By Jared S. Renfroe

In a case that was decided this past April, Deborah Syph (“Employee”) alleged that she injured her back while lifting boxes while working for Choice Food Group, Inc. (“Employer”). Employer questioned whether the alleged injury was compensable under the amended workers’ compensation law. Employee was given a panel of physicians and selected Dr. Melvin Law. Dr. Law evaluated Employee and authored a report stating that he was “unable to establish any causation or an apportionment based on a significant change in her subjective pain or dysfunction” and was “unable to establish an anatomic change.”

The parties participated in an Expedited Hearing, and the trial court concluded that “without an opinion linking her back condition to her work for [Employer], [Employee] is unlikely to prevail at a hearing on the merits.” Employee did not appeal this order.  Pursuant to Tenn. Comp. R. & Regs. 0800-02-21-.14(3) (2015), Employer filed a motion to dismiss on November 24, 2015, arguing that the trial court had “denied the claim on grounds of compensability.” However, Employee did not participate in the Initial Hearing, did not file a response to the Motion to Dismiss, and did not participate in the hearing on the Motion to Dismiss filed by Employer. Thus, the trial court granted Employer’s Motion to Dismiss, concluding that Employee “failed to address the evidentiary inadequacies brought to light during the Expedited Hearing,” as she did not “produce an expert opinion to contradict Dr. Law or demonstrate a clear intent to do so.”

Employee timely filed a notice of appeal to the Appeals Board (“the Board”). The Board noted that this case “presents an important issue concerning the circumstances in which a trial court can dismiss an employee’s workers’ compensation claim with prejudice prior to a trial on the merits” and explained that Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-239(c) provides that “proceedings at all hearings” in the Tennessee Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims are governed by the Tennessee Rules of Evidence and the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure “unless an alternate procedural or evidentiary rule has been adopted by the administrator.”  Furthermore, the Board noted the statute also states that “if a motion for temporary disability or medical benefits is denied on the basis that the claim is not compensable,” then “the workers’ compensation judge may entertain an appropriate motion for dismissal of the claim.”

The Board explained that the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation Claims adopted Rule 0800-20-21-.14(3), which provides:

If, as a result of the expedited hearing, the claim is denied on the grounds of compensability, the claim shall continue as provided in these rules…. If the denial on the grounds of compensability is affirmed by the Board or if no appeal is taken, the employer may file a motion to dismiss with the assigned workers’ compensation judge. If a motion to dismiss pursuant to this paragraph is filed, … the employee shall have thirty (30) calendar days to file a written response. Thereafter, the motion shall be set for a hearing and the judge shall issue an appropriate order.

Because neither the statute nor regulations define what is an appropriate “motion to dismiss,” the Board was required to consider in what circumstances an employer can succeed in having an employee’s claim dismissed prior to a trial on the merits. As with any effort to construe statutory provisions, the Board began their analysis by focusing on the language of the statute and regulations and concluded that the term “proceeding” is broader than the term “hearing.”

The Board concluded that the phrase “‘proceedings at all hearings’” as used in § 50-6-239(c)(l) encompasses all filings made by the parties as a result of any request for or notice of a hearing filed after the issuance of a dispute certification notice.”  Additionally, the Board explained,

An alternative approach which applies the Rules of Civil Procedure and the Rules of Evidence only at formal hearings could result in parties’ being free to submit inadmissible information and documentation prior to a formal hearing while such filings are not subject to procedural and evidentiary rules; yet, the very same information and documentation would be subject to the rules if offered as evidence during the course of the hearing. This becomes even more confusing and unwieldy when considering the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims’ Practices and Procedures, which requires the parties to submit certain evidence they intend to introduce prior to a formal hearing. . . . Waiting to apply the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure and the Tennessee Rules of Evidence until a formal hearing is convened is untenable, unmanageable, and incongruous with the stated goals of ensuring fairness to all parties and improving the efficiency of the system.

Furthermore, the Board held:

[W]e find that the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure and the Tennessee Rules of Evidence apply to any action taken in, or pleading filed with, the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims, whether the filing is made with or subsequent to the filing of a request for or notice of a hearing, as long as the action or filing is part of the overall proceeding during which a party seeks to enforce a legal right under the Workers’ Compensation Law. With respect to any such action, the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure and the Tennessee Rules of Evidence shall govern unless the administrator has adopted an alternative procedural or evidentiary rule that conflicts with the aforementioned rules. In accordance with the express language of section 50-6- 239(c)(l), such an alternative rule would control.

Because “motion” isn’t defined in the statutes or rules, the Board concluded that motions to dismiss filed pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-239(d)(4) and/or Rule 0800-02-21- .14(3) are subject to the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure and not an alternative procedural rule.

Next, the Board examined the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, including Rule 12.02(6), which allows a party to file a Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The Board explained that this rule would logically apply in this case, as the trial court had already ruled that the claim should be dismissed on the merits as it involved a non-compensable injury.

The Board analyzed case law from the Tennessee Supreme Court under the prior version of the workers’ compensation law, in which employers had filed motions to dismiss an employee’s claim. Ultimately, the Board held that when an employer seeks dismissal of an employee’s claim for benefits under Rule 0800- 02-21-.14(3) and/or Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-239(d)(4), in cases in which the trial court denied temporary disability or medical benefits on grounds of noncompensability, “the trial court must treat the motion for dismissal as one filed pursuant to any applicable rule of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.”

Applying the law to the facts, the Board explained that Dr. Law’s expert medical opinion that he was unable to determine causation of the alleged injury, which is entitled to a presumption of correctness under Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-102(14)(E), negated an essential element of Employee’s claim. For this reason and because Employee failed to respond to the Motion to Dismiss or participate in the hearing for the Motion, the Board upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the claim.

However, it should be noted that the Appeals Board’s decision in this case was not unanimous; the Honorable Judge Hensley concurred with the decision but raised additional issues, including asserting that the issue concerning the circumstances in which a trial court can dismiss an employee’s workers’ compensation claim with prejudice prior to a trial on the merits was not raised by Employee on appeal. However, the majority of the Board noted that while Employee, who was proceeding pro se, did not frame the issues on appeal as an attorney might, she was entitled to leeway in her pleadings pursuant to Young v. Barrow, 130 S.W.3d 59, 63 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003).

Additionally, Judge Hensley asserted that it was not necessary for a procedural rule to conflict with a rule of evidence or civil procedure to be “an alternate rule,” but the Board explained that it reached its decision based on its interpretation of the phrase “proceedings at all hearings,” as well as consideration of the statute as a whole. Lastly, Judge Hensley was concerned that “an ‘unsuspecting employee’ who sought benefits by filing a request for expedited hearing ‘could find himself or herself at a precipice that could effectively conclude the claim with prejudice should the employee be unable to resolve evidentiary inadequacies at that point in the face of an employer’s motion pursuant to section 50-6-239(d)(4).’” However, the Board concluded that “parties who have filed or are responding to a request for or notice of hearing are entitled to the protections offered by the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure and the Tennessee Rules of Evidence, and the trial court’s decision will be subject to meaningful appellate review in light of well-established legal precedent.”

This split-decision case is a very interesting and important case for practitioners who have claims for injuries arising after July 1, 2014. The Appeals Board’s decision in this case makes clear that motions to dismiss are subject to the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.

Jared, an associate attorney in Spicer Rudstrom’s Memphis office, focuses his legal practice on litigation throughout Tennessee. His concentrates primarily in premises liability, business and commercial representation, employment practices litigation, professional liability, insurance defense and workers’ compensation.