Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The "Law of the Case" Doctrine

This is an entirely self-serving post. Let me explain. Several years ago a claimant filed a petition and made arguments, which essentially challenged determinations made in an earlier portion of the litigation. This was not one of those "res judicata" or "collateral estoppel" legal arguments.
These arguments conjured up a thought... something I had learned many years earlier, something about "the Law of the Case".

When this type of argument arises, I find it difficult to locate any case citations to explain this legal argument. Now, I've found a recent reference to this doctrine and I thought I should read it, write about it and have some documentation available (that I can find), to raise this argument, when it applies in my work comp cases. As we know, in workers' compensation, there are many times when it seems that issues recur in later litigation, which we believe were decided in prior litigation.

Madden v. WCAB (Gutter Guard), No. 2218 C.D. 2012, an unreported memorandum opinion of a panel of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania authored by President Judge Pellegrini on May 20, 2013, discussed this topic, in the context of a Remanded Claim Petition.

Factual & Procedural Background
In 2003 Employee filed a claim petition for a work-related motor vehicle accident.
Employer filed a Notice of Workers' Compensation denial, contending that Employee was not entitled to benefits as he consumed alcohol before the accident.
Importantly, the Employer did not file a timely answer within 15 days of the assignment to the Workers' Compensation Judge (now 20 days).

Employee filed a motion to have the averrments of the claim petition, deemed admitted.
The general rule is that the failure to file a timely answer precluded Employer from presenting evidence in rebuttal or as an affirmative defense to factual averrments in the petition.
See: Yellow Freight Systems, Inc. v. WCAB (Madara) 423 A.2d 1125 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1981).

WCJ decision l
The Workers' Compensation Judge (erroneously) did not act upon Employee's motion.
The WCJ accepted Employer's evidence on the intoxication issue and denied benefits.
The Employer's medical expert was found credible that there was no evidence of disability as of his January 8, 2004 examination. (a significant finding!)

WCAB Appeal
In Employee's appeal, the WCAB vacated the WCJ decision and remanded to consider the "Yellow Freight" motion. On remand, the WCJ denied the motion and denied benefits, finding employee was intoxicated and not an authorized driver. The WCAB affirmed this remanded decision.

Commonwealth Court Appeal (Madden l)
In Employee's appeal to the Commonwealth Court, this claim denial was reversed.

Employer was precluded from assertion of the affirmative defense of intoxication or scope of employment. BUT the untimely answer did not prevent Employer from establishing that Employee had fully recovered from his injuries. The Court found there was substantial evidence to support the WCJ finding of full recovery, yet the case was remanded for a determination of the exact date.

On remand the WCJ found employee had fully recovered from the work-related disability as of the January 8, 2004 physical examination of Employer medical expert. Benefits were terminated as of this date. The WCAB remanded once again, for specific findings as to the average weekly wage, the benefit rate, the period of benefits, the attorney fee deduction and payment of costs.

The WCJ made these findings and terminated benefits. Employee only appealed the Termination finding. The WCAB affirmed this finding.

Commonwealth Court Appeal (Madden ll)
On Employee appeal to the Commonwealth Court he argued there was not substantial evidence in support of the termination finding. Employee argued the WCJ should have been barred from considering any evidence from Employer, including its medical expert evidence, because of the untimely answer. Employee argued the WCJ was required to accept his medical expert opinions.

These Employee arguments were rejected.

The Court already resolved the issue raised by Employee. In Madden l, the court decided the untimely answer did not preclude employer from submitting medical evidence of a full recovery . The WCJ found this evidence to be credible. This employer medical evidence was substantial evidence in support of a finding of termination.

"Because we have already decided those issues, Claimant is barred from attempting to have those revisited under the law of the case doctrine."
"The law of the case doctrine sets forth various rules that embody the concept that a court involved in the later phases of a litigated matter should not reopen questions decided by another judge of that same court or by a higher court in the earlier phases of the matter." slip opinion page 5.

Practice Pointer:
 The "law of the case" argument clearly applies to later phases of a litigated matter.
Query: does it apply to latter petitions dealing with the same date of injury?
In my opinion it does. For this reason, this legal argument may be relevant in many work comp cases.

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