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Cartersville City Schools v. Johnson

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

March 16, 2018

CARTERSVILLE CITY SCHOOLS et al.
v.
JOHNSON

          MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.

          BETHEL, JUDGE

         In this workers' compensation action, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") for the State Board of Workers' Compensation granted Celia Norris Johnson's claim for benefits after finding that she sustained an injury arising out of and in the course of her employment. The Board's Appellate Division ("Appellate Division") reversed the ALJ's decision, finding no evidence to support the award, and denied benefits. Johnson then appealed to the Superior Court of Bartow County, which reversed the Appellate Division, thus reinstating the award of benefits to Johnson. Pursuant to a granted application for discretionary appeal, Cartersville City Schools and Technology Insurance Company (collectively, "Cartersville City Schools") now appeal, arguing the superior court made several errors in reaching its decision. We affirm because the Appellate Division misconstrued the legal framework for determining whether an injury arose out of employment and therefore rendered a decision contrary to law.[1]

         Pursuant to OCGA § 34-9-103 (a), "[a]ny party dissatisfied with a decision of an [ALJ] of the trial division of the State Board of Workers' Compensation may appeal that decision to the [A]ppellate [D]ivision of the State Board of Workers' Compensation which shall have original appellate jurisdiction in all workers' compensation cases." "The Appellate Division is authorized to weigh the evidence of record and assess the credibility of witnesses." Stokes v. Coweta Cty. Bd. of Educ., 313 Ga.App. 505, 506 (722 S.E.2d 118) (2012) (citation and punctuation omitted).

If, after assessing the evidence of record, the Appellate Division determines that the findings of the ALJ were supported by a preponderance of the competent and credible evidence, the Appellate Division must accept the factual findings of the ALJ. But, if after assessing the evidence of record, the [A]ppellate [D]ivision concludes the award does not meet the statute's evidentiary standards, the [A]ppellate [D]ivision may substitute its own alternative findings for those of the ALJ, and enter an award accordingly.

Id. (citations omitted).

         Pursuant to OCGA § 34-9-105 (b), the parties have a right of direct appeal to the superior court after a workers' compensation decision becomes final at the administrative level. "As a reviewing court, the superior court applies an any-evidence standard of review to the Board's findings of fact, construing the evidence in the light most favorable to the party prevailing before the Board, and lacks authority to substitute itself as a fact-finding body in lieu of the Board." Stokes, 313 Ga.App. at 506 (citations omitted). But "erroneous applications of law to undisputed facts, as well as decisions based on erroneous theories of law are subject to the de novo standard of review" in the superior court. Home Depot v. McCreary, 306 Ga.App. 805, 809 (2) (703 S.E.2d 392) (2010) (citation and punctuation omitted). "Appeals to this Court are governed by the same standards of review as appeals to the superior court under OCGA § 34-9-105." Stokes, 313 Ga.App. at 507 (citations omitted).[2]

         Viewed in the light most favorable to Cartersville City Schools as the party which prevailed before the Board's Appellate Division, the record shows the following. On October 7, 2014, Johnson was teaching fifth grade at Cartersville Elementary School. While instructing the students, Johnson walked back to her desk to put an image up on the smartboard. She then turned from her computer and desk to walk back to the front of the classroom and fell, injuring her knee.

         Following the surgical repair of her knee, Johnson filed a workers' compensation claim. At the administrative hearing on her claim, the only issue in contention between the parties was whether Johnson's knee injury arose out of her employment or was a non-compensable "idiopathic" injury. The ALJ found Johnson's knee injury to be causally connected to her employment and granted workers' compensation benefits. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Johnson's necessary swift movements and the configuration of her classroom caused her to "place acute stress on her knee resulting in the injury she sustained." The ALJ went on to find that these "external factors . . . created a risk and caused a danger which was peculiar to her work environment that causally connects her employment to her injury."

         Cartersville City Schools appealed the decision to the Appellate Division, arguing the ALJ erred in finding Johnson's injury arose out of her employment and was not idiopathic. The Appellate Division reversed the ALJ's decision, finding no evidence to support the ALJ's determination that Johnson's knee injury was caused by her having to weave through the tight classroom configuration. The Appellate Division further concluded that Johnson's knee injury was not compensable because "the act of turning and walking was not a risk unique to [her] work, and is a risk to which she would have been equally exposed apart from the employment." Rather, the Appellate Division concluded that Johnson's "injury was caused by an idiopathic fall[.]"

         Johnson appealed to the Bartow County Superior Court, which reversed the Appellate Division and reinstated the workers' compensation award. In its order, the superior court noted that the Appellate Division had employed an incorrect legal standard regarding causation when reaching its decision, and reasoned that the Appellate Division's standard "would label any injury that could be incurred off-site as 'idiopathic.'" The superior court further held that there was no evidence to indicate that Johnson's fall was idiopathic because her injury "arose out of her performing her duties as a classroom teacher." This appeal by Cartersville City Schools followed.

         Cartersville City Schools first argues that the superior court exceeded its authority and (a) improperly shifted the burden of demonstrating an accident to it, (b) deviated from the findings of fact reached by the Appellate Division, (c) improperly re-weighed evidence, and (d) failed to view evidence in the light most favorable to the party prevailing before the Appellate Division in violation of OCGA § 34-9-105 (c). Cartersville City Schools further argues that the superior court violated stare decisis and applied a new legal standard in finding that Johnson did not sustain an idiopathic injury.

         For an accidental injury to be compensable under the Workers' Compensation Act, the injury must not only occur in the course of the employment, but also must arise out of the employment. OCGA § 34-9-1 (4). See also Chaparral Boats, Inc. v. Heath, 269 Ga.App. 339, 340 (606 S.E.2d 567) (2004). Cartersville City School does not dispute the finding that Johnson sustained her knee injury in the course of employment because it occurred while she was teaching in her classroom. Rather, the disputed issue is whether Johnson carried her burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that her accidental injury arose out of her employment. See Chaparral Boats, Inc., 269 Ga.App. at 340.

         Pursuant to OCGA § 34-9-105 (c), in the absence of fraud, the factual findings of the Appellate Division are conclusive, but its decision may be set aside if it is found that the facts do not support the decision, there is not sufficient competent evidence in the record to warrant making the decision, or the decision is contrary to law, among other things. See OCGA § 34-9-105 (c) (3-5).

         Here, the superior court held that the Appellate Division's conclusion that Johnson's fall was idiopathic was not supported by the evidence because her injury "arose out of her performing her duties as a classroom teacher." The superior court further held that the Appellate Division employed the incorrect legal standard to determine causation. The superior court held that an injury arises out of employment where the injury results "from a risk reasonably incident to the employment" and went on to note that "a risk is incident to the employment when it belongs to, or is connected with, what a workman has to do in fulfilling his contract of service." In holding that the Appellate Division committed legal error in determining the correct legal standard to apply when determining causation, the superior court stated that this Court's decisions in Chaparral Boats[3] and St. Joseph's Hospital v. Ward[4] would "render almost any injury to be not compensable unless the employee is run through by a patented, proprietary Hyster pole." According to the superior court, the Appellate Division's construction of the term "idiopathic" used "a standard that would label any injury that could be incurred off-site as idiopathic." The superior court noted that this was ...


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