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Workers’ Compensation FLASHPOINTS June 2020

June 15, 2020Print This Post Print This Post

Joseph P. Basile | E-mail Joseph Basile

This month, three Rule 23 orders from the Workers’ Compensation Division of the Illinois Appellate Court are reviewed. The first concerns a claim that an employer’s premises were defective and caused the employee’s injury. The questions of final orders and subject-matter jurisdiction were at issue in the other two cases.

Commission’s Determination That Petitioner’s Fall at Her Employer’s Premises Did Not Arise Out of Her Employment Was Not Contrary to Law

The appellate court upheld the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission’s finding in Souvenir v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2020 IL App (2d) 190759WC-U. The petitioner received an offer of employment to work as a customer service representative. The letter of employment instructed her to park in the employee parking lot. On her first day, she arrived at the parking lot and parked close to the median, which resulted in her having to walk across the median to reach the building. The petitioner stepped with her left foot out of the car and onto the median. She noticed the grass in the median was lower than the height of the curb and did not expect it to be uneven. Her next step, with her right foot, resulted in her tripping on the backside of the curb and falling onto the parking lot pavement. She testified the height of the curb caused her to fall and that the grassy area was defective. She testified she told the employer’s human resource generalist she fell because the curb and grass were not even.

The human resources generalist testified the petitioner did not tell her anything about the uneven curb or grass at the time of the accident. The generalist testified the petitioner reported that she was “caught off guard” by the “drive way” spot (a “spot” next to where she parked was next to a “drive way”). 2020 IL App (2d) 190759WC-U at ¶8. This witness also testified that employees do not have to traverse any curbs to enter the building and that an employee could walk around the curb to enter the building.

A customer service representative sent an e-mail to the human resource generalist stating that when she opened the door, the petitioner told her she fell in the parking lot. It detailed that the petitioner got out of her car, took a couple of steps, and then fell. The petitioner stated she did not know what caused her to fall.

An agent of the employer’s insurance company testified to a conversation with the petitioner in which she described the curb as normal. He denied the claim based on his investigation.

The arbitrator found the accident did not arise out of the petitioner’s employment with the employer. The evidence demonstrated there were no cracks, defects, or abnormalities with the curb. The arbitrator found that the curb was similar to other well-maintained safety curbs that can stop or limit the area between moving vehicles and the walkways that employees take to work. The arbitrator rejected the argument that the appearance of similar height between the grass and the curb was a defect and stated that finding this curb and grass area as unexpected or defective would simply “lend to a finding that all grassy curbed areas are inherently defective.” 2020 IL App (2d) 190759WC-U at ¶12. The arbitrator relied on Caterpillar Tractor Co. v. Industrial Commission, 129 Ill.2d 52, 541 N.E.2d 665, 133 Ill.Dec. 454 (1989).

The Commission affirmed and corrected the decision. The circuit court confirmed the decision.

The petitioner argued the Commission erred as a matter of law because she was injured on her employer’s premises due to a hazardous or dangerous condition. The court determined that the facts were undisputed and susceptible to a single inference so that the issue was one of law subject to de novoreview. The petitioner argued that the height differential between the ground level inside the median and the top of the curb was a defect that created a hazardous condition. The opinion pointed out she did not argue that the curb itself was defective. She did not argue that the median contained a hole, depression, or uneven surface. Her position was that the entire ground level of the median was defective because, according to her estimate, it was an inch and a half lower than the top of the curb. The court addressed this by noting she did not present any evidence or authority supporting her proposition that a curb must be level with any of the surfaces it abuts; otherwise it is defective and a hazardous condition. Thus, she failed to satisfy her burden of proof, and the Commission, on that basis alone, did not err as a matter of law in finding that her injury did not arise out of her employment.

The court went on to address the question whether the curb was defective since it was the surface that caused her injury. The court agreed with the Commission’s finding that this case fell squarely within Caterpillar. The evidence demonstrated the surfaces were dry and there were no holes, obstructions, or rocks. The petitioner tripped on the curb while exiting her car. She failed to present any evidence or authority suggesting the curb was defective. The Commission’s decision that her fall did not arise out of her employment was not contrary to law.

Circuit Court’s Finding That Commission Decision Was Against Manifest Weight of Evidence Without Specifying Disposition Was Interlocutory Finding That Court Could Modify

In Carlinville United School District No. 1 v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2020 IL App (4th) 190548WC-U, the court’s opinion concerned the distinction between a circuit court finding and a disposition based on that finding. The Commission denied a petitioner’s claim for benefits. On judicial review, the circuit court found the decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence. The Commission issued a second decision awarding the petitioner benefits. The respondent sought judicial review, and the circuit court confirmed the second decision. The respondent appealed.

The appellate court held that because the initial administrative review lacked a disposition and remained pending, the Commission’s second decision and the administrative review of that decision were not authorized by statute. The court vacated the Commission’s second decision and the judgment confirming it.

In its first decision, the Commission found the petitioner failed to prove she sustained accidental injuries arising out of and in the course of her employment. On judicial review, the circuit court made this docketing entry: “Ruling — The Commission decision is AGAINST the manifest weight of the evidence. Clerk to forward docket entry to attorneys of record.” 2020 IL App (4th) 190548WC-U at ¶6. The opinion noted that the petitioner appealed the docket entry. The respondent moved to dismiss the appeal, arguing that an order reversing an award and remanding the case to the Commission was interlocutory and not appealable. Attached to the respondent’s motion was a printout from the Commission representing that the circuit court remanded the case to the Commission; however, the docket entry contained no mention of a reversal or remand. The court did agree with the respondent and dismissed that appeal.

Concerning this appeal by the respondent, the court noted that the only judicial document the parties provided from the first administrative review action was the docket entry. That docket entry neither confirmed nor set aside the Commission’s first decision and only found that it was against the manifest weight of the evidence. Consequently, it lacked a disposition. There is a difference between a finding by the circuit court, such as that the Commission’s decision is against the manifest weight of the evidence, and what the court decides to do about the finding. Findings should result in a stated disposition.

Under §19(f)(2) of the Workers’ Compensation Act, 820 ILCS 305/1, et seq., a circuit court may (1) confirm the Commission’s decision; (2) set aside the decision and, if the record is factually sufficient, enter a decision that is legally justified; or (3) set aside the decision and remand the case to the Commission for further proceedings with directions to the Commission if necessary. The circuit court did none of these things. This meant the case was still pending in the circuit court. The finding was interlocutory, and the circuit court could rescind that finding and make an opposite finding.

For the appellate court, the Commission assumed the circuit court remanded the case, but there was no order to that effect. The opinion stated: “We are unaware of any statute that, absent a setting aside and remand by the circuit court, would authorize the Commission to change its final decision denying workers’ compensation benefits into a final decision awarding such benefits.” 2020 IL App (4th) 190548WC-U at ¶15, citing Cassens Transport Co. v. Industrial Commission, 218 Ill.2d 519, 844 N.E.2d 414, 419, 300 Ill.Dec. 416 (2006). Any action the Commission takes outside its statutory authority is void, a nullity from its inception. As a result, the Commission’s second decision and the judgment confirming it were vacated. The first case remained pending awaiting disposition pursuant to §19(f)(2), and the appellate court remanded the case to the circuit court with instructions to enter a disposition.

Commission Decision Was Interlocutory, Not Final, and Circuit Court Lacked Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

In Montgomery v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2020 IL App (3d) 190351WC-U, the appellate court addressed the question whether a Commission decision was interlocutory or final. The petitioner filed a petition pursuant to §8(a) of the Act to compel his employer to cover the cost of past and future medical treatment for a work-related injury. At the hearing, the petitioner submitted invoices from 20 medical providers totaling over $50,000. He also submitted bills and receipts representing expenses incidental to his medical treatment in the amount of $32,000.

The Commission’s decision stated: “(7) Respondent shall pay all outstanding reasonable and related medical bills. . . . IT IS FURTHER ORDERED BY THE COMMISSION that Respondent pay reasonable, necessary, and related medical expenses under §8(a) of the Act, subject to the fee schedule in §8.2 of the Act.” 2020 IL App (3d) 190351WC-U at ¶6. The Commission ordered the incidental expenses as follows: “(5) All bills for necessary and related treatment, attendant care and travel are to be directed for approval and payment to Respondent. . . . IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED BY THE COMMISSION that all bills for necessary and related treatment, attendant care and travel are to be directed for approval and payment to Respondent.” 2020 IL App (3d) 190351WC-U at ¶7.

In its analysis, the court pointed out that a Commission decision must be final for it to be appealable. A Commission decision that includes a generalized award requiring further determination is an interlocutory decision, which a circuit court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to review. 2020 IL App (3d) 190351WC-U at ¶9, citing International Paper Co. v. Industrial Commission, 99 Ill.2d 458, 459 N.E.2d 1353, 1357, 77 Ill.Dec. 104 (1984). Here the Commission entered an interlocutory order by reciting the respondent’s statutory duty to pay reasonable and necessary medical and incidental expenses without specifying which of the petitioner’s expenses the respondent had to pay. The respondent did not dispute that, under §8(a), it was obliged to pay “all outstanding reasonable and related medical bills” and “[a]ll bills for necessary and related treatment, attendant care and travel.” 2020 IL App (3d) 190351WC-U at ¶11, quoting 820 ILCS 305/8(a). The dispute was which of the bills and invoices were reasonable and necessary. The Commission’s order was interlocutory and unappealable because that dispute was not resolved. This meant the circuit court’s judgment lacked subject-matter jurisdiction and was void. It was vacated and the case remanded to the Commission.

For more information on workers’ compensation, see WORKERS’ COMPENSATION PRACTICE (ILLINOIS) — 2019 EDITION. Online Library subscribers can view it for free by clicking here. If you don’t currently subscribe to the Online Library, visit www.iicle.com/subscriptions.

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