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2004-UP-365 - Agnew v. Spartanburg County School District No. 3

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 239(d)(2), SCACR.

STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals


Janet B. Agnew, Employee,        Appellant,

v.

Spartanburg County School District No. 3, Employer, and South Carolina School Board Insurance Trust, Carrier,        Respondents.


Appeal From Spartanburg County
Gary E. Clary, Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No. 2004-UP-365
Heard April 6, 2004 – Filed June 10, 2004


VACATED AND REMANDED


Andrew Nathan Safran, of Columbia, for Appellant.

Michael A. Farry, and David A. Wilson, both of Greenville, for Respondents.

PER CURIAM:  In this workers’ compensation case, Janet Agnew appeals the circuit court’s decision affirming the Full Commission’s ruling that Agnew sustained a compensable injury to her back and was entitled to permanent partial disability of 40%.  We vacate and remand.

FACTS

Janet Agnew worked for Spartanburg County School District No. 3 as a teacher for approximately twenty-two years.  On September 19, 1995, she sustained injuries while at school after tripping over tape that was stuck to the floor.  Initially, Dr. Howard Tiller treated her for pain in her knees, ankle, and shoulder.  Subsequently, Dr. Tiller saw her for pain in her lower back. She was prescribed physical therapy, which included the use of a TENS device.  It was noted that the TENS device helped relieve some pain. 

On September 16, 1996, Dr. Tiller found:  1) Agnew continued to have back pain resulting from her September 1995 accident; 2) x-rays revealed degenerative disk disease; 3) she had reached maximum medical improvement (MMI) and suffered a 10% permanent physical impairment to her back; and 4) the TENS unit had helped and was the most appropriate treatment to continue. 

Agnew continued seeing Dr. Tiller periodically, and on December 23, 1997, received an MRI, which indicated degenerative change.  In February 1998, Dr. Tiller noted Agnew had several lumbar epidurals, which helped considerably with her leg pain.  Agnew’s counsel discussed the back injury with Dr. Tiller in February 1998.  Dr. Tiller indicated the back pain/injury was related to the September 1995 fall.  He further found:  the fall probably aggravated a pre-existing degenerative disk disease; Agnew’s treatment had been “geared toward lessening her overall period of disability;” and that given her progression of symptoms required further treatment she had not reached MMI and would need a surgical consultation from an orthopaedic spine specialist.

Agnew was referred to Dr. Gerald Rollins for a surgical opinion as to her lower back.  Dr. Rollins found she had moderately severe degenerative disk disease.  After initially refusing surgery, Agnew underwent a discectomy and a fusion of the L5-S1 disk space.  The surgery improved her condition, though she continued having pain and restricted motion.

In July 1998, Agnew retired from her position as a schoolteacher.  She testified that she was not physically able to perform the work.  Even though she was offered other positions within the School District, she chose to remain retired. 

In January 1999, Dr. Rollins released Agnew from active treatment.  He found the fusion should have solidified and indicated she needed medication for pain.  In June 1999, he found that the use of Ultram for pain was in Agnew’s long-term benefit, determined she had a 12% permanent impairment to her back, and found she had reached MMI.  In response to a questionnaire by the School District, Dr. Rollins indicated in September 1999 that Agnew reached MMI in May 1999 and her impairment was 10% to the spine. 

On April 7, 2000, Agnew underwent another evaluation, this time by Dr. Glenn Scott.  Dr. Scott took Agnew’s history, noted that she relied upon pain medications, and concluded:  1) she had reached MMI; 2) she would need to continue on pain medications; and 3) assigned a total impairment to the back of 25%, which he allocated as 20% to the injury and 5% to pre-existing conditions.  

Dr. Donald Johnson evaluated Agnew in August 2000.  He indicated:  1) the surgery had helped to some degree; 2) she had to walk with a cane; and 3) she had extremely limited range of motion.  Based on these findings, he concluded: 1) she had reached MMI; 2) she sustained a 25% impairment to the spine; 3) she sustained a 25% impairment to the whole person; and 4) that Agnew would not be able to return to the workplace as a teacher.

The following day, Agnew met with Dr. William Stewart for a determination of vocational rehabilitation.  He noted the significance of her continued pain and reliance upon pain medication.  He indicated it would be impossible for her to return as a schoolteacher and that the use of the pain medication and lower back pain made it difficult for her to even do sedentary work.  His final conclusion was: 

[I]t is concluded that her prognosis for successful vocational rehabilitation to some kind of lighter, alternative work or job has to be considered very poor to nonexistent.  That is, Ms. Agnew will most likely remain unable to work and vocationally disabled, as I do not believe a reasonably stable job market exists for the types of services she is physically capable to providing/sustaining, despite her level of education/sophistication. 

After receiving temporary total disability compensation in December 1998, Agnew filed for permanent total worker’s compensation benefits.  The single commissioner held a hearing on October 31, 2000.  Agnew testified she continued to experience significant lower back pain and required pain medication.  She also testified that she could not sit or stand for long periods of time.  While admitting to taking trips to both Hawaii and London, she testified that if she increased her activity, she must take time off to recover. 

The single commissioner found Agnew had experienced an injury by accident while employed by the School District, and the injury resulted in a 30% permanent partial disability to her back.  Agnew appealed this decision to the Appellate Panel of the Workers’ Compensation Commission (Full Commission).  Her appeal contested many of the factual findings of the single commissioner and asked that she be found more than 50% disabled. 

The Full Commission was split in its decision.  The majority issued an opinion that found:  Agnew sustained a compensable injury by accident; had received proper medical treatment since the accident; and had reached MMI on May 1, 1999.  The majority concluded that Agnew was entitled to permanent partial disability of 40%. 

The dissenting member of the Full Commission found:  the majority overlooked significant evidence; “neither sufficiently analyze[d] this evidence nor addresse[d] its impact upon the primary issue in dispute; and . . . disregard[ed] the only reasonable inference which may be gleaned from the evidence contained in the hearing record.”  The dissent articulated her belief that the majority failed to make specific findings of fact as required, and that the implicit findings of fact were insufficient to support their conclusion.  The dissent concluded that Agnew was entitled to an award of permanent and total disability compensation. 

On appeal to the circuit court, Agnew contended the Full Commission:  erred in finding she only had a 40% permanent disability to her back; failed to make specific and sufficient findings of fact; and erred in not finding she suffered greater than a 50% disability to her back.  The circuit court affirmed the ruling of the Full Commission, finding its decision of 40% disability was supported by substantial evidence and that the findings of fact made by the Full Commission were “legally and sufficiently detailed.”  However, in making its own determination, the circuit court included over three pages of evidence to support its conclusion that was never specifically mentioned by the Full Commission’s majority order. Agnew filed a motion for reconsideration pursuant to Rule 59(e), SCRCP.  The circuit court denied this motion.  Agnew appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Administrative Procedures Act establishes the standard of review for decisions by the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission.  Lark v. Bi-Lo, Inc., 276 S.C. 130, 134-35, 276 S.E.2d 304, 306 (1981). “In workers’ compensation cases, the Full Commission is the ultimate fact finder.”  Shealy v. Aiken County, 341 S.C. 448, 455, 535 S.E.2d 438, 442 (2000).  In an appeal from the Commission, this Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commission as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact.  S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(A)(6) (Supp. 2003); Ellis v. Spartan Mills, 276 S.C. 216, 217, 277 S.E.2d 590, 591 (1981).  We can reverse or modify the Full Commission’s decision only if the claimant’s substantial rights have been prejudiced because the decision is affected by an error of law or is clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the whole record.  S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(A)(6) (Supp. 2003); Adams v. Texfi Indus., 341 S.C. 401, 404, 535 S.E.2d 124, 125 (2000).  “Substantial evidence is not a mere scintilla of evidence nor evidence viewed from one side, but such evidence, when the whole record is considered, as would allow reasonable minds to reach the conclusion the Full Commission reached.”  Shealy, 341 S.C. at 455, 535 S.E.2d at 442.

DISCUSSION

I.

Agnew argues the circuit court erred in affirming the decision of the Full Commission given the Commission’s findings were not sufficiently detailed for a proper review of the ultimate holding.  She maintains the Full Commission never explained its determination that Agnew was 40% disabled as compared to the 30% found by the single commissioner or the more than 50% found by the Commission’s dissenting member.  Finally, Agnew contends there was uncontradicted evidence that was neither examined nor explained by the Full Commission.  We agree with Agnew that the Commission’s failure to make specific findings of fact necessitates that we remand this case to the Commission.

Under the provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act, “[a] final decision shall include findings of fact and conclusions of law, separately stated.  Findings of fact, if set forth in statutory language, shall be accompanied by a concise and explicit statement of the underlying facts supporting the findings.”  S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-350 (1986).  Section 42-17-40 of the Workers’ Compensation Act also requires that an award include “a statement of the findings of fact, rulings of law, and other matters pertinent to the questions at issue.”  S.C. Code Ann. § 42-17-40(A) (Supp. 2003).  

Although the findings of fact and conclusions of law of an administrative body need not be presented in any particular format, they “must be sufficiently detailed to enable the reviewing court to determine whether the findings are supported by the evidence.”  Parsons v. Georgetown Steel, 318 S.C. 63, 66, 456 S.E.2d 366, 367-68 (1995); Able Communications, Inc. v. South Carolina Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 290 S.C. 409, 411, 351 S.E.2d 151, 152 (1986).  “Without specific and definite findings upon the evidence, a court on review of the panel’s decision cannot determine whether to uphold the general finding or conclusion . . . .”  Baldwin v. James River Corp., 304 S.C. 485, 486, 405 S.E.2d 421, 422 (Ct. App. 1991).  Implicit findings of fact are not sufficient.  Aristizabal v. Woodside-Div. of Dan River, Inc., 268 S.C. 366, 370-71, 234 S.E.2d 21, 23 (1977).  Where material facts are in dispute, the administrative body must make specific, express findings of fact.  Id.   

In Nettles v. Spartanburg Sch. Dist. #7, 341 S.C. 580, 590-91, 535 S.E.2d 146, 151 (Ct. App. 2000), this Court explained the procedural necessity of specific findings of fact, stating:

The commission must make specific findings of fact upon which a claimant’s right to compensation are based.  See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-350 (1986); Shealy v. Algernon Blair, Inc., 250 S.C. 106, 109, 156 S.E.2d 646, 648 (1967); 73A C.J.S. Public Administrative Law and Procedure § 144, at 104 (1983) (“Where the requirements as to administrative findings are contained in statutes, the findings must comply therewith.”).  In fact, “awards without such specific findings do not comply with the requirements of the [workers’ compensation] act and are illegal.”  Id. at 110, 156 S.E.2d at 648; see also Airco, Inc. v. Hollington, 269 S.C. 152, 160, 236 S.E.2d 804, 808 (1977) (finding that the commission has a statutory duty to make a finding of fact for all “essential factual issues.”).  This court cannot make findings of fact when the commission has failed to do so because, in doing so, this court would improperly assume the commission’s role as factfinder.  Fox v. Newberry County Memorial Hosp., 319 S.C. 278, 280, 461 S.E.2d 392, 394 (1995).  Because the commission did not make specific findings of fact to support its ruling, we must remand the issue to the commission.  See, e.g., Parsons v. Georgetown Steel, 318 S.C. 63, 456 S.E.2d 366 (1995) (holding an order of the commission that does not include sufficiently detailed findings of fact must be remanded to the commission).

In the instant case, the order issued by the majority of the Full Commission fails to set forth any specific findings of fact related to its determination that Agnew suffered a 40% permanent partial disability to her back as opposed to the 30% rating assigned by the single commissioner.  Moreover, the order fails to provide any findings of fact regarding the essential issues of whether Agnew was entitled to a finding of total disability or more than 50% permanent partial disability.  The order merely states, “The injury sustained by the Claimant as a result of her accident on September 19, 1995 based on the medical evidence and other evidence presented results in a permanent partial disability of 40% loss of use of her back.”  Thus, the Full Commission implicitly ruled that Agnew did not suffer more than 50% disability and implicitly found against the conclusions of Dr. William Stewart, the vocational rehabilitation examiner, regarding her ability to perform some function. 

Furthermore, the Commission did not incorporate by reference the factual findings of the single commissioner’s order.  Thus, the erroneous omission of detailed factual findings in the Commission’s order was not cured. [1]   Cf. Eaddy v. Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., 355 S.C. 154, 168, 584 S.E.2d 390, 398 (Ct. App. 2003), cert. denied (May 13, 2004) (finding the Full Commission’s incorporation of the single commissioner’s findings of fact and conclusions of law by reference provided the circuit court with sufficiently definite and detailed findings to allow the circuit court to ascertain whether the findings by the Commission were supported by the evidence and whether the law was correctly applied).

Additionally, the circuit court, in affirming the Full Commission’s decision, utilized over three pages to set forth findings of fact detailing the evidence it found supported the Full Commission.  However, when the Full Commission failed to set forth findings of fact on its own, the circuit court could not make its own findings of fact without improperly assuming the role of the Full Commission.  See Nettles, 341 S.C. at 590-91, 535 S.E.2d at 151 (stating an appellate court “cannot make findings of fact when the commission has failed to do so because, in doing so, [the appellate] court would improperly assume the commission’s role as factfinder”).

Therefore, we vacate the circuit court’s order and remand to the Full Commission to make detailed findings of fact.  We instruct the Commission to review all of the evidence in the present record when making its factual findings and conclusions as to Agnew’s degree of disability.  See Sigmon v. Dayco Corp., 316 S.C. 260, 262-63, 449 S.E.2d 497, 498-99 (Ct. App. 1994) (vacating circuit court’s order and remanding to Full Commission where Full Commission did not make findings of fact and circuit court improperly made its own findings of fact with regard to claimant’s injury); Baldwin, 304 S.C. at 487, 405 S.E.2d at 423 (vacating circuit court’s order and remanding case to Full Commission to make definite and detailed findings of fact on present record where Full Commission’s findings of fact were conclusory as to claimant’s award). 

II.

As to the merits of her appeal, Agnew asserts there was uncontradicted evidence from Dr. William Stewart indicating she was permanently and totally disabled and would be unable to work.  Additionally, she contends her treating physicians’ directions for her to continue to use prescription medication and to consider chronic pain management are evidence in favor of finding she is more than 50% permanently disabled.  Finally, she maintains the only reasonable inference arising from the evidence is that she experienced a 50% loss of use of her back and has been rendered permanently and totally disabled.  Thus, the Full Commission’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence, but rather, is based on an error of law.

In light of our decision to remand this case to the Full Commission, we need not address this issue.  See Futch v. McAllister Towing of Georgetown, Inc., 335 S.C. 598, 613, 518 S.E.2d 591, 598 (1999) (noting that an appellate court need not address appellant’s remaining issues when its determination of a prior issue is dispositive); Whiteside v. Cherokee County Sch. Dist. No. One, 311 S.C. 335, 340, 428 S.E.2d 886, 889 (1993) (stating appellate court need not address remaining issues when determination of prior issue is dispositive).

Accordingly, the decision of the circuit court is

VACATED AND REMANDED.   

HUFF and STILWELL, JJ., and CURETON, AJ., concur.


[1]   In contrast to the final order, the Full Commission’s order that affirmed the single commissioner’s decision to award Agnew temporary total disability benefits specifically incorporated the single commissioner’s order.