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Castille, C.J. v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board

July 21, 2009

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, MCCAFFERY, GREENSPAN, JJ. CINRAM MANUFACTURING, INC. AND PMA GROUP, APPELLANTS
v.
WORKERS' COMPENSATION APPEAL BOARD (HILL), APPELLEES



Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered on 9/7/07 at No. 158 CD 2007 which affirmed the order of WCAB entered on 12/21/06 at No. A06-: 0799.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Saylor

ARGUED: October 21, 2008

OPINION

Appeal was allowed primarily to address whether, during a termination proceeding, a workers' compensation judge may correct a notice of compensation payable to subsume injuries not specifically contemplated by the original notice. The question arises because, on the one hand, governing statutory provisions plainly direct that a notice of compensation payable may be corrected at any time and in the context of any petition filed by either of the parties. See 77 P.S. §771. However, the opinion in Jeanes Hospital v. WCAB (Hass), 582 Pa. 405, 872 A.2d 159 (2005), suggests a review petition must be filed by the claimant as a necessary prerequisite to such an amendment.

In March 2004, the appellee, Brian Hill ("Claimant"), sustained a work-related injury, or, more precisely, an aggravation of a pre-existing medical condition, while in the employ of appellee, Cinram Manufacturing, Inc ("Employer"). Employer issued a notice of compensation payable (the "NCP") identifying the injury as "lumbar strain/sprain," and Claimant received workers' compensation benefits. In August 2004, Employer filed a petition to terminate these benefits alleging a full recovery, which Claimant disputed.

The parties presented conflicting evidence to a workers' compensation judge (the "WCJ"). Significantly, Claimant's evidence supported the finding of an aggravation of a pre-existing disc herniation resulting in nerve impingement, medical conditions beyond the lumbar strain and/or sprain which was the subject of the notice of compensation payable. The WCJ credited Claimant's evidence, denied termination, and directed amendments to the NCP to conform it to his findings. In this effort, the WCJ did not reference Jeanes Hospital.

Employer lodged an appeal in the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board. Included among its claims was the argument that the WCJ lacked authority to amend the NCP, because Claimant never filed a petition to review it. See Jeanes Hosp., 582 Pa. at 421, 872 A.2d at 169 (indicating that, where a notice of compensation payable does not correctly reflect the actual injury or enumerate all of the injuries sustained in a work-related incident, "a claimant must file a Petition to Review Notice of Compensation Payable, which is treated like a claim petition"). The Board affirmed, holding that the NCP was properly amended under Section 413(a) of the Workers' Compensation Act,*fn1 which authorizes modification of a notice of compensation payable at any time upon proof of an inaccuracy, as follows:

A workers' compensation judge may, at any time, review and modify or set aside a notice of compensation payable and an original or supplemental agreement or upon petition filed by either party with the department, or in the course of the proceedings under any petition pending before such workers' compensation judge, if it be proved that such notice of compensation payable or agreement was in any material respect incorrect.

77 P.S. §771 (emphasis added). The Board referenced Jeanes Hospital in support of its decision, but did not discuss the language discussing the requirement of a review petition filed by the claimant.

On further appeal, a divided three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court affirmed. See Cinram Mfr'g, Inc. v. WCAB (Hill), 932 A.2d 346 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007). The majority applied the plain language of Section 413(a), see id. at 348-49; whereas, the dissent invoked the review-petition requirement, as supported by the pertinent language in Jeanes Hospital. See Cinram Mfr'g, 932 A.2d at 349 (Pellegrini, J., dissenting).

We allowed appeal primarily to address the correctness of Jeanes Hospital's directive as applied to corrective amendments. Our present, plenary review of this legal issue is encompassed within the appellate standard of review pertaining to administrative adjudications. See Griffiths v. WCAB (Seven Star Farms, Inc.), 596 Pa. 317, 328-29, 943 A.2d 242, 248-49 (2008).

I.

Employer relies on Jeanes Hospital and Commercial Credit Claims v. WCAB (Lancaster), 556 Pa. 325, 728 A.2d 902 (1999), to support the requirement of a review petition. Employer highlights the concern, attributed to Commercial Credit, that, if a workers' compensation judge is permitted to amend a notice of compensation payable to add injuries in the course of any proceeding, then a claimant will remain perpetually eligible to receive compensation by serially and belatedly alleging new injuries. See id. at 332-33, 728 A.2d at 905. Employer develops this line of argument as follows:

Increasingly, defense counsel is seeing claimants defending against termination by presenting medical testimony of injury to a completely different body part. As a result, employers are put in the untenable position of attempting to "'prove a negative' by establishing that the [new injury] bore no causal relationship to the work-related accident", which is not only "fundamentally unfair", but also effectively reverses the claimant's long-settled burden to prove all elements of a claim. As a practical matter, the employer may have no choice but to withdraw the termination petition and petition the [j]udge to compel the claimant's attendance at another independent medical examination which addresses the newly implicated body part. Such Order is discretionary with the judge ...


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