Texas Supreme Court Broadly Construes Scope of Judicial Review of Workers’ Compensation Decisions
At the tail end of 2017, the Texas Supreme Court issued a decision which has rather far-reaching implications for the various participants in the Texas Workers’ Compensation appellate and judicial review systems. In State Office of Risk Management v. Edna A. Martinez the court held that:
- An “issue” for purposes of dispute resolution is broadly construed as the disputed matter related to a workers’ compensation claim (i.e. compensability, disability, extent-of-injury, etc.) An “issue” is not a legal argument advanced to support or controvert a party’s position in such a dispute.
- For appellate purposes, a party is not required to appeal every adverse finding-of-fact related to the “issue” being litigated (i.e. compensability, disability, extent-of-injury.) Incorrect findings-of-fact are considered errors, not issues, and as such do not require individual appeal.
Basically, the Court recognized that “issue” in the workers’ compensation context is a broad, rather than restrictive, term. Martinez, the injured worker, took the position that “issue” meant “the specific grounds for denial or recovery raised in the administrative [process].” According to the Claimant, upon appeal parties should be limited to those arguments raised before, and ruled upon by, the Division. This argument would effectively confine appealing parties to the arguments made at the CCH level, prior to the extensive discovery opportunities afforded by the litigation process. It would also stymie the modified de novo standard of review the Labor Code affords to compensability and disability disputes, and it would place far too much emphasis on the Division’s decision. The Court disagreed with Martinez, holding that arguments raised in support or defense of workers’ compensation issues are not themselves issues as well. Consequently, a party may raise whatever argument it likes whenever it chooses.
Martinez also argued that a party’s failure to appeal certain findings of fact related to the issues in dispute acts to waive any challenge to both the finding and the underlying issue. In this case, the CCH Hearing Officer found that Martinez’s injury “did not involve any instrumentality of the [e]mployer.” As a result, her injury “did not arise out of nor [occur] in the course and scope of her employment” and this she “did not sustain a compensable injury.” However, the Hearing Officer also determined Martinez (who was injured at home) was “furthering the business and affairs” of her employer when her fall occurred. SORM never appealed this finding (not altogether too surprising considering SORM “won” the CCH) and Martinez contended that further consideration was therefore precluded. In Martinez’s view, that finding had become final, and in its essence it conclusively established the compensability of her claim. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that a party need not appeal every finding related to an issue in order to preserve the issue for judicial review. “Because the trial court conducts review under the modified de novo standard, there is no requirement that it defer to the hearing officer’s factual findings. Thus, a party’s failure to challenge a factual finding does not preclude a trial court from reviewing the issue the finding purportedly supports.”
The Martinez decision offers parties considerable latitude in their pursuit of their appellate options in disputed workers’ compensation matters. At the least, I won’t feel too terribly stressed the next time I am faced with a couple of questionable findings of fact in an otherwise favorable decision