Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Court Chides Commissioner for Failure to Make Findings

McNally v. Dept. of PATH, 2010 VT 99

The Vermont Supreme Court’s Opinion in this case boils down to a simple warning for decision makers: “a recitation of evidence in findings is not a finding of the facts.”  And if you can’t get the factual findings done right, then at least apply the law correctly. 

This opinion followed Claimant’s appeal from a decision by the Commissioner of Labor denying her workers’ compensation benefits.  The Vermont Supreme Court remanded the case on the basis that the Commissioner failed to make findings and her conclusions were at odds with, or at least ignored aspects of, governing law.

The case arose out of Claimant’s claim for worker’s compensation benefits associated with medical treatment and disability following a snow-shoveling incident at her home that had left Claimant’s hands swollen and painful.  Claimant’s doctor attributed the swelling in Claimant’s hands to overuse at work, as opposed to the snow-shoveling, even though the snow shoveling led Claimant to seek treatment.  For six months following the snow-shoveling incident, Claimant reduced her work hours and treated her injuries with anti-inflammatory pain medication.  Claimant filed for workers’ compensation for the medical treatment and partial disability associated with this six-month period.  At the workers’ compensation hearing, Claimant’s employer, the State of Vermont, presented testimony from a medical expert that Claimant’s injury could not have been caused by Claimant’s work activity—typing.  Following testimony from three medical experts, the Commissioner concluded that Claimant’s current claim was caused by non-work activity. 

On appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court held that the Commissioner did not make any findings of fact, but instead recited evidence and summarized the opinions of the various experts “couched in terms like ‘according to’ or ‘in [his] opinion.’”  Absent findings of fact, the Court admonished, there can be no support for the Commissioner’s legal conclusion.

The Court attempted to save the Commissioner’s decision by recognizing that it must “construe the findings to support the judgment below, if possible.”  But on further examination, the Court decided this was not possible.  The Court reasoned that the Commissioner could only decide against the Claimant if she found that Claimant’s injury was wholly separate from an underlying work-related condition—the fundamental test for workers’ compensation claims is whether the injury arose out of the course of employment.  However, the Commissioner’s decision simply concluded that because Claimant initially sought treatment for her injury following a non-work-related event, she was not eligible for compensation.  This decision ignored previous case law establishing that the causal connection between work and the injury is not necessarily broken just because the “activity leading to the injury is not work per se.”  Further, the Commissioner acknowledged that the injury following the snow-shovelling incident was likely an aggravation of an underlying disability that probably was attributable to her work.  The Court could not reconcile these conclusions, and thus decided it was necessary to remand the case for the Commissioner to make the necessary findings to apply the fundamental test of whether the injury arose out of the course of employment.  

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