, the appeal filed by Plaintiff pursuant to O.R.C. 4123.512 requesting recognition of additional conditions is hereby denied, and the claim is specifically denied for the condition post laminectomy syndrome.” Willis then filed this timely appeal.

II. The Common Pleas Court's Jurisdiction Pursuant to R.C. 4123.512(A)

{¶ 17} As a preliminary matter, we will determine whether the trial court had jurisdiction over this case. In particular, did Willis's notice of appeal to the trial court substantially comply with R.C. 4123.512, and thereby vest jurisdiction in the Lawrence County Common Pleas Court? We believe that it did.

{¶ 18} Willis's notice of appeal before the trial court stated:

PlaintiffAppellant hereby serves Notice of Appeal and does appeal from an Order of the Ohio Industrial Commission dated September 10, 2013, which affirmed a decision of the Staff Hearing Officer of the Ohio Industrial Commission dated August 20, 2013. PlaintiffAppellant further states that the employer is Chillicothe, Ohio Department of Transportation, P.O. Box 899, Columbus Ohio 43216. The claim number is PEL235134.

{¶ 19} Pursuant to R.C. 4123.512(A), a claimant or an employer may appeal an order of the Commission to the common pleas court. Also, [l]ike appeal may be taken from an order of a staff hearing officer* * * from which the commission has refused to hear an appeal.” R.C. 4123.512(A). Accordingly, [w]here the Industrial Commission refuses to review a decision of a staff hearing...

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