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Court News Ohio

Ruling Lets Stand Order to Pay Lump-Sum Payments to Workers Who Lost Limbs, Organs

The Ohio Supreme Court today let stand a lower court’s ruling that the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC) must issue lump-sum payments to workers who lost limbs, organs, or bodily systems. The Supreme Court’s decision followed an appeals court’s ruling that a state law requiring weekly installment payments to those workers was unconstitutional.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the state, finding it had been improvidently accepted. The ruling drew two written dissenting opinions from Justices Judith L. French and R. Patrick DeWine. They found the issues presented in the case implicate matters of great public interest and deserved a ruling from the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Patrick F. Fischer, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody J. Stewart ruled the case was improvidently accepted and let the decision of the Eighth District Court of Appeals stand.

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy joined both the dissents from Justices French and DeWine, who each joined the other’s dissent.

State Argues Lower Court Overstepped Bounds
The BWC argued a trial court went too far in prescribing what the agency must do to serve injured workers who lost limbs, organs, or bodily systems. The issue before the Ohio Supreme Court was whether the “law-of-the-case doctrine” applied only to matters addressed in an earlier appeal of the case, or if it extended to issues not addressed in the earlier appeal.

The dispute began when, as part of the 2012 mid-biennium budget review bill (House Bill 487), state lawmakers amended R.C. 4123.57(B), which required workers’ compensation payments for employees who lost limbs, organs, or other bodily systems to be paid in weekly installments. Prior to the act, state law had allowed the payments to be made in weekly installments, but also allowed the BWC to control the process through rules. In 2010, the BWC approved a rule allowing lump-sum payments for loss-of-use injuries.

Jeffrey Kljun and five other injured workers filed a lawsuit in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court against the bureau, claiming the 2012 amendment violated the one-subject rule of the Ohio Constitution because it was unrelated to the budget bill.

The lawsuit requested an injunction that prevented the BWC from enforcing the new law. Both sides asked for summary judgment, and the trial court ruled in the BWC’s favor. Kljun appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court. The Eighth District found the amendment was unconstitutional and directed the trial court to enter a judgment in Kljun’s favor.

In her dissent, Justice French explained the Eighth District only analyzed the issue of whether the provisions in H.B. 487 were constitutional. On remand, the trial court not only declared the law unconstitutional, but also prohibited BWC from refusing to issue lump-sum payments.

The BWC argued that decision exceeded the scope of the court’s authority. It noted that prior to the law change, the agency had the option of deciding whether to make lump-sum payments or installment payments. The state maintained that once a law is ruled unconstitutional, the state reverts to the law that was in place before it passed, and the previous law made lump-sum payments optional.

In 2016, the BWC appealed the trial court’s order to the Eighth District. The Eighth District ruled the law-of-the-case doctrine controlled the issue and that the BWC cannot appeal the matter for a second time. The state argued the issue of how the BWC was to act after the law was repealed never was discussed in the first appeal. It appealed the Eighth District’s denial of a second appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on the matter in January 2019.

Dissent Says Rule Not Followed
Justice French explained the law-of-the-case doctrine makes the decision of a reviewing court the law of that case on the legal questions involved for all subsequent proceedings. Also, she wrote the doctrine comes into play with respect to issues that were previously determined. The rule compels trial courts to follow the reviewing courts’ mandates and does not allow trial courts to reconsider questions that the higher courts have laid to rest.

In this matter, the law-of-the-case doctrine did not compel the trial court to block the state from refusing to pay lump-sum payments. The dissent stated that while the Eighth District found the H.B. 487 version of the law could not be enforced, it did not determine what was required of the BWC under the older version of the law. Nothing in the Eighth District’s first ruling held the state was required to pay lump-sum benefits, the dissent stated, and there is no “law of the case to that issue.”

Justice French’s dissent stated the trial court granted broader relief than the injured workers requested. She wrote the state should have been allowed to argue on appeal that the issue was not addressed in the first ruling, and to request that the trial court’s decision be reversed.

“The Eighth District’s decision in Kljun II sets a dangerous precedent by impermissibly expanding the reach of the law-of-the-case doctrine,” the dissent stated.

Decision Could Lead to More Lawsuits, Justices Maintained
In his dissent, Justice DeWine stated that the decision below was “undeniably wrong,” and that the majority “cannot defend the decision below and does not even try to do so.”

“Implicitly recognizing the wrongness of the appellate court’s judgment, the majority even forbids other litigants from citing the decision as authority,” Justice DeWine wrote.

But the effect of its dismissal, he explained, “has the exact same effect as an affirmance for the parties in the case and the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.”

Justice DeWine also explained that by limiting citation of the case to the parties in the case, the majority’s decision leaves it unclear whether the ruling requiring the BWC to issue lump-sum payments applies only to the seven injured workers named in the appeal, or if it applies broadly to all similar claims.

“I certainly don’t know — and it’s a pretty safe guess that the majority’s action will give rise to more litigation to sort this out,” he wrote.

Justice DeWine stated the issue continues to be one of significant public interest and the case should have been decided by the Supreme Court.

“To put it simply, there is no reason to dismiss this case as improvidently accepted. If the majority wants to leave the court of appeals’ decision in place, it ought to at least explain its reasons to the public,” he wrote.

2017-1576. Kljun v. McCloud, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-1334.

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