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2008-UP-244 - Magaha v. Greenwood Mills, Inc.

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.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals


Bessie M. Magaha, Respondent,

v.

Greenwood Mills, Inc., Appellant.


Appeal From Greenwood County
 J. Cordell Maddox, Jr., Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No. 2008-UP-244
Submitted April 1, 2008 – Filed April 24, 2008  


AFFIRMED


Roy R. Hemphill, of Greenwood; for Appellant.

Carole Marie Dennison, of Greenville; John S. Nichols, of Columbia; for Respondent.

PER CURIAM:  Greenwood Mills, Inc. (the Mill) appeals the circuit court’s order in this workers’ compensation action.  We affirm.[1]

FACTS

Bessie M. Magaha was employed with the Mill for over thirty years as a weaver.  In November of 1998, the Mill transferred Magaha to work on a larger loom.  Magaha alleged she sustained an injury to her right shoulder, arm, and hand.  She first sought treatment for the pain from her family doctor on January 11, 1999.  Magaha had two surgeries on her shoulder and sought payment of medical expenses and temporary total and permanent total disability.  The Mill denied Magaha sustained an injury by accident and alleges it did not receive notice of the injury until it received a Form 50 on December 29, 2000, almost two years after the alleged accident.

At the hearing before the single commissioner, Magaha argued she suffered repetitive trauma to her right shoulder after moving to the larger loom.  Magaha is five-feet, one-inch tall, was in her sixties at the time of the alleged accident, and has a seventh grade education.  Magaha testified she informed Ronnie Butler, her supervisor at the Mill, of problems with her shoulder on the first day she used the new loom.  At a prior deposition, Magaha testified she told Butler the soreness in her shoulder and arm was getting worse but did not explicitly tell Butler the soreness was related to her work.  She explained at the hearing that she “figured he probably would [think] . . . that it’s something . . . from work.”  Butler testified before the single commissioner that he did not remember whether Magaha told him about her injury.  Nor did he remember whether Magaha complained about the new loom.  Butler claimed he would have noted any complaints on Magaha’s attendance card, pursuant to the Mill’s policy.  Butler conceded Magaha was a good worker, retired without any warnings, and rarely, if ever, complained. 

Magaha began receiving short-term disability benefits in March or April of 1999.  On her application for short term disability, Magaha represented that her injuries were not work-related.  On cross-examination on the issue, Magaha testified that the Mill did not explain the short-term disability form to her and she did not remember checking a box on the form denying her injury was work-related.  Magaha has suffered a stroke, has had a guardian ad litem appointed for her, and could not remember whether the Mill helped her fill out the disability forms.    

After shoulder surgery in March of 1999, Magaha returned to work.  Within two weeks, the pain returned.  Magaha retired in July of 2000, had carpal tunnel surgery in October of 2000, and had a second shoulder surgery in February of 2002. 

Dr. Michael Bryant, Magaha’s treating physician, wrote the Mill after Magaha’s first consultation.  By letter dated January 19, 1999, Dr. Bryant informed the Mill:

Ms. Magaha had been seen in my office on 1/11/99 with impingement syndrome with continued pain and discomfort.  She had some decreased strength secondary to the pain as well as pain on internal and external rotation of the right upper extremity . . . .  She is no longer doing the job that caused the impingement syndrome but continues to be debilitated at work working in pain. . . . I would appreciate your consideration in helping her cover this expense, as I think it will be less costly overall in her treatment. (Emphasis added.)

The Mill stipulated it received this letter.   

The single commissioner found Magaha failed to prove a compensable injury and failed to give sufficient notice of having sustained an injury by accident.  With one dissent, the full commission adopted the findings of the single commissioner.

Magaha appealed the issues of notice and compensability to the circuit court.  In closing arguments at the circuit court hearing, Magaha’s counsel argued:

I think notice is everything.  If she gave notice that she started an investigation to see if it was work related.  Clearly the hearing commissioner was also concerned because . . . he asked the supervisor whether the [new loom] was bigger than the one she used to work on and he said it was, he admitted it was by probably an inch or two.  So, that crucial two inches is very important and it is going down to whether she had to stretch further.  And I think it is not appropriate and it is not fair and . . . [it] is not supported by substantial evidence.  They didn’t even conduct any kind of investigation, it is not legal, it is not proper for them to take Dr. Bryant’s notes and put [them] in a personnel file without going out on the floor.  [Magaha’s supervisor] couldn’t remember anything and that was one of the biggest problems in the case. . . . And if a proper investigation had been done, looking at the whole record then they would of (sic) found the case was compensable.

The discussion portion of the circuit court’s order states: 

In this case, Dr. Bryant provided all the information that the Employer needed to properly investigate [Magaha’s] injury.  He told [the Mill] that a job change had caused the impingement syndrome, that Claimant was experiencing pain and discomfort in her right upper extremity which was her predominant arm for work, and that he was requesting that the Employer cover the expense of medical treatment.

This information should have launched an investigation by the Employer into the specifics of Claimant’s medical problems and whether or not a work related injury had occurred.  Unfortunately for Claimant, the record does not contain any evidence that the Employer made any reasonable effort to determine the cause of the injury or to question the Claimant or plant personnel when their memories were still fresh.  Under these circumstances, the Employer would be unable to properly determine whether or not Claimant’s medical problems were work-related.

As a further result, the Claimant was not afforded the opportunity to be provided medical care and treatment by the Employer.  If this injury is later conclusively deemed work related on remand, the Employer has lost the chance to supervise and to direct her medical care and treatment. (Emphasis added.)

The order concludes:

The only evidence in the record is that Claimant has met the statutory notice requirements of Section 42-15-20 as a matter of law.  The decision of the Commission is hereby reversed and the matter is remanded to the Commission for further findings of fact consistent with this order.

The Mill appeals. 

STANDARD OF REVIEW

“The Full Commission is the ultimate fact finder in Workers’ Compensation cases.”  Etheredge v. Monsanto Co., 349 S.C. 451, 454, 562 S.E.2d 679, 681 (Ct. App. 2002).  “The findings of the Commission are presumed correct and will be set aside only if unsupported by substantial evidence.”  Id.  However, “[s]ubstantial evidence is not a mere scintilla of evidence nor the evidence viewed blindly from one side of the case, but is evidence which, considering the record as a whole, would allow reasonable minds to reach the conclusion that the administrative agency reached or must have reached in order to justify its action.”  Lark v. Bi-Lo, Inc., 276 S.C. 130, 135, 276 S.E.2d 304, 306 (1981).  A court may reverse or modify a decision of the commission if substantial rights of a party have been prejudiced because the findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are affected by other error of law.  Etheredge, 349 S.C. at 456, 562 S.E.2d at 682.

LAW/ANALYSIS

APPEALABILITY

Our initial consideration in this case centers on whether the circuit court’s order is immediately appealable.  The Mill argues the circuit court reversed the commission’s finding on the issue of timely notice but failed to rule on the issue of compensability of the injury and therefore the order is final and immediately appealable.  Magaha argues the circuit court’s order remands the action for further proceedings and therefore the issue is not immediately appealable pursuant to Montjoy v. Asten-Hill Dryer Fabrics, 316 S.C. 52, 446 S.E.2d 618 (1994).

The South Carolina appellate courts “have consistently held that an order of the circuit court remanding a case for additional proceedings before an administrative agency is not directly appealable.”  Montjoy, 316 S.C. at 52, 446 S.E.2d at 618.  However, our appellate courts also recognize that remand orders from the circuit court to an administrative agency may be immediately appealable where the circuit court’s order constitutes a final decision on the merits and the remand order has no effect on the finality of the decision.  Foggie v. General Elec. Co., 376 S.C. 384, 389, 656 S.E.2d 395, 397 (Ct. App. 2008).  In Brown v. Greenwood Mills, Inc., this court found the circuit court’s order finally determined an issue on the merits and the remand merely directed the commission to make the necessary findings to effectuate the circuit court’s order.  366 S.C. 379, 387, 622 S.E.2d 546, 551 (Ct. App. 2005).  Viewing the order based on the Mills’ interpretation, solely for the issue of appealability, we find the order immediately appealable.

NOTICE

The Mill first argues the circuit court erred in reversing the commission’s finding that Magaha gave timely notice of the accident.  We disagree.

Section 42-15-20 of the Workers’ Compensation Act requires that every injured employee give the employer notice of a job-related accident within ninety days after its occurrence.  S.C. Code Ann. § 42-15-20 (Supp. 2007).  “Section 42-15-20 provides no specific method of giving notice, the object being that the employer be actually put on notice of the injury so he can investigate it immediately after its occurrence and can furnish medical care for the employee in order to minimize the disability and his own liability.”  Bass v. Isochem, 365 S.C. 454, 472-73, 617 S.E.2d 369, 379 (Ct. App. 2005).  The notice requirement is to be construed liberally in favor of claimants.  Etheredge, 349 S.C. at 458, 562 S.E.2d at 683. 

The Mill conceded it received Dr. Bryant’s letter, in which he informs the Mill of Magaha’s injury and its relationship to her work.  In Etheredge, this court found a letter from the employee’s family physician provided notice to employer.  Id. at 458, 562 S.E.2d at 683.  In light of the law requiring the liberal construction of the notice provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act, we conclude Dr. Bryant’s letter provided notice to the Mill.   

COMPENSABILITY OF INJURY

The Mill next argues the circuit court’s remand does not affect the commission’s ruling on the compensability of Magaha’s injury, and thus the issue of compensability is “law of the case.”  We disagree.

“Law of the case” is a doctrine dissuading courts from revisiting settled issues.  John R. Knight, The Law of the Case Doctrine:  What Does it Really Mean?, 43-Oct. Fed.R.Law. 8 (1996).  Where a litigant fails to appeal a ruling on a particular issue, that ruling becomes law of the case.  See Resolution Trust Corp. v. Eagle Lake & Golf Condominiums, 310 S.C. 473, 475, 427 S.E.2d 646, 648 (1993) (finding an unappealed ruling is law of the case).

After a thorough review of Magaha’s notice of appeal to the circuit court, the transcript of the hearing, and the circuit court’s order, we find the doctrine of “law of the case” does not apply.  First, Magaha raised the issue of compensability in her notice of appeal to the circuit court.  Furthermore, reading the circuit court’s order as a whole, we find the emphasized language in the order indicates the circuit court expects the commission to revisit the issue of whether Magaha suffered an injury by accident arising out of and in the course and scope of her employment.  We recognize the circuit court did not specifically rule on the issue in the conclusion portion of the order.  However, given the circuit court’s clear reversal on the issue of notice, there was no need for the court to remand with instructions for “further findings of fact consistent with this order” unless the court expected further proceedings on the issue of injury by accident. 

CONCLUSION

The circuit court’s order reversing the commission’s finding on notice and remanding the action to the commission for further proceedings on the issue of whether Magaha suffered an injury by accident arising out of and in the course and scope of her employment is  

AFFIRMED.

ANDERSON, SHORT, and THOMAS, JJ., concur.    


[1] We decide this case without oral argument pursuant to Rule 215, SCACR.