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Anders v. Universal Leaf North America

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

May 2, 2017

CAPEN TRUCER CARL ANDERS, II, Employee, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSAL LEAF NORTH AMERICA, Employer, and ESIS, Carrier, Defendants.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 8 February 2017.

         Appeal by plaintiff from opinion and award entered 5 July 2016 by the North Carolina Industrial Commission North Carolina Industrial Commission, I.C. No. X43019.

          Kellum Law Firm, by J. Kevin Jones, for plaintiff-appellant.

          Wilson & Ratledge, PLLC, by James E. R. Ratledge and Scott J. Lasso, for defendants-appellees.

          ZACHARY, Judge.

         Plaintiff-employee Capen Trucer Carl Anders, II (Anders) appeals from an Opinion and Award of the Industrial Commission denying his claims for additional medical and indemnity benefits related to bilateral hernias allegedly caused by an earlier, compensable hernia injury that plaintiff suffered while employed by defendant-employer Universal Leaf North America (Universal Leaf). Anders' primary argument on appeal is that the Commission erred in concluding that the subsequent bilateral hernias that Anders suffered after Universal Leaf terminated his employment were not causally related to his prior compensable hernia injury. Anders also challenges the Commission's conclusion that his claim for additional medical treatment related to the subsequent bilateral hernias was time-barred by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-25.1. For the reasons that follow, although the Commission committed an error in its causation analysis, we conclude that no remand is necessary in this case, and that the Commission's Opinion and Award should be affirmed.

         I. Background

         This case arises out of an admittedly compensable bilateral inguinal hernia injury that Anders suffered while employed as a seasonal employee by Universal Leaf. At the time of the work-related accident, which occurred on 20 November 2010, Anders was working on the "blending line" removing wires from bales of tobacco. After a tobacco-bale wire became stuck, Anders "yanked on the wire and felt a pain in his groin." On 22 November 2010, Universal Leaf sent Anders to Carolina Quick Care, where he was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia and referred to a surgeon. However, defendants refused to authorize a surgeon's visit at that time. Anders worked under light-duty restrictions for several days.

         On 28 November 2010, Anders sought treatment for his hernia in the emergency department at Halifax Regional Medical Center, where he was again diagnosed with an inguinal hernia and referred to a surgeon. When Anders returned to work on 29 November 2010, he learned that he had been fired for violating Universal Leaf's attendance policy. The record reveals that a specific absentee policy applied to Anders' position and that Universal Leaf had an established process for handling workers' compensation claims. According to Universal Leaf's absentee policy, a seasonal worker could be terminated for accruing six "occurrences"- i.e., "a day out of work, an early leave, or a late entry into work"-in a twelve-month period. Anders had accumulated at least six occurrences between 17 September 2010 and 29 October 2010. When Anders sought medical treatment on 28 November 2010, his absence from work counted as an occurrence because Anders did not contact Universal Leaf's first aid office and receive authorization for the hospital visit.

         Shortly after Universal Leaf terminated Anders, he found work at a local Waffle House. On 22 March 2011, Dr. Robert Vire performed a bilateral inguinal repair surgery on Anders. That same day, Anders was discharged from the hospital with the temporary restriction that he not lift more than 10 pounds. Although Anders returned to Dr. Vire on 7 April 2011 with "soreness" at the incision site, Dr. Vire found no evidence of any hernia. Dr. Vire released Anders to full-duty work and instructed him to report for further treatment as needed. Anders then returned to his position at Waffle House.

         In late May 2011, Anders experienced ongoing pain in his right groin and he returned to Dr. Vire, who ordered that Anders undergo an ultrasound and CT scan of the abdomen, pelvis, and chest. The ultrasound was performed on 8 June 2011 and Anders underwent CT scans on 20 June 2011 and 7 July 2011. Dr. Vire found no evidence of a recurring hernia, but the ultrasound revealed that Anders suffered from a "small right hydrocele with superficial edema around the right scrotum." It does not appear that the CT scans revealed any further concerns.

         Anders' original claim for workers' compensation benefits related to the work-related hernia was accepted by defendants' filing a Form 60 on 13 May 2011. That same day, defendants also filed a Form 28 Return to Work report, which indicated that Anders was released to work on 15 April 2011, [1] and a Form 28B, which reported that Anders had received medical compensation and 2.2 weeks of temporary total disability benefits for the period from 29 March 2011 until 14 April 2011. The Form 28B established that Anders received his last disability payment on 8 April 2011. Anders received his last medical compensation payment on 19 January 2012; that payment covered the ultrasound and the CT scans ordered by Dr. Vire.

         Based on the results from the June 2011 ultrasound, Dr. Vire referred Anders to Dr. Fred Williams, a surgeon at ECU Physicians. Dr. Williams examined Anders on 11 August 2011 and found no recurrent hernias, but Dr. Williams did "appreciate[] a small hydrocele, with tenderness in the . . . ilioinguinal nerve." As a result, Anders was prescribed the medication Neurontin for nerve pain. Anders began working for Hardee's in August 2011.

         When Anders sought treatment for bilateral groin pain in May 2013, he was referred to general surgeon Dr. James Ketoff, who diagnosed a small, recurrent right inguinal hernia. Dr. Ketoff surgically repaired this hernia on 6 June 2013, and he ordered Anders out work until 9 July 2013. Between July 2013 and August 2014, Anders sporadically sought medical treatment for groin pain.

         On 27 January 2014, Anders initiated the present action by filing a Form 33 request for hearing, seeking medical and indemnity compensation for his recurring hernias. Following defendants' Form 33R response, which asserted that Anders had received all benefits to which he was entitled, the matter was heard before Deputy Commissioner Theresa Stephenson on 10 September 2014. On 9 April 2015, Deputy Commissioner Stephenson filed an Opinion and Award that, inter alia, concluded that Anders' subsequent recurring hernias were not related to his November 2010 work-related injury, awarded certain indemnity compensation to Anders, and denied other indemnity compensation and any medical compensation.

         Anders reported to Dr. Ketoff, who diagnosed a left-sided, recurrent hernia on 21 August 2014. Dr. Ketoff surgically repaired Anders' left-sided hernia on 24 September 2014. Dr. Ketoff ordered Anders out of work from the date of the surgery until 9 December 2014, when Anders was released to work and instructed to ease into full activity.

         Anders appealed Deputy Commissioner Stephenson's decision to the Full Commission. After hearing the matter in September 2015, the Commission entered an Opinion and Award on 5 July 2016 and found, inter alia, that Anders' work-related hernia had "fully healed" after it was repaired on 22 March 2011; that defendants' last payments of indemnity and medical payments occurred on 8 April 2011 and 19 January 2012, respectively; that Anders did not request additional medical compensation until 27 January 2014; that Anders had not suffered any permanent damage to any organs or body parts as a result of the work-related injury; and that Anders failed to produce evidence of his earnings from the work he performed after Universal Leaf terminated him, which included positions at Waffle House, Hardee's, and landscaping and construction work.

         Based on these findings, the Commission concluded that Anders had failed to prove that his November 2010 work-related injury was causally related to his subsequent recurring hernias, and that Anders' request for additional medical compensation was time-barred by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-25.1. Because Anders had failed to prove that he was "disabled" as defined by the Workers' Compensation Act during the period following his termination, the Commission further concluded that Anders was not entitled to additional indemnity compensation for his subsequent recurrent hernias. Consequently, Anders' claims for additional compensation were denied. Anders now appeals the Commission's Opinion and Award.

         II. Standard of Review

         "Appellate review of an award from the Industrial Commission is generally limited to two issues: (1) whether the findings of fact are supported by competent evidence, and (2) whether the conclusions of law are justified by the findings of fact." Clark v. Wal-Mart, 360 N.C. 41, 43, 619 S.E.2d 491, 492 (2005). The " 'Commission is the sole judge of the credibility of the witnesses and the [evidentiary] weight to be given their testimony.' " Adams v. AVX Corp., 349 N.C. 676, 680, 509 S.E.2d 411, 413 (1998) (quoting Anderson v. Lincoln Constr. Co., 265 N.C. 431, 433-34, 144 S.E.2d 272, 274 (1965)). "Thus, if the totality of the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the complainant, tends directly or by reasonable inference to support the Commission's findings, these findings are conclusive on appeal even though there may be plenary evidence to support findings to the contrary." Click v. Pilot Freight Carriers, Inc., 300 N.C. 164, 166, 265 S.E.2d 389, 390 (1980). The Commission's conclusions of law are subject to de novo review. Boney v. Winn Dixie, Inc., 163 N.C.App. 330, 331, 593 S.E.2d 93, 95 (2004).

         III. Discussion

         On appeal, Anders' primary argument is that the Commission improperly decided the causation issue. Anders contends that the Commission erred in determining that his subsequent bilateral hernias were not compensable as natural and direct results of the earlier compensable bilateral hernia he suffered while employed by Universal Leaf. However, the Commission's Opinion and Award also contains conclusions of law that present separate and distinct bars-which are unaffected by the causation issue-to Anders' claims for additional medical and indemnity benefits. Accordingly, we begin by addressing the Commission's conclusions that Anders' claim for medical benefits was time-barred, and that his claim for indemnity benefits should be denied because he failed to prove that he was "disabled" as defined by the Workers' Compensation Act during the period following his termination from employment by Universal Leaf.

         A. Overview

         In 1929, the legislature created our Workers' Compensation Act, "[t]he underlying purpose of [which] is to provide compensation for work[ers] who suffer disability by accident arising out of and in the course of their employment." Henry v. A.C. Lawrence Leather Co., 234 N.C. 126, 127, 66 S.E.2d 693, 694 (1951). As the plan is designed, "[a]n award under the Act has two distinct components: (1) payment of 'medical compensation' pursuant to G.S. § 97-25 for expenses incurred as a direct result of the work-related injury, and (2) payment of general 'compensation' pursuant to G.S. §§ 97-29 through 97-31 for financial loss suffered as a direct result of the work-related injury." Collins v. Speedway Motor Sports Corp., 165 N.C.App. 113, 118, 598 S.E.2d 185, 189 (2004) (emphasis added and citations omitted); see Cash v. Lincare Holdings, 181 N.C.App. 259, 264, 639 S.E.2d 9, 14 (2007) (recognizing that "the legislature always has provided for, and continues to provide for, [these] two distinct components of an award under the Workers' Compensation Act") (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         The term medical compensation is defined as

medical, surgical, hospital, nursing, and rehabilitative services, including, but not limited to, attendant care services prescribed by a health care provider authorized by the employer or subsequently by the Commission, vocational rehabilitation, and medicines, sick travel, and other treatment, including medical and surgical supplies, as may reasonably be required to effect a cure or give relief and for such additional time as, in the judgment of the Commission, will tend to lessen the period of disability; and any original artificial members as may reasonably be necessary at ...

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