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Gentex Corporation and Gallagher Bassett Services v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Morack

July 20, 2011

GENTEX CORPORATION AND GALLAGHER BASSETT SERVICES
v.
WORKERS' COMPENSATION APPEAL BOARD (MORACK) APPEAL OF: ANN MARIE MORACK



Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered on June 4, 2009 at No. 214 C.D. 2009 reversing the Order of the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board entered on February 5, 2009 at No. A07-2539

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Madame Justice Todd

[J-95-2010]

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.

ARGUED: November 30, 2010

OPINION

In this appeal by allowance, we address, inter alia, the degree of specificity with which a claimant must describe a work-related injury to her employer pursuant to Section 312 of the Workers' Compensation Act ("the Act"),*fn1 77 P.S. § 632. After careful review, we reverse the decision of the Commonwealth Court.

Appellant Anne Marie Morack ("Morack") began working for Appellee Gentex Corporation ("Gentex") at its facility in Carbondale, Pennsylvania in 1960, following her graduation from high school. Morack continued her employment with Gentex until 2005, when she left her position due to pain in her hands. Specifically, when Morack was initially hired in 1960, she worked as a lens inspector of Air Force helmets, which required her to inspect the lenses before they were installed on the helmets. After roughly ten years in that position, she moved on to inspecting the sewing on the entire helmet, and performed that job for the next 33 years. In 2003, Morack's duties increased and, in addition to her job in the sewing department, she began working as a final inspector on all parts of the helmet, a position that required her to handle many, sometimes hundreds, of helmets per day, each helmet weighing as much as nine pounds. In order to fulfill her increased duties, Morack began arriving at work an hour earlier every day, alternating between the sewing department and final inspection.

From 2003 through 2005, Morack experienced swelling and pain in her hands, and, in performing her duties, Morack's fingers became stuck in certain positions. Ultimately, on January 17, 2005, the pain in Morack's hands overwhelmed her and she informed her supervisor, Claire Lewis, that she could no longer tolerate the pain and would have to leave work. Morack made an appointment with Dr. Morro*fn2 that same day, and he issued her a note excusing her from work.*fn3 Morack testified she delivered the note to Gentex's guardhouse, and, pursuant to Gentex's policy, Morack telephoned Gentex for the next five days to update Gentex on her condition, each day indicating that she could not work because of swelling in her hands. Morack also applied for short-term disability benefits on February 2, 2005. On the short-term disability application form, Morack indicated that she did not believe her injury was work-related.*fn4

She listed as her ailments swelling in her arms, hands, knees, and ankles, and attributed these to pre-existing fibromyalgia and high blood pressure, which were diagnosed in 1993.

Morack eventually was referred to Dr. Eugene Grady, a board certified rheumatologist, who diagnosed her with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and flexor tendonitis in her left thumb with triggering of her left ring finger, a right wrist cartilage tear, right-sided DeQuervain's tendonitis,*fn5 left thumb flexor tendonitis, left fourth digit flexor tendonitis, and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Dr. Grady ruled out fibromyalgia and high blood pressure as the cause of Morack's hand injuries, and concluded her injuries were work-related. On March 24, 2005, Dr. Grady released Morack to return to work with a limitation of no repetitive lifting of more than one pound or continuous standing for longer than 45 minutes. No such position was made available to Morack by Gentex, and Morack's employment was subsequently terminated.

The record is unclear regarding the precise timing and order of the events that occurred after Dr. Grady's diagnosis. Morack testified before Workers' Compensation Judge Patrick Cummings ("WCJ") that, upon learning from Dr. Grady that her injuries were work-related, she immediately telephoned Gentex's Human Resources Manager, Bernadette Montefor, but was unable to reach her. Morack stated that she left "messages on her machine galore," but was never able to speak with Montefor or anyone from the Human Resources Department regarding her injuries. N.T. Trial, 04/24/07, at 34. Montefor testified before the WCJ that she first learned of Morack's injuries on September 19, 2006, when she was notified by Gentex that Morack had filed a workers' compensation claim.*fn6 Montefor stated she was working from home on maternity leave from August 2006 until October 2006, but the record does not contain any information concerning why Montefor and Morack did not communicate prior to August 2006. Despite the conflicting testimony before the WCJ, it is undisputed that, at some point after Dr. Grady's diagnosis, Morack left at least one voice message for Montefor, in which Morack stated that she had "work-related problems."*fn7 N.T. Trial, 04/24/07, at 34.

Ultimately, on October 9, 2006, Morack filed her workers' compensation claim petition. The WCJ found in favor of Morack, concluding that she suffered a work-related injury on January 17, 2005, the day she informed her supervisor that she could no longer work because of pain in her hands. The WCJ credited Morack's testimony over that presented by Montefor, and found that once Morack was examined by Dr. Grady and knew her problems were work-related, she complied with the Act's notice provisions by timely notifying Gentex that her injuries were work-related pursuant to Section 311 of the Act.*fn8 Moreover, and of particular relevance herein, the WCJ concluded that, based on her prior complaints of hand pain, her short-term disability form, and her voice message left for Montefor, Morack sufficiently described her injuries pursuant to Section 312, which requires that the employee inform the employer that the employee "received an injury, described in ordinary language, in the course of his employment on or about a specified time, at or near a place specified." 77 P.S. § 632. Accordingly, the WCJ concluded that Morack gave timely and adequate notice under the Act, and awarded Morack weekly compensation benefits of $432.11.

Gentex appealed to the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board ("WCAB" or "the Board"), which affirmed the decision of the WCJ. The Board noted Morack initially was unsure if her injuries were work-related, but, upon learning from Dr. Grady that they were, in fact, work-related, she telephoned Montefor and left a message indicating she had "work-related problems." The Board observed that the WCJ credited Morack's testimony over that presented by Gentex, and deferred to that determination. As such, the Board concluded that Morack provided adequate notice of her work-related injuries, and therefore affirmed the WCJ's award of benefits.

Thereafter, Gentex appealed to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that Morack failed to timely notify it of her work-related injuries pursuant to Section 311, and that she failed to sufficiently describe her injuries pursuant to Section 312. In a published panel opinion, authored by Judge James Flaherty, the court acknowledged that the record was unclear regarding whether Morack actually notified Gentex within 120 days of Dr. Grady's diagnosis, but recognized, because Morack was the party prevailing below, she was entitled to all reasonable inferences from the evidence. Gentex Corp. v. WCAB (Morack), 975 A.2d 1214, 1220 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2009). Finding there was no indication Morack delayed in providing notice, the court concluded Morack's notice was timely under Section 311.*fn9 Id.

With respect to the description of her injury, however, the court concluded Morack did not comply with Section 312. Specifically, the court focused on Morack's short-term disability form and her voice message to Montefor indicating she had "work-related problems." The court noted that Morack's short-term disability form stated she did not believe her injuries were work-related, complained of ailments and referred to body parts not at issue in this litigation, and attributed those ailments to pre-existing fibromyalgia and high blood pressure. Additionally, the court determined Morack's voice message did not alleviate the uncertainty regarding her injuries, as her message did not specifically indicate what body part she was referring to, what ailment was work-related, or whether her "work-related problems" were injuries at all. Accordingly, the court concluded that, even accepting ...


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