State News : West Virginia

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West Virginia

SPILMAN THOMAS & BATTLE, PLLC

  304-340-3801

TO: NWCDN STATE NEWS

FROM: Dill Battle, Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC

DATE: 09/26/2022

RE: West Virginia Workers' Compensation News – 4th Quarter 2022

Intermediate Court of Appeals

The Intermediate Court of Appeals (ICA) started operations July 1, 2022, and has not issued any opinions. According to a report from the Workers’ Compensation Board of Review (BOR), since July 1, forty-two cases have been appealed to the ICA from the BOR.

 Supreme Court of Appeals

 The second term of the 2022 court year for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals began September 7. The term ends in November. On September 19, 2022, the Court issued 18 memorandum decisions in workers’ compensation cases. http://www.courtswv.gov/supreme-court/opinions.html

On September 13, the Court held oral argument on a consolidated case in Charles Delbert v. Marshall County Coal Resources, Inc., No. 20-0537 and 21-0944. The case deals with W. Va. Code 23-4-16(e), which states that a claimant may only have one active request for a permanent disability award pending at any one time. Mr. Delbert filed an application for a PTD award. While the PTD issue was pending, he sought reopening of his Occupational Pneumoconiosis claim for additional PPD benefits and medical treatment. The claim administrator denied Mr. Delbert’s reopening request pursuant to W. Va. Code 23-4-16. Mr. Delbert argues that the claim administrator erred in denying medical treatment, when legislative policies mandate prompt medical treatment for OP. Because litigation is lengthy when seeking a PTD award, claimant asserts that the ruling is an absurd result. Mr. Delbert assets that W. Va. Code § 23-4-8d expressly allows for “a request for medical services, durable medical goods or other medical supplies in an occupational pneumoconiosis claim may be made at any time.” The second case is the employer’s appeal of Mr. Delbert’s PTD award, which was granted following litigation.

 

Reported Supreme Court Decisions

Timeliness of PTD Application

In Murray American Energy, Inc., v. Harshey, No. 20-0716, 2022 WL 4299577, (September 19, 2022) (memorandum decision), the issue before the Court was the timeliness of filing an application for permanent total disability benefits. Mr. Harshey was injured on January 20, 2012, when he was struck by a ram car. On March 7, 2014, he was granted a 14% permanent partial disability award for his psychiatric injuries. On November 10, 2015, the claims administrator granted a 39% permanent partial disability award for his physical injuries. The Office of Judges reversed the claims administrator’s November 10, 2015, decision and granted a 49% permanent partial disability award on November 15, 2017. On June 29, 2018, the Board of Review affirmed the Office of Judges’ Order. The decision was affirmed by the West Virginia Supreme Court on May 30, 2019. Murray American Energy, Inc., v. Harshey, No. 18-0676, 2019 WL 2406702 (W. Va. May 30, 2019) (memorandum decision). Less than a month after the Supreme Court’s decision, Mr. Harshey filed his Application for Permanent Total Disability Benefits on June 18, 2019, stating that he had been awarded a 49% and a 14% permanent partial disability award for his January 20, 2012, injury. The claims administrator denied the application for a permanent total disability award because it was untimely filed on July 5, 2019.

In its March 2, 2020, Order, the Office of Judges reversed the claims administrator’s denial of the claim and remanded the case with instructions to find Mr. Harshey’s application to be timely filed. The Office of Judges noted that West Virginia Code § 23-4-16(a)(1) provides that “in any claim that has been closed without the entry of an order regarding the degree of impairment, or in any claim closed on a no lost time basis, reopening requests must be filed within 5 years of the date of the closure. Only two reopening requests may be filed within that 5 year period.” Further, West Virginia Code § 23-4-16(a)(2) states “in any claim in which an award of permanent impairment has been made, reopening requests must be filed within 5 years of the date of the initial award. Only two reopening requests may be filed within that 5 year period.” Mr. Harshey was granted an initial permanent partial disability award on March 7, 2014. He filed his application for a permanent total disability award on June 18, 2019, clearly outside of the five year time period. Mr. Harshey argued his application should be considered timely based on equity and based on West Virginia Code § 23-4-16(e).

The Office of Judges found dispositive Mr. Harshey’s argument regarding West Virginia Code § 23-4-16(d). West Virginia Code § 23-4-16(e) states that “[a] claimant may have only one active request for a permanent disability award pending in a claim at any one time. Any new request that is made while another is pending shall be consolidated into the former request.” In the case at issue, Mr. Harshey was granted a 39% permanent partial disability award on November 10, 2015, at which point he was eligible to apply for a permanent total disability award. See W. Va. Code § 23-4-6(n)(1) (providing that in order to apply for a permanent total disability award, a claimant “must have been awarded the sum of fifty percent in prior permanent partial disability awards”). However, the decision was appealed to the Office of Judges, which reversed and granted a 49% permanent partial disability award. The employer then appealed the decision to the Board of Review and then to the Supreme Court. The Office of Judges rejected the employer’s argument that Mr. Harshey’s application for permanent partial total disability was untimely filed because he did not submit his application after the November 10, 2015, permanent partial disability award was granted. The Office of Judges reasoned that the November 10, 2015, 39% permanent partial disability award was a not final award because the decision was appealed and “there is no requirement which would cause the claimant to have to choose between whether he should forego his contention that he is entitled to a greater permanent partial disability award or whether an application for a permanent total disability award would be timely if the matter remains in litigation.” As the Office of Judges explained, “[s]ince the issue of the permanent partial disability award was not final, if the claimant had filed an application for a PTD award . . . then the application for PTD would not have been acted upon but would have been consolidated into the 39% PPD award issue.” Therefore, the Office of the Judges found that Mr. Harshey’s permanent partial disability award became final on May 30, 2019, when the West Virginia Supreme Court issued its ruling. Mr. Harshey filed his application for permanent total disability on June 18, 2019, and that application was received on July 5, 2019. Therefore, his application was timely and should be considered. The Board of Review adopted the findings of fact and conclusions of law of the Office of Judges and affirmed its Order on August 21, 2020.

The Supreme Court agreed with the reasoning and conclusions of the Office of Judges as affirmed by the Board of Review. West Virginia Code § 23-4-16(e) prevents a claimant from filing more than one claim for permanent disability at a time, whether that claim is for permanent total disability or permanent partial disability. Mr. Harshey in this case appealed his permanent partial disability award and was granted a greater award by the Office of Judges. The employer then appealed the decision to the Board of Review and the Supreme Court. In this time, the five year window for filing a claim for permanent total disability closed. However, as the Office of Judges found, the permanent partial disability award did not become final until the Supreme Court issued its ruling on May 30, 2019. See Murray American Energy, Inc., v. Harshey, No. 18-0676, 2019 WL 2406702 (W. Va. May 30, 2019) (memorandum decision). His application was timely filed because Mr. Harshey filed his application for permanent total disability less than a month later.

Compensability of CTS

In Bartram v. Coronado Group, LLC, No. 21-0479, 2022 WL 4299598 (W. Va. September 19, 2022) (memorandum decision), the issue before the Court was the compensability of carpal tunnel syndrome. Mr. Bartram was an equipment operator and alleged he developed carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of his job duties. A September 8, 2018, EMG, interpreted by Victor Jaramillo, M.D., showed entrapment neuropathy, mild on the left and moderate on the right, consistent with carpal tunnel syndrome. Cervical radiculopathy could not be ruled out. On February 21, 2019, Dr. Jaramillo found sensory deficit for pinprick and temperature in both hands and forearms upon examination. Tinel’s sign was positive in both wrists. He diagnosed polyneuropathy and carpal tunnel syndrome. C. Dale Cook, PA-C, with Family Healthcare Associates, Inc., saw Mr. Bartram on March 11, 2019, for bilateral hand pain and carpal tunnel syndrome. An EMG was positive for carpal tunnel syndrome. It was noted that Mr. Bartram was previously diagnosed with chronic lumbar pain and high cholesterol. The Employees’ and Physicians’ Report of Injury was completed on March 11, 2019, and indicates Mr. Bartram developed bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of his employment.

Mr. Bartram was a strip-mining equipment operator, and operated a loader, dozer, rock truck, and water truck. He also used hand tools. Samuel Muscari, D.O., opined Mr. Bartram developed carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of repetitive hand movements while operating heavy equipment. The employer presented evidence Mr. Bartram was a water truck operator, truck operator, loader operator, rock truck operator, and truck scale cleaner. He also picked up trash occasionally. Mr. Bartram drove a large rock truck with power steering and automatic shifting.

The employer also presented a Physician Review report by Rebecca Thaxton, M.D., in which she found that Mr. Bartram does not suffer from occupationally induced carpal tunnel syndrome. She noted that Mr. Bartram’s job duties involved driving various trucks and operating equipment. Mr. Bartram reported ten to twelve hours of continuous firm grip, bending, and rotating both wrists. She found that Mr. Bartram drove a large rock truck with power steering and shifting, and that there was no need to firmly grip the steering wheel because such trucks are manufactured to be easy to drive. The employer asserted that the wheel was as easy to turn as that in a normal vehicle. Further, Mr. Bartram’s job required a firm grip a few times a day. Mr. Bartram was required to occasionally tighten or loosen nozzles with wrenches but not frequently. Dr. Thaxton opined that Mr. Bartram’s job description was not consistent with an increased risk of development of carpal tunnel syndrome. The claims administrator rejected the claim on April 3, 2019.

Mr. Bartram testified in a September 17, 2019, deposition that he drove a water truck but had to run dozers and loaders sometimes. The loaders were operated with joysticks, and he had to operate one for six months when his water truck broke. Mr. Bartram stated that he also used hand tools to service equipment. Mr. Bartram testified that he currently has numbness and tingling in his hands that started three to five years prior. Mr. Bartram stated that he has high blood pressure and smoked cigarettes in the past. Mr. Bartram testified that his symptoms had not improved in the time that he had been off of work. A September 19, 2019, treatment note by Connie Cook, PA­C, indicates Mr. Bartram was seen for hand pain and was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome.

Prasadarao Mukkamala, M.D., performed an Independent Medical Evaluation on September 23, 2020, in which he noted that Mr. Bartram stopped working due to back pain. He underwent left carpal tunnel release eight months prior. The symptoms ceased for two months and then returned. Mr. Bartram stated that his symptoms did not get better after he stopped working. Dr. Mukkamala opined that Mr. Bartram’s carpal tunnel syndrome was not the result of his occupational duties. He stated that the fact that Mr. Bartram’s symptoms did not improve when he quit working indicates his carpal tunnel syndrome was not the result of his occupational duties. Dr. Mukkamala opined that Mr. Bartram’s job duties do not involve the high force, repetitive movements and awkward positioning known to cause carpal tunnel syndrome. He noted nonoccupational risk factors in the form of obesity and generalized polyneuropathy.

The Office of Judges affirmed the claims administrator’s rejection of the claim in its November 30, 2020, Order. It found that the most comprehensive evaluation of record was the one performed by Dr. Mukkamala. Dr. Mukkamala stated that Mr. Bartram’s work activities were not the kind of forceful repetitive movements known to cause carpal tunnel syndrome. Further, Mr. Bartram’s symptoms did not improve when he ceased working. Dr. Mukkamala also noted that Mr. Bartram had confounding conditions in the form of obesity and polyneuropathy, which increase his risk for carpal tunnel syndrome. The Board of Review adopted the findings of fact and conclusions of law of the Office of Judges and affirmed its Order on May 20, 2021.

The Court agreed with the reasoning and conclusions of the Office of Judges as affirmed by the Board of Review. For an injury to be compensable it must be a personal injury that was received in the course of employment, and it must have resulted from that employment. Barnett v. State Workmen’s Comp. Comm’r, 153 W. Va. 796, 172 S.E.2d 698 (1970). West Virginia Code of State Rules § 85-20-41.5 provides that workers who perform high force, repetitive manual movements are at high risk for the development of carpal tunnel syndrome. West Virginia Code of State Rules § 85-20-41.4 states that confounding conditions, such as obesity, can precipitate carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms. The evidence indicates that Mr. Bartram’s work duties do not involve the kind of high force, repetitive movements known to cause carpal tunnel syndrome. Further, Mr. Bartram suffers from conditions known to contribute to the development of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Justice William R. Wooton dissented and would set the case for Rule 19 oral argument.

On April 28, 2022 the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals released its opinion in James A. Moore, Jr. v. ICG Tygart Valley, LLC creating a new rebuttable presumption for claimants in workers’ compensation claims involving the compensability of preexisting disease or injury.

 

The Court issued a new Syllabus Point in this reported decision: “A claimant’s disability will be presumed to have resulted from the compensable injury if: (1) before the injury, the claimant’s preexisting disease or condition was asymptomatic, and (2) following the injury, the symptoms of the disabling disease or condition appeared and continuously manifested themselves afterwards. There still must be sufficient medical evidence to show a causal relationship between the compensable injury and the disability, or the nature of the accident, combined with the other facts of the case, raises a natural inference of causation. This presumption is not conclusive; it may be rebutted by the employer.”

 

In Moore, the claimant was a shuttle car operator in the employer’s coal mine.  In November 2016, he was operating the shuttle car when the brakes locked up and he was thrown upward, hitting his head on the canopy of the car.  The claim was held compensable for right shoulder sprain, upper back strain, and neck pain.  He was initially treated conservatively for his neck pain and started physical therapy.

 

The next month, December 2016, the claimant had an MRI of the neck which showed degenerative disc disease (spondylosis) and disc abnormalities in his cervical spine, but he had no history of neck injuries or cervical radiculopathy.

 

In January 2017, the claimant’s treating physician diagnosed him with cervical sprain and cervical radicular pain.  The physician opined the injury exacerbated the preexisting cervical degenerative disc disease causing new symptoms, but she believed the condition was not compensable because there was no change in pathology.

 

In February and March 2017, the claimant continued to complain of constant neck pain with radiation to the right arm and right arm numbness.

 

In April 2017, the claimant saw a pain management physician who diagnosed C6 cervical radiculopathy.  The claimant received treatment for that condition through 2017 and into 2018.

 

In October 2017, the claimant’s treating physician said he was at maximum medical improvement (“MMI”) for neck pain so the claim was closed for temporary total disability (“TTD”) benefits and a 0% permanent partial disability (“PPD”) award was entered.

 

In March 2018, the claimant’s pain management physician wrote a letter stating the cervical radiculopathy was directly related to the compensable injury.  He said it was probable that the cervical radiculopathy would have occurred even in the absence of degenerative disc disease.

 

In May 2018, the claimant was evaluated by an orthopedic surgeon who assessed C6 cervical radiculopathy, and he performed an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion at C5-6.  The surgeon completed a diagnosis update form asking that C5-6 spondylosis with C6 radiculopathy (diagnosis code M47.22) be added as a compensable condition of the claim.[1]

 

The request was denied.

 

Dr. Guberman performed an independent medical examination (“IME”) in November 2018 and diagnosed chronic post-traumatic strain of the c spine with C6 cervical radiculopathy (diagnosis code M54.12).  He stated that the claimant’s cervical radicular symptoms and surgery were directly related to the compensable injury.

 

The West Virginia Workers’ Compensation Office of Judges of Judges (“OOJ”) affirmed the claim administrator’s denial of the request to add C5-6 spondylosis with C6 radiculopathy as a compensable condition.  The West Virginia Workers’ Compensation Board of Review affirmed.

 

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals noted that the claimant had asked the OOJ to add cervical radiculopathy as a compensable diagnosis.  The Court noted that the OOJ had the statutory authority to rule on the request and modify the order of the claims administrator pursuant to W. Va. Code § 23-5-9(d)[2], but the OOJ abdicated its responsibility and defaulted to the diagnostic code listed on the form ignoring the reference to the physician’s notes that supported the claimant’s request.

 

The Court found that the claimant’s work injury aggravated his degenerative disc disease, which was previously asymptomatic, causing cervical radiculopathy.  The Court held that a claimant’s disability will be presumed to have resulted from the compensable injury if: (1) before the injury, the claimant’s preexisting disease or condition was asymptomatic, and (2) following the injury, the symptoms of the disabling disease or condition appeared and continuously manifested themselves afterwards. There still must be sufficient medical evidence to show a causal relationship between the compensable injury and the disability, or the nature of the accident, combined with the other facts of the case, raises a natural inference of causation. This presumption is not conclusive; it may be rebutted by the employer.

 

In the Moore case, the Court found the evidence showed that the claimant’s degenerative disc disease was asymptomatic, and that the compensable injury caused him to develop cervical radiculopathy, a new distinct injury.  The Court also noted that three (3) physicians opined the cervical radiculopathy was causally connected to the compensable injury.  Also, the claimant’s own treating physician stated that the injury triggered the condition leading to cervical radicular pain.

 

As a result, the Court reversed and remanded the case to add C6 cervical radiculopathy (diagnosis code M54.12), reopen TTD, and determine whether Claimant was entitled to a PPD award.

 

Although the Moore case creates new law, it does not significantly change the way a claim should be handled.

 

West Virginia claimants will have to meet certain threshold showings before the new rebuttable presumption is invoked.  Now, a claimant is going to have to show that before the injury, the claimant’s preexisting disease or condition was asymptomatic and that, following the compensable injury, the symptoms or disability first manifested and continuously manifested.  The Court distinguished the situation of when the claimant had been chronically symptomatic from the situation of new onset of radiculopathy that had not manifested previously. The Court also distinguished between the condition/diagnosis vs. the disability.  The condition/diagnosis of spondylosis was not compensable, it was just the disability/radiculopathy that was compensable.

 

This case raises several questions and issues that must be considered in the future.  First, the definition of “continuously” will likely be litigated as the Court did not define it.  What is “continuously?”  Is it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?  Is it every week?  Does it mean the new symptoms must be noted at every physician appointment, or will a medical record notation once every few months suffice? 

 

Second, how soon must the new symptoms appear after the injury in order to be compensable?  Does the onset have to be simultaneous with the injury?  What if the new disability does not arise until a week later?  A month later?  The Moore case did not specify whether the onset of the claimant’s radiculopathy was simultaneous with the initial injury.  If it was simultaneous, there is a risk for future cases that a delayed onset could expand the Court’s holding.  Part of the path forward for defense strategies is to ensure the invocation of the new rebuttable presumption does not neglect the required medical showing of a causal relationship between the compensable injury and the disability.

 

In the post-Moore world of workers’ compensation, it will be as important as ever to look for any prior symptoms for degenerative conditions when considering the compensability of radiculopathy after a strain.  Claimants may be able to establish that their preexisting degenerative conditions were asymptomatic by testifying they never had previously complained about those symptoms.  This is why it is imperative to collect claimants’ medical records (both current and past) after receiving a WC-1.  Not only do medical records often show claimants had pre-existing degenerative changes, but they also often show treatment for similar symptoms that claimants’ claim only manifested after the compensable injury

 

If a claimant requests a new condition be added as a compensable condition and the claimant is able to meet (1) and (2) of the rebuttable presumption but there is concern about medical causation, withhold a decision on compensability and send the claimant for a medical evaluation or obtain a medical record review.  It is important to remember the Moore decision does NOT prevent the employer from obtaining an expert opinion that the incident described could not have caused the claimant’s further disability.  Obtain a physician opinion to show there is no medical evidence of a causal relationship between the compensable injury and the disability.

 

If a claimant requests to add “spondylosis with radiculopathy” and you know that spondylosis is a degenerative condition but it was asymptomatic and the radiculopathy only began after the work injury, and medical causation is present, then it will be helpful to tailor the compensability decision to state that spondylosis is a degenerative condition that preexisted the compensable injury and the only accepted compensable condition is radiculopathy.  When future claims on point with the Moore decision enter litigation, practitioners must argue that the degenerative condition cannot be added to the claim, just the new condition.

 

By:

Charity Lawrence

304-720-4056

clawrence@spilmanlaw.com

 

Dill Battle

304-340-3823

dbattle@spilmanlaw.com

 

Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC

300 Kanawha Blvd, E.

Charleston, WV 25301

 

Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC is the West Virginia member of the National Workers' Compensation Defense Network. The NWCDN is a nationwide network of defense firms specializing in protecting employers and carriers in workers' compensation claims and regulatory matters. For more information, visit www.nwcdn.com.

 

 



[1] M47.22 is “other spondylosis with radiculopathy cervical region.”

[2] The OOJ is to (based on the determination of the facts of the case and applicable law), render a decision affirming, reversing, or modifying the action protested.

Legislative News

 

The 2022 West Virginia Legislature session surprisingly had a quiet finish despite the Republican supermajority and a bold attempt to fundamentally change intentional torts for workplace injuries. The House and the Senate proposed separate bills to completely change the definition of deliberate intent, commonly known as Mandolidis actions based on the seminal West Virginia case and resultant legislation. Ultimately the bills did not pass out of committee, so the 2015 amendments to West Virginia Code § 23-4-2 remain in place.

 

The Legislature passed an important and long-overdue bill sponsored by the Insurance Commissioner. House Bill 4296 cleaned up and revised outdated provisions within Chapter 23 of the West Virginia Code, which pertains to workers’ compensation. The bill modernized and updated workers’ compensation statutes, removed or revised provisions made obsolete by legislation and regulatory revisions in 2005 and 2006.

 

Recent Cases

 

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals continues to analyze compensability in workers' compensation claims where the question is whether an injured employee's disabling condition was caused by a preexisting chronic condition or by a new injury. The Court is exploring the application of its holding in Syllabus Point 3 of Gill v. City of Charleston, 236 W. Va. 737, ___, 783 S.E.2d 857, 858 (2016)("A noncompensable preexisting injury may not be added as a compensable component of a claim for workers' compensation medical benefits merely because it may have been aggravated by a compensable injury. To the extent that the aggravation of a noncompensable preexisting injury results in a discreet new injury, that new injury may be found compensable.")

 

In Ramaco Resources, Inc. v. Rollins, No. 19-1163, 2021 WL 5216712, at *4 (November 9, 2021)(memorandum decision), the Court found the preponderance of evidence demonstrated Mr. Rollins aggravated a noncompensable wrist fracture while at work, and reversed the Board of Review and the Administrative Law Judge because they did not properly apply the Gill case. Rollins injured his right wrist at work on April 20, 2018. His employer questioned compensability because Rollins fractured the right wrist at home on January 5, 2018, and had recently returned to work when the new injury occurred. After the January 5 injury at home, Rollins had surgery on January 9, 2018, and completed physical therapy. He reported some stiffness and weakness in the wrist on April 2, 2018. His doctor stated he could return to work on April 9, 2018, without restrictions. Mr. Rollins returned to work full duty. On April 20, 2018, Mr. Rollins injured the same right wrist at work while loosening a bolt with a ratchet on a piece of heavy equipment. At the emergency room he reported that his right wrist popped while he was loosening a bolt with a pipe wrench. An x-ray showed a slightly impacted fracture at the volar aspect of the distal radial metaphysis. The diagnosis was right wrist fracture.

 

Claimant was treated by Dr. McCleary on April 23, 2018, who noted that Rollins had swelling and tenderness in the distal radius. Dr. McCleary also noted that an x-ray showed a nondisplaced distal radius fracture. He diagnosed a right wrist ulnar joint sprain. Dr. Mukkamala performed an independent medical evaluation of Mr. Rollins and determined he did not sustain a new injury on April 20, 2018. The x-ray performed on April 30, 2018, showed that the fracture was still visible and healing. Dr. Mukkamala believed Mr. Rollins prior right wrist fracture had not completely healed when the work incident occurred. He also noted that the x-rays revealed osteopenia, which was noncompensable.

 

A board-certified radiologist compared the x-rays taken on Mr. Rollins' right wrist on January 5, March 5, and April 20, 2018 and concluded that a January 5, 2018, right wrist x-ray (performed three months prior to the alleged work injury) showed an acute fracture of the distal radius and x-rays performed on April 20, 2018, showed a slightly impacted fracture of the distal radius. Dr. Luchs concluded that the x-rays showed a chronic healing distal radial fracture. Based on Dr. Luchs' findings, Dr. Stoll agreed with Dr. Mukkamala's assessment of Mr. Rollins did not sustain a new injury on April 20, 2018. Dr. Stoll believes that Mr. Rollins' initial fracture had not fully healed before he returned to work. Dr. Stoll also stated that the x-rays revealed osteopenia, which was non-compensable. Finally, he noted that while the treating physician was requesting authorization for an MRI, an MRI would not add any information to help the decision making process.

 

Ramaco first argues that the Board of Review's Order upholding the ALJs' compensability ruling is clearly wrong and contrary to the preponderance of the evidence. Ramaco states that substantial medical evidence shows that Mr. Rollins's noncompensable, wrist fracture of January 5, 2018, had not healed by the time he allegedly injured himself at work on April 20, 2018. Ramaco states that Dr. Luchs, Dr. Mukkamala, and Dr. Stoll all stated that Mr. Rollins merely aggravated a previous noncompensable injury. Mr. Rollins responds that simply because he suffered a prior fracture to the same body part does not now immunize Ramaco from responsibility in this claim. And Mr. Rollins contends that it is clear he was injured at work on April 20, 2018, considering he promptly reported the injury and sought medical attention. Mr. Rollins states that it was proper for the ALJ and the Board of Review to give considerable weight to the medical opinion of Dr. McCleary who provided treatment for his compensable injury and the prior wrist fracture.

 

The majority opinion of the Supreme Court found the x-ray evidence "critical" because the case involved a wrist fracture. The Court noted Dr. Luchs's review of the x-rays taken of Mr. Rollins's right wrist on January 5, March 5, and April 20, 2018, and determination that the January 2018 fracture had not healed as of April 20, 2018. Dr. Luchs stated, unequivocally, that the abnormalities revealed by the x-rays taken of Mr. Rollins's wrist following the injury of April 20, 2018, including the fracture of the distal radius, date back to January 2018. The Court found the administrative law judge "erroneously discounted this objective x-ray evidence in lieu of Dr. McCleary's self-serving, subjective belief." Importantly, the Court found, Dr. Luchs' findings are entirely consistent with the evaluation findings rendered by Drs. Mukkamala and Stoll. Inferring that Dr. McCleary subjectively believed that Mr. Rollins's fracture was completely healed, and that Mr. Rollins suffered a new injury, Dr. McCleary's belief is insufficient to support the compensability ruling when the other experts produced evidence showing that Mr. Rollins merely aggravated the preexisting injury.

 

The Court held that even when all inferences are resolved in favor of the ALJ's and Board of Review's findings, there is insufficient evidence to sustain the decision. The Court agreed with the Employer's argument the ALJ and Board of Review erred by failing to cite or discuss this Court's holding in Gill. "Because a preponderance of the evidence in this case demonstrates that Mr. Rollins aggravated his noncompensable wrist fracture while at work on April 20, 2018, Gill is a barrier to compensability. So, the [ALJ] and Board of Review committed legal error by failing to apply Gill to the facts presented." Ramaco Resources, Inc. v. Rollins, 2021 WL 5216712, at *5 (W.Va., 2021).

 

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Jenkins and Justice Armstead noted the dissenting opinion mischaracterized the Court's comprehensive review of the record and its finding Rollins merely aggravated a preexisting injury to his right wrist.

 

Justice Wooton and Justice Hutchison wrote separate and strongly worded dissenting opinions. Justice Hutchison said the majority's opinion "violates the fundamental process due to every party in a lawsuit" when it substituted its findings of fact for those of the lower tribunal merely because it disagrees with those findings. Justice Hutchison note the Court should give substantial deference to the findings of fact of the administrative law judge that claimant presented sufficient evidence he suffered a personal injury in the course of and resulting from his employment.  He noted the ALJ rejected the expert testimony offered by the employer in favor of the expert testimony offered by the claimant, and concluded that the claimant sustained a new, compensable injury to his wrist. "The ALJ's conclusion was plausible on the record below, and that should have been the end of this Court's inquiry. The record clearly supports the ALJ's factual finding, as well as supports the Board of Review's affirmance of the judge's decision. The majority decision was clearly wrong in its decision to impose its after-the-fact judgment of the evidence. The fact that a claimant may have suffered a prior fracture to the same body part as the one injured in the workplace should not immunize an employer from responsibility for the claim. I respectfully dissent from this memorandum decision's subversion of the fact-finding process." Ramaco Resources, Inc. v. Rollins, 2021 WL 5216712, at *9 (W.Va., 2021)(Hutchison, J. dissenting).

 

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Wooton clarified his belief the evidence before the ALJ supported a finding Rollins suffered a discrete new injury to the healed right wrist fracture:

"Mr. Rollins' treating orthopedic surgeon testified that he was certain Mr. Rollins sustained a discrete, new injury on that date as evidenced by 1) the immediate pain and swelling; 2) the passage of time from the prior injury, which allowed for complete healing; 3) the greater amount of displacement of the fracture from the first fracture, as shown on x-ray; and 4) an MRI which showed the distal radius fracture in a “different formation” than the first fracture." Ramaco Resources, Inc. v. Rollins, 2021 WL 5216712, at *9 (W.Va., 2021) (Wooton, J. dissenting). He dissented because the majority made itself "a surrogate fact-finder" in contravention of West Virginia law.

 

The Supreme Court held oral argument on February 16, 2022, in the case of James Moore v. ICG Tygart Valley, LLC, No. 20-0028 in which the issue for resolution is the compensability of C5-6 spondylosis with C6 radiculopathy as secondary conditions. Claimant's counsel argued the initial work injury caused a discrete new injury that resulted in chronic cervical and radicular pain. Claimant's counsel also argued the work injury aggravated or accelerated the preexisting disc disease. The Employer argued the C5-6 spondylosis with C6 radiculopathy was a condition that preexisted the work injury and was not a discrete new injury. Both parties discussed the impact of the Gill case to the evidentiary record in their briefs and at oral argument. A decision has not been issued. You can watch the oral argument at http://www.courtswv.gov/supreme-court/calendar/2022/Dockets/feb-16-22ad.html

By Charity Lawrence and Dill Battle

 

              The 2021 West Virginia Legislative Session produced a major change for West Virginia workers’ compensation litigation in the West Virginia Appellate Reorganization Act of 2021.  Specifically, Senate Bill 275 was enacted and creates an Intermediate Court of Appeals for West Virginia.  It also eliminates the Workers’ Compensation Office of Judges (“OOJ”) and establishes the West Virginia Workers’ Compensation Board of Review (“BOR”) as the initial reviewing body for objections to decisions made by insurers regarding workers’ compensation claims.

 

              After June 30, 2022, the OOJ will be eliminated and, effective July 1, 2022, all powers and duties of the OOJ will be transferred to the BOR.  (W. Va. Code § 23-1-1h). After this date, all objections to decisions of the Insurance Commissioner, private carrier, or self-insured employer, must be filed with the BOR instead of the OOJ.  The BOR will have exclusive jurisdiction to review objections to a decision of the Insurance Commissioner, private carrier, or self-insured employer.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8b).  Instead of the 3 member-panel currently comprising the BOR, the BOR will consist of 5 members appointed by the Governor.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-11a).

 

              The OOJ will officially terminate on or before October 1, 2022.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8a).  On or before September 30, 2022, the OOJ must issue a final decision or otherwise dispose of each matter pending before the OOJ.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8b(b)).  If a final decision on any pending matter before the OOJ has not been entered at the time of the OOJ’s termination, that matter will be transferred to the BOR.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8a).  For transferred matters, the BOR will adopt any existing records of proceedings from the OOJ, conduct further proceedings, and collect evidence necessary to issue a final decision.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8b(b)).  The BOR must review and decide all remaining appeals filed with the BOR regarding OOJ decisions issued prior to June 30, 2022.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8b(e)).

 

              The chair of the BOR shall assign, on a rotating basis, a member of the BOR to preside over the review process and issue a decision in each objection (formerly referred to as a “protest”) properly filed with the BOR.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-9a).  That board member may delegate his or her duties to a hearing examiner employed by the BOR, but any order or decision of the BOR (except time frame orders, continuance orders, etc.) must be issued and signed by the BOR member assigned to the objection.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-9a).  Hearing examiners must be persons admitted to the practice of law in West Virginia with at least 4 years of experience as an attorney.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8a).  The chair of the BOR will supervise hearing examiners.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8a).  If a hearing examiner is assigned to review an objection, the hearing examiner will submit the designated record at the end of the review process to the member of the BOR who was assigned the objection, along with the hearing examiner’s recommendation of a decision affirming, reversing, or modifying the action protested.  (W. Va. Code §23-5-9a).  The board member will render a decision with findings of fact and conclusions of law.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-9a). 

 

              An appeal from a BOR decision may be filed with the West Virginia Intermediate Court of Appels within 30 days of receipt of notice of the BOR decision or within 60 days of the date of the decision, regardless of notice.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-10a).  Any employer, employee, claimant, dependent, or the Insurance Commissioner, private insurer, or self-insured employer aggrieved by a BOR decision has a right to appeal to the Intermediate Court by filing a written notice of appeal stating the grounds for review and whether oral argument is requested.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-12a).  A filing fee of $200 may be charged to the petitioner.  (W. Va. Code § 51-11-7).  Upon appeal to the Intermediate Court, the Workers’ Compensation BOR will then send a transcript of BOR proceedings to the Intermediate Court, including a brief recital of the proceedings in the matter and each order or decision entered.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-12a).

 

              The WV Intermediate Court of Appeals will have exclusive jurisdiction of:

·       decisions or orders issued by the OOJ after June 30, 2022 and prior to the OOJ’s termination, and

 

·       final orders or decisions issued by the BOR after June 30, 2022.

(W. Va. Code § 23-1-1h).  The Intermediate Court may affirm, reverse, modify, or supplement the decision of the BOR.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-12a).  It may also remand the case for further proceedings.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-12a).  A decision of the BOR will be reversed, vacated or modified if the substantial rights of the petitioner have been prejudiced because the BOR’s findings are:

·       in violation of statutory provisions;

·       in excess of the statutory authority or jurisdiction of the BOR;

·       made upon unlawful procedures;

·       affected by other error of law;

·       clearly wrong in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the whole record; or

·       arbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion.

(W. Va. Code § 23-5-12a).  An appeal of the Intermediate Court’s final decision may be sought by petition to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.  (W. Va. Code § 29A-6-1).  The Supreme Court has discretion to grant or deny the petition for appeal of an Intermediate Court decision.  (W. Va. Code § 51-11-10).

 

              The Intermediate Court will be comprised of a three-judge panel.  (W. Va. Code § 51-11-3). Initially, the judges will be appointed by the Governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Then, after the initial appointment by the Governor, the judges will be elected.  (W. Va. Code § 3-1-16, § 3-5-6e, and § 51-11-6).  The judges of the Intermediate Court must be members in good standing of the West Virginia State Bar and admitted to practice law in West Virginia for at least 10 years prior to their appointment or election, and also be residents of West Virginia for 5 years prior to appointment or election.  (W. Va. Code § 51-11-3). 

 

              This new legislation impacts workers’ compensation in several ways.  Eliminating the OOJ potentially eliminates experienced administrative law judges with significant knowledge (15-25 years) in workers’ compensation jurisprudence, and the practice in West Virginia.  New practice and procedure rules before the new BOR provides uncertainty of what parts of the OOJ's rules of practice and procedure will be adopted. The BOR’s ability to hire hearing examiners with only 4 years of legal experience and without workers’ compensation litigation experience may be detrimental to decisions affecting claimants, employers and insurers. However, the hearing examiners’ recommendations are not final decisions and must be reviewed by the BOR members, and the BOR members must issue the final decisions.  The hearing examiners will also be supervised by the BOR chair.  Hopefully, this will prevent the issuance of uneducated decisions.  Additionally, the new implementation of a $200 filing fee for appeals to the Intermediate Court will likely discourage claimants from appealing decisions of the Board of Review, which will decrease the overall number of workers’ compensation appeals.  SB 275 passed April 1, 2021, and is effective 90 days from passage (June 30, 2021).  The bill was sent to Governor Jim Justice on April 5, 2021, and is expected to be signed.

 

By:

Charity Lawrence

304-720-4056

clawrence@spilmanlaw.com

 

Dill Battle

304-340-3823

dbattle@spilmanlaw.com

 

Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC

300 Kanawha Blvd, E.

Charleston, WV 25301

 

Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC is the West Virginia member of the National Workers' Compensation Defense Network. The NWCDN is a nationwide network of defense firms specializing in protecting employers and carriers in workers' compensation claims and regulatory matters. For more information, visit www.nwcdn.com.

 

Some West Virginia businesses have implemented COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees. While the West Virginia COVID-19 Jobs Protection Act (W. Va. Code § 55-19-1 through § 55-19-9) protects people, businesses, and entities from some COVID-19 related claims, the Act does not address whether employees who suffer an injury from a COVID-19 vaccine mandated by their employers may bring a workers' compensation claim. This issue has not yet come before West Virginia courts and there is no state case law on the subject.

 

To receive benefits under West Virginia workers’ compensation law, an employee must show the employee sustained (1) a personal injury (2) in the course of employment and (3) resulting from that employment. W. Va. Code §23-4-1(a). Arguably, if a COVID-19 vaccine is a required condition of employment and an employee receives the vaccine pursuant to that mandate, an employee injured by the vaccine may be able to show that they were injured in the course of and as a result of that employment. Relevant factors may include whether the vaccine was received by the employee on-site and during work hours or on the employee’s personal time and at a different location other than the employee’s work location.  

 

Vaccine injuries are rare, and even if the employer mandates the vaccine, causation may be difficult to prove. The employee must prove that the injury was a direct result of the vaccine rather than some other source. Because of the rarity of COVID-19 vaccine injuries beyond the typical vaccine after-effects (sore arm, fever, mild symptoms), true injury resulting from an employer-mandated COVID-19 vaccine will likely be infrequent and difficult to attribute to the vaccine. Workers’ compensation insurance carriers and third-party administrators should require proof of a definitive diagnosis or injury directly related to the COVID-19 vaccine before holding the injury compensable.

 

While some employees may attempt to avoid the exclusive remedies provided by workers' compensation by asserting a deliberate intent claim, the West Virginia COVID-19 Jobs Protection Act may insulate employers from such claims. The Act specifically insulates employers from deliberate intent claims for COVID-19 infections and may also apply to injuries from vaccine mandates. This issue has not been litigated in West Virginia.

 

Employers should also be mindful of the West Virginia Legislature's recent passage of House Bill 335 that will allow employees to obtain medical or religious exemptions from their employers’ vaccine mandates. The bill was signed by Governor Jim Justice on October 22, 2021, and will go into effect 90 days thereafter.

By:

Charity Lawrence

304-720-4056

clawrence@spilmanlaw.com

 

Dill Battle

304-340-3823

dbattle@spilmanlaw.com

 

Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC

300 Kanawha Blvd, E.

Charleston, WV 25301

 

Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC is the West Virginia member of the National Workers' Compensation Defense Network. The NWCDN is a nationwide network of defense firms specializing in protecting employers and carriers in workers' compensation claims and regulatory matters. For more information, visit www.nwcdn.com.

West Virginia's COVID-19 Jobs Protection Act

 

By Charity Lawrence, Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC

 

The West Virginia Legislature passed the “COVID-19 Jobs Protection Act” (W. Va. Code § 55-19-1 through § 55-19-9) which prohibits certain claims against people, businesses, and entities arising from COVID-19 exposure. The Act recognizes lawsuits are being filed across the country against health care providers, health care facilities, and businesses for COVID-19 exposure. These lawsuits threaten the reopening efforts of West Virginia businesses. (W. Va. Code § 55-19-2.)

In order to facilitate and encourage the reopening and rebuilding of West Virginia’s economy, the COVID-19 Jobs Protection Act eliminates the liability of West Virginia citizens, health care providers and facilities, higher education institutions, businesses, and manufacturers, for loss, damage, personal injury, or death arising from COVID-19.  (W. Va. Code § 55-19-2.) No claims may be brought against any person, business, entity, health care facility or provider, first responder, or volunteer for loss, damage, physical injury or death arising from COVID-19, COVID-19 healthcare, or impacted healthcare (care that is offered, postponed, delayed or adversely affected as a response to COVID-19 or as a result of COVID-19).  (W. Va. Code § 55-19-4.)

Any person or business that makes or provides products in response to COVID-19 that are used by any person, healthcare provider, etc. will not be liable for personal injury, death, or property damage caused by or resulting from the products.  (W. Va. Code § 55-19-5(a)).  Likewise, any person who makes, provides, or donates household disinfecting or cleaning supplies or personal protective equipment in response to COVID-19 that does not ordinarily make such products in the ordinary course of the person’s business will not be liable for any personal injury, death or property damage resulting from the products.  (W. Va. Code § 55-19-5(b).) However, the person may be liable if the person had actual knowledge of a product defect when the product was used as intended, and acted with conscious, reckless, and outrageous indifference to a substantial and unnecessary risk that the product would cause serious injury, or if the person acted with actual malice.  (W. Va. Code § 55-19-5(c).)  The statute of limitations for those claims is one (1) year after the injury or death.  (W. Va. Code § 55-19-5(d).)

Although employees may file workers’ compensation claims for COVID-19, the COVID-19 Jobs Protection Act specifically states that deliberate intent claims for COVID-19 cannot be filed against employers. (W. Va. Code § 55-19-6.)

The COVID-19 Jobs Protection Act was signed by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice. The law is retroactive and applies to all causes of action accruing on or after January 1, 2020.  (W. Va. Code § 55-19-9.)

By:

Charity Lawrence

304-720-4056

clawrence@spilmanlaw.com

Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC

300 Kanawha Blvd, E.

Charleston, WV 25301

 

Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC is the West Virginia member of the National Workers' Compensation Defense Network. The NWCDN is a nationwide network of defense firms specializing in protecting employers and carriers in workers' compensation claims and regulatory matters. For more information, visit www.nwcdn.com.

West Virginia's New Intermediate Appellate Court Fundamentally Changes

Workers' Compensation Litigation Practice

 

By Charity Lawrence and Dill Battle

 

              The 2021 West Virginia Legislative Session produced a major change for West Virginia workers’ compensation litigation in the West Virginia Appellate Reorganization Act of 2021.  Specifically, Senate Bill 275 was enacted and creates an Intermediate Court of Appeals for West Virginia.  It also eliminates the Workers’ Compensation Office of Judges (“OOJ”) and establishes the West Virginia Workers’ Compensation Board of Review (“BOR”) as the initial reviewing body for objections to decisions made by insurers regarding workers’ compensation claims.

 

              After June 30, 2022, the OOJ will be eliminated and, effective July 1, 2022, all powers and duties of the OOJ will be transferred to the BOR.  (W. Va. Code § 23-1-1h). After this date, all objections to decisions of the Insurance Commissioner, private carrier, or self-insured employer, must be filed with the BOR instead of the OOJ.  The BOR will have exclusive jurisdiction to review objections to a decision of the Insurance Commissioner, private carrier, or self-insured employer.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8b).  Instead of the 3 member-panel currently comprising the BOR, the BOR will consist of 5 members appointed by the Governor.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-11a).

 

              The OOJ will officially terminate on or before October 1, 2022.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8a).  On or before September 30, 2022, the OOJ must issue a final decision or otherwise dispose of each matter pending before the OOJ.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8b(b)).  If a final decision on any pending matter before the OOJ has not been entered at the time of the OOJ’s termination, that matter will be transferred to the BOR.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8a).  For transferred matters, the BOR will adopt any existing records of proceedings from the OOJ, conduct further proceedings, and collect evidence necessary to issue a final decision.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8b(b)).  The BOR must review and decide all remaining appeals filed with the BOR regarding OOJ decisions issued prior to June 30, 2022.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8b(e)).

 

              The chair of the BOR shall assign, on a rotating basis, a member of the BOR to preside over the review process and issue a decision in each objection (formerly referred to as a “protest”) properly filed with the BOR.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-9a).  That board member may delegate his or her duties to a hearing examiner employed by the BOR, but any order or decision of the BOR (except time frame orders, continuance orders, etc.) must be issued and signed by the BOR member assigned to the objection.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-9a).  Hearing examiners must be persons admitted to the practice of law in West Virginia with at least 4 years of experience as an attorney.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8a).  The chair of the BOR will supervise hearing examiners.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-8a).  If a hearing examiner is assigned to review an objection, the hearing examiner will submit the designated record at the end of the review process to the member of the BOR who was assigned the objection, along with the hearing examiner’s recommendation of a decision affirming, reversing, or modifying the action protested.  (W. Va. Code §23-5-9a).  The board member will render a decision with findings of fact and conclusions of law.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-9a). 

 

              An appeal from a BOR decision may be filed with the West Virginia Intermediate Court of Appels within 30 days of receipt of notice of the BOR decision or within 60 days of the date of the decision, regardless of notice.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-10a).  Any employer, employee, claimant, dependent, or the Insurance Commissioner, private insurer, or self-insured employer aggrieved by a BOR decision has a right to appeal to the Intermediate Court by filing a written notice of appeal stating the grounds for review and whether oral argument is requested.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-12a).  A filing fee of $200 may be charged to the petitioner.  (W. Va. Code § 51-11-7).  Upon appeal to the Intermediate Court, the Workers’ Compensation BOR will then send a transcript of BOR proceedings to the Intermediate Court, including a brief recital of the proceedings in the matter and each order or decision entered.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-12a).

 

              The WV Intermediate Court of Appeals will have exclusive jurisdiction of:

·       decisions or orders issued by the OOJ after June 30, 2022 and prior to the OOJ’s termination, and

 

·       final orders or decisions issued by the BOR after June 30, 2022.

(W. Va. Code § 23-1-1h).  The Intermediate Court may affirm, reverse, modify, or supplement the decision of the BOR.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-12a).  It may also remand the case for further proceedings.  (W. Va. Code § 23-5-12a).  A decision of the BOR will be reversed, vacated or modified if the substantial rights of the petitioner have been prejudiced because the BOR’s findings are:

·       in violation of statutory provisions;

·       in excess of the statutory authority or jurisdiction of the BOR;

·       made upon unlawful procedures;

·       affected by other error of law;

·       clearly wrong in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the whole record; or

·       arbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion.

(W. Va. Code § 23-5-12a).  An appeal of the Intermediate Court’s final decision may be sought by petition to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.  (W. Va. Code § 29A-6-1).  The Supreme Court has discretion to grant or deny the petition for appeal of an Intermediate Court decision.  (W. Va. Code § 51-11-10).

 

              The Intermediate Court will be comprised of a three-judge panel.  (W. Va. Code § 51-11-3). Initially, the judges will be appointed by the Governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Then, after the initial appointment by the Governor, the judges will be elected.  (W. Va. Code § 3-1-16, § 3-5-6e, and § 51-11-6).  The judges of the Intermediate Court must be members in good standing of the West Virginia State Bar and admitted to practice law in West Virginia for at least 10 years prior to their appointment or election, and also be residents of West Virginia for 5 years prior to appointment or election.  (W. Va. Code § 51-11-3). 

 

              This new legislation impacts workers’ compensation in several ways.  Eliminating the OOJ potentially eliminates experienced administrative law judges with significant knowledge (15-25 years) in workers’ compensation jurisprudence, and the practice in West Virginia.  New practice and procedure rules before the new BOR provides uncertainty of what parts of the OOJ's rules of practice and procedure will be adopted. The BOR’s ability to hire hearing examiners with only 4 years of legal experience and without workers’ compensation litigation experience may be detrimental to decisions affecting claimants, employers and insurers. However, the hearing examiners’ recommendations are not final decisions and must be reviewed by the BOR members, and the BOR members must issue the final decisions.  The hearing examiners will also be supervised by the BOR chair.  Hopefully, this will prevent the issuance of uneducated decisions.  Additionally, the new implementation of a $200 filing fee for appeals to the Intermediate Court will likely discourage claimants from appealing decisions of the Board of Review, which will decrease the overall number of workers’ compensation appeals.  SB 275 passed April 1, 2021, and is effective 90 days from passage (June 30, 2021).  The bill was sent to Governor Jim Justice on April 5, 2021, and is expected to be signed.

 

By:

Charity Lawrence

304-720-4056

clawrence@spilmanlaw.com

 

Dill Battle

304-340-3823

dbattle@spilmanlaw.com

 

Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC

300 Kanawha Blvd, E.

Charleston, WV 25301

 

Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC is the West Virginia member of the National Workers' Compensation Defense Network. The NWCDN is a nationwide network of defense firms specializing in protecting employers and carriers in workers' compensation claims and regulatory matters. For more information, visit www.nwcdn.com.

 

Lack of Clarity Surrounding Classification of Workers in the “Gig Economy” Drove the West Virginia Legislature to Redefine What Constitutes an Independent Contractor


On March 22, 2021, Senate Bill 272 was passed and Governor Jim Justice signed into law the West Virginia Employment Law Worker Classification Act. The bill will prevent worker misclassification and defines the differences between employees and independent contractors. As expressed in the bill: “Clarity in a worker’s classification allows businesses to comply with applicable laws, provides workers with certainty as to their benefits and obligations, and minimizes unnecessary mistakes, litigation, risk and legal exposure laws concerning workers’ compensation.”


Concerned with the lack of clarity in the legal standards used to differentiate employees from independent contractors, especially in the context of the “so-called ‘gig’, ‘entrepreneurial’, [and] ‘sharing’ economy,” the West Virginia Legislature drafted W. Va. Code §21-5I-1 et seq. to provide an objective method of making that distinction.  Additionally, the Legislature wanted to bring cohesion to the definition of independent contractor, as it can be defined differently depending on the law at issue.  In bringing cohesion to the law, the Legislature partially succeeded.  W. Va. Code §21-5I-4 will only apply “for the purpose of classifying workers” under the workers’ compensation laws in Chapter 23, unemployment compensation in Chapter 21A, the Human Rights Act in §5-11-1 et seq., and wage payment and collection in §21-5-1 et seq., it will not apply in any other area of law.


In order to qualify as an independent contractor, a worker must sign a written contract with the principal that makes it clear that the principal’s intent it to employ them as an independent contractor.  The contract must also contain five different acknowledgments for the worker to sign which help make it clear that the intent at the beginning of the relationship was to form a principal-independent contractor relationship.  For example, the worker must acknowledge that he or she is providing services as an independent contractor and that he or she will be responsible for all federal and state taxes.  The terms of the contract must “substantially comply” with all of the statutory requirements, although the statute does not define what constitutes substantial compliance.  Until there is case law on the issue, it will be impossible to determine if a contract containing 80% of the contractual requirements will be considered to be in substantial compliance. 


In addition to the contract requirements, the worker must also meet certain criteria.  The independent contractor must either file, or be contractually obligated to file, an income tax return for the fees earned from the work in question or the independent contractor must provide their services through some type of business entity, even a sole proprietorship as long as it is registered with a “doing business as.”  Further, the independent contractor must “actually and directly control[] the manner and means by which the work is to be accomplished,” which does not require that the contractor control “the final result of the work.”  This control does not extend to control necessary to ensure compliance with federal or state laws and regulations.  It also does not extend to contractually required measures regarding general safety concerns.


Finally, in addition to the requirements above, persons may either satisfy at least three of the enumerated requirements in W. Va. Code §21-5I-4(a)(4) to be classified as an independent contractor or be considered a direct seller under the Internal Revenue Code §3508(b)(2).  The requirements of W. Va. Code §21-5I-4(a)(4), are similar to the test used in other areas of the law to determine whether a worker is an independent contractor.  For example, an independent contractor is someone who controls the amount of time they spend providing services, controls where services are being performed, and is free to hire or solicit help.  Any combination of three requirements will be enough to satisfy the requirements of W. Va. Code §21-5I-4(a)(4) and no requirement holds more weight than the others do.


In conclusion, in order to be classified as an independent contractor the contract between the contractor and the principal must satisfy the writing requirements of W. Va. Code §21-5I-4(a)(1).  From there the contractor must either be required to file income taxes for the fees earned or do business through some business entity and must control how the work is to be performed.  Finally, the contractor must either meet three of the requirements of subsection W. Va. Code §21-5I-4(a)(4) or be considered a direct seller under IRC §3508(b)(2).  If the contractor does not meet these requirements, the classification test set forth in Internal Revenue Service Revenue Ruling 87-41 will determine whether the person is an independent contractor.    



By: 

Dill Battle

304-340-3823

dbattle@spilmanlaw.com


Kellen M. Shearin

304.340.3892

kshearin@spilmanlaw.com


Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC

300 Kanawha Blvd, E.

Charleston, WV 25301


Commissioner Dodrill's latest Bulletin is a significant change to common practice for carriers, claims adjusters, and attorneys. West Virginia Insurance Bulletin No. 21-03 interprets W. Va. Code §23-4-8(a) and the physical examination of claimants. It has long been common practice to refer to the physical examinations allowed by W. Va. Code §23-4-8(a) as "independent medical examinations" or "IMEs" despite the fact the statute does not use that term. The Commissioner believes the use of the term "independent medical examination" may lead to confusion or misunderstanding by claimants, especiallypro se claimants. The Commissioner notes the term "independent medical examination" generally refers to an examination performed by a medical examiner who has not previously been involved in claimant's care. The Commissioner notes such an independent medical examination is an examination that is independent of the traditional doctor/patient relationship. In questioning the common use of the term "IME" when the examiner is often hired by the carrier, employer, or employer's attorney to perform the examination, the Commissioner explains: "This does not mean the examination is independent in the traditional or colloquial sense, as it is oftentimes requested and paid for by the party investigating the claim or even opposing the requested benefits."

 

Commissioner Dodrill reminds us medical examiners have their own professional code of ethics to which they must adhere, and examinations should always be objective and unbiased. Importantly, examiners must follow the statutory guidelines, guidelines set forth in W. Va. Code of State Rules §85-20-1, et seq., and any other applicable guidelines. The Commissioner notes the historical registration and list of approved IME physicians formerly kept by the Workers' Compensation Commission is no longer available. However, examiners are required to verify and provide proof of their American Board of Medical Specialties ("ABMS") or American Osteopathic Association ("AOA") certification to whomever services are provides. See W. Va. Code of State Rules §85-20-5.9.a.

 

The Commissioner stated private carriers, self-insured employers and their claims administrators should use caution to ensure the use of the term "independent medical examinations" or "IMEs" is not misleading or confusing. More precise language recommended in the bulletin is "insurer's physical examination of claimant", "private carrier's physical examination of claimant", "claimant's physical examination", or "employer's physical examination of claimant", as opposed to the more generic and potentially confusing term "independent medical examination" or "IME".

 

W. Va. Code §23-4-8(a) provides generally that a private carrier, self-insured employer, or in the case of a claim made to a state administered workers' compensation fund, the Insurance Commissioner may, after due notice and whenever in its opinion it is necessary, order a claimant other than a claimant for occupational pneumoconiosis to appear for a physical examination before a medical examiner of its own choosing. W. Va. Code §23-4-8(a) further provides a claimant and/or an employer may also select a physician of their own choosing to, at their own expense, participate in the examination. With a limited exception in the disclosure of certain psychiatric or psychological reports, the claimant and employer shall be furnished with a copy of the report of examination made by the medical examiner retained by the private carrier, self-insured employer or the Commissioner, if applicable. A physician selected by a claimant or an employer has the right to submit a separate report.

 

One final sidebar is the Commissioner's statement revisions to Rule 20 are under consideration to clean up the references to IMEs in the treatment guidelines. We will monitor for  action on this front.

 

Dill Battle

304-340-3823

dbattle@spilmanlaw.com

 

Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC

300 Kanawha Blvd, E.

Charleston, WV 25301

 

West Virginia Insurance Commissioner Bulletin No. 21-01 Provides Guidance for Filing and Handling Workers' Compensation Claims for COVID-19

On January 19, 2021, the West Virginia Insurance Commissioner issued Bulletin No. 21-01 providing guidance for employers, workers’ compensation insurers, and self-insured employers regarding COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims.  The Commissioner reiterated that employees covered by their employers’ workers’ compensation insurance policies have the right to file claims for workers’ compensation benefits if the employees sustain an occupational injury.  The Commissioner noted that the term “occupational injury” includes an occupational disease, alluding that COVID-19 will be considered an occupational disease rather than an occupational injury. 

The Commissioner specified that employers may not advise employees that they cannot file workers’ compensation claims for COVID-19, nor may employers threaten retaliation for such claims.  Employers must post notices in a conspicuous place on their premises identifying their workers’ compensation insurer, including the name, business address, telephone number, and contact person to whom questions about making a claim should be directed.

The Commissioner reminded employees to give written notice of the injury immediately or as soon thereafter as practicable. Generally, employees have six (6) months to from the date of injury or death to file a workers' compensation claim for an occupational injury. The Commissioner recommended employees to file their workers' compensation claim as soon as possible after reporting the injury to the employer.  

Employers must report employee claims of occupational disease to their workers’ compensation insurance carriers within five (5) days after receiving notice that an employee desires to file a workers’ compensation claim or within five (5) days of receipt of the employee’s report of injury.  The Commissioner forbids employers to conduct screenings or causation investigations of COVID-19 claims prior to reporting the claims to their workers’ compensation carriers (or prior to processing the claim if the employers are self-insured).

When an employee files a workers’ compensation claim for COVID-19, the insurer or self-insured employer must properly investigate the claim and issue a timely written compensability decision.  Only after an insurer or self-insured employer receives a properly filed workers’ compensation claim must the insurer or self-insured employer use due diligence to investigate the employee’s claim to determine compensability.  These investigations include a determination of the cause and place of injury (COVID-19 exposure) which is germane to whether the injury occurred in the course of and as a result of the employment.  Workers’ compensation claims for COVID-19 should not be summarily refused, denied or rejected outright without a proper investigation.

Employers and healthcare providers must cooperate with workers’ compensation investigations of COVID-19 claims by timely providing medical records and other necessary information to workers’ compensation carriers or self-insured employers.

Finally, the Commissioner reminded employers that they may not terminate an employee who is off work for a compensable injury and is receiving, or is eligible to receive, temporary total disability benefits unless the employee has committed a separate dischargeable offense.  Additionally, employers cannot cancel or decrease an injured employee’s medical insurance benefits while the employee is receiving workers’ compensation benefits for a temporary disability.

Article by Charity Lawrence and Dill Battle

If you have questions or need more information, please call or e-mail Charity at 304.720.4056 or clawrence@spilmanlaw.com or Dill Battle at 304.340.3823 or dbattle@spilmanlaw.com.

Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC
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