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Ocmulgee EMC v. McDuffie

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 16, 2017

OCMULGEE EMC et al.
v.
McDUFFIE.

          NAHMIAS, JUSTICE

         We granted the petition for certiorari filed by Ocmulgee EMC[1] in this workers' compensation case to answer this question:

Must an employer show the availability of suitable employment to justify suspension of workers' compensation benefits after already establishing that an employee's work-related aggravation to a preexisting condition has ceased to be the cause of the employee's disability?

The Court of Appeals held that the answer is yes. See McDuffie v. Ocmulgee EMC, 338 Ga.App. 200, 203 (789 S.E.2d 415) (2016). Because the answer is no, we reverse that part of the Court of Appeals' opinion.

         1. The Court of Appeals recited the relevant facts, as viewed in the light most favorable to the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") from the State Board of Workers' Compensation ("Board"):

[Kasabian] McDuffie suffered an injury to his right knee in 2002 ("2002 injury") when he was employed by Eastman Youth Detention Center ("EYDC"). McDuffie settled his claim for workers' compensation benefits with EYDC, and by July 2003, he had undergone three knee surgeries. McDuffie admitted in his settlement agreement that he was partially disabled, his condition would not improve, and there was no possibility of his being able to perform the same type of gainful employment on a regular basis in the future. McDuffie's doctor gave him a 20 percent permanent impairment rating for his right knee and placed him on permanent sedentary work restrictions. As a result, McDuffie was out of work from 2002 until 2006.
In March 2007, McDuffie applied for a job at EMC and he was hired to work as a meter reader/right-of-way laborer. When he filled out his EMC job application, McDuffie omitted relevant information that would have shown that he was physically unable to do the job for which he was applying. Specifically, McDuffie failed to disclose his 2002 injury, his employment with EYDC, or his permanent sedentary work restrictions. Moreover, McDuffie indicated on his application that he was physically able to perform the job functions of a meter reader/right-of-way laborer, which required him to stand, walk, and carry parts, and required him to have the ability to get an injured person off a pole within a short period of time.
In September 2009, while working on the job for EMC, McDuffie stepped in a hole and re-injured his right knee (the "2009 injury"). McDuffie's indemnity benefits commenced shortly after his injury. In March 2010, EMC discovered that McDuffie had provided false information on his job application when he stated that he was physically able to do the job and failed to disclose his prior injury or sedentary work restrictions. After learning this, EMC fired McDuffie and suspended his indemnity benefits. It is undisputed that, in February 2011, EMC reinstated McDuffie's indemnity benefits once McDuffie's doctor, Dr. Pope, recommended an additional surgery. That surgery was performed in March 2011, and after that surgery, Dr. Pope released McDuffie to return to work with sedentary restrictions.
In July 2011, Dr. Pope opined that McDuffie had returned to his pre-injury baseline, i.e., his pre-2009 sedentary work restrictions, and EMC again suspended McDuffie's indemnity benefits. Another physician, Dr. Gupta, who also examined McDuffie, similarly opined that McDuffie's knee had been restored to its pre-2009 injury status.

McDuffie, 338 Ga.App. at 200-201.

         The ALJ who heard McDuffie's request to reinstate his benefits specifically found the opinions of Dr. Pope and Dr. Gupta to be credible and held that EMC "has shown and proven the employee's restrictions are the same as prior to the 2009 injury" and that McDuffie "has no restrictions other than those he already was under at the time he was hired by [EMC]." Accordingly, the ALJ denied McDuffie's request for reinstatement of benefits. McDuffie appealed that decision to the Board's Appellate Division, which accepted the ALJ's findings as supported by the evidence and further explained:

Generally, if an employer/insurer can show by a preponderance of the competent and credible evidence that an employee no longer suffers any disability due to his work-related injury, then the employer/insurer need not show the specific availability of suitable employment to justify suspending temporary total disability benefits for change of condition. Pierce v. AAA Cabinet Co., 173 Ga.App. 463');">173 Ga.App. 463 [(326 S.E.2d 575)] (1985). Even where an employee has neither actually returned to work nor become capable of returning to work, an employer/insurer may satisfy their burden, if the employer/insurer can demonstrate that the employee's current disability is not casually connected with his employment. See Southwire Co. v. Molden, 223 Ga.App. 389 [(477 S.E.2d 646)] (1996); Raley v. Lanco Paint & Drywall, 190 Ga.App. 462');">190 Ga.App. 462 [(379 S.E.2d 196)] (1989). . . . .
Once the administrative law judge established by a preponderance of the competent and credible evidence that [McDuffie] had been restored to his pre-injury baseline condition, so that he no longer suffered any work-related disability, no further findings in this regard were required in order for the administrative law judge to conclude that [EMC] had carried [its] burden of proof to justify suspending [McDuffie]'s income benefits.

McDuffie then appealed to the superior court, which summarily affirmed the Appellate Division's ...


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