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Cohen v. Franklin County Schools

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

April 17, 2018

ALINA COHEN, Employee, Plaintiff

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 7 March 2018.

          Appeal by plaintiff from opinion and award entered 25 July 2017 by the North Carolina Industrial Commission.I.C. No. 15-734251

          Hardison & Cochran, P.L.L.C., by Benjamin T. Cochran and J. Carter Whittington, for plaintiff-appellant.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Patrick S. Wooten, for defendant-appellee.

          DAVIS, Judge.

         In this appeal, we revisit the issue of whether an employee who suffers an illness allegedly resulting from a meeting with her supervisor is able to establish an injury by "accident" under North Carolina's Workers' Compensation Act. Alina Cohen appeals from the opinion and award of the North Carolina Industrial Commission denying her claim for workers' compensation benefits. Because we conclude that she has failed to show an injury by accident within the terms of the statute, we affirm.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On 19 January 2010, Cohen was hired by Franklin County Schools ("Defendant") to work as a full-time math teacher at Early College High School ("Early College"). Each teacher at Early College was "required to create an individual PDP [Professional Development Plan] at the beginning of the year that stated their goals and also a plan as to how to accomplish those goals with an associated timeline." As a part of her employment, Cohen "underwent periodic classroom observations and was evaluated by the school principal, James A. Harris, Jr." Harris was Cohen's principal throughout her employment with Early College.

         Pursuant to his duties as the school principal, Harris would normally conduct "three observations with an evaluation" for each teacher throughout the course of the year. Prior to October 2013, Harris had conducted observations in Cohen's classroom and held evaluation conferences with her. Cohen was aware of the process for teacher observations and post-observation conferences with Harris. She also knew that post-observation conferences "should be during the ten working days after . . . observation."

         In 2013, Harris received "various complaints in regard to [Cohen's] teaching." After having received these complaints, Harris "prepared an observation and a 'principal directed' PDP to go over with [Cohen] on October 11, 2013." He believed that the "PDP was designed for [Cohen] and him to work together to assist [her] and to get her to the level where we felt that she would become a better teacher."

         On 11 October 2013, Harris went to Defendant's Central Office to meet with Charles Fuller, a director of secondary education. Harris told Fuller that he "had prepared a directed PDP for [Cohen] and that [he] did not believe that [Cohen] would receive it well." Because Harris did not have an assistant principal and "wanted someone to be a witness" during the meeting, Harris asked Fuller to sit in on the meeting.

         That same morning, Harris saw Cohen at Early College and told her "that he had to go over the observation and PDP with her that day, and asked her to stay after school." In the past, Harris had not given Cohen advance notice of post-observation conferences and would typically "do most of these at the end of the school day . . . ."

         At the conclusion of the school day on 11 October 2013, Cohen was leaving the school building for the weekend when she saw Fuller coming into the building. Cohen and Fuller greeted each other, and she walked outside. As she was leaving, Harris ran out of the building and stated, "Mrs. Cohen, I need you to come back." Cohen followed Harris into his office and saw Fuller sitting in a chair inside the office.

         Harris proceeded to explain that he was meeting with Cohen because of problems with her teaching. He explained that he had written out a PDP for her. She refused to sign the PDP and asked for a sheet of paper to instead write that she had been "pushed to sign [the PDP] without reading . . . ." The meeting lasted approximately fifteen to twenty minutes, and Cohen continued to argue with Harris until the end of the meeting at which point all three participants left the school.

         Cohen testified that at some point during the 11 October 2013 meeting with Harris she began to experience "horrible head pain" and felt as though "her head was going to blow up." On 14 October 2013, she was seen by Dr. Richard Noble, an internist, and later that same day she was examined by Dr. Mitchell Freedman, a neurologist at Duke Health. Both Dr. Noble and Dr. Freeman determined that Cohen had suffered a stroke.

         On 15 June 2015, Cohen initiated a workers' compensation claim by filing a Form 18 ("Notice of Accident to Employer"), and she submitted a Form 33 ("Request That Claim Be Assigned For Hearing") on 16 July 2015. Defendant filed a Form 61 ("Denial of Workers' Compensation Claim") on 20 July 2015.

         On 12 April 2016, a hearing was held before Deputy Commissioner Philip A. Baddour, III. Cohen testified at the hearing in support of her claim for benefits. Harris and Fuller testified on behalf of Defendant. Depositions were later taken of Dr. Noble and Dr. Freedman.

         On 23 December 2016, the deputy commissioner issued an opinion and award determining that Cohen's meeting with Harris and Fuller on 11 October 2013 was "an ordinary incident of employment constituting circumstances common to employees in any profession. There was nothing unexpected or unusual with regard to the way the meeting was arranged or conducted." The deputy commissioner concluded that Cohen "did not experience an unlooked for and untoward event . . . [and] did not suffer an injury by accident within the meaning of the North Carolina Workers' Compensation Act, and therefore her claim is not compensable." Cohen appealed to the Full Commission.

         On 25 July 2017, the Full Commission issued an Opinion and Award affirming the deputy commissioner's decision and denying Cohen's claim for benefits. On 7 August 2017, Cohen filed a timely notice of appeal.


         Appellate review of an opinion and award of the Industrial Commission is typically "limited to consideration of whether competent evidence supports the Commission's findings of fact and whether the findings support the Commission's conclusions of law." Philbeck v. Univ. of Mich., 235 N.C.App. 124, 127, 761 S.E.2d 668, 671 (2014) (citation and quotation marks omitted). "The findings of fact made by the Commission are conclusive on appeal if supported by competent evidence even if there is also evidence that would support a contrary finding. The Commission's conclusions of law, however, are reviewed de novo." Morgan v. Morgan Motor Co. of Albemarle, 231 N.C.App. 377, 380, 752 S.E.2d 677, 680 (2013) (internal citations omitted), affd per curiam, 368 N.C. 69, 772 S.E.2d 238 (2015).

         Under the Workers' Compensation Act, an injury is compensable if the claimant proves three elements: "(1) that the injury was caused by an accident; (2) that the injury was sustained in the course of the employment; and (3) that the injury arose out of the employment." Hedges v. Wake Cty. Pub. Sch. Sys., 206 N.C.App. 732, 734, 699 S.E.2d 124, 126 (2010) ...

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