Michigan Court of Appeals Reverses Appellate Commission’s Decision Reversing a Magistrate’s Finding of an Injury Arising Out of and In the Course of Employment Where Commission Remanded for Supplemental Fact-finding and Retained Jurisdiction to Reconsider the Merits of the Claim

In this Workers’ Compensation case, the Court of Appeals reverses the Appellate Commission’s decision to reject a magistrate’s opinion that the claimant proved a work-related injury, i.e., an injury arising out of and in the course of his employment.

The claimant was injured after he slipped and fell in a parking lot leased by his employer as he was leaving his car to go to work.  The magistrate concluded that the claimant proved his injury arose out of and in the course of employment and had therefore met his burden to prove a compensable disability.

The defendant filed a claim for review before the Michigan Compensation Appellate Commission on the basis of a failure of proofs with respect to the “arising out of and in the course of employment” determination.  A majority of the Appellate Commission remanded because the magistrate “failed to address a crucial question which includes fact-finding.”  The Commission retained jurisdiction.

On remand, the parties submitted a “joint statement of facts” and additional proofs, which included a copy of the lease agreement between the parking lot owner and the claimant’s employer.  The magistrate found that “[p]laintiff’s presence in the parking lot was within the ‘zone, environment and hazards’ of his workplace when he parked his car and left it to enter his workplace.”

When the case returned to the Commission, a majority again reversed the magistrate’s award of benefits opining that “plaintiff failed to prove at the first trial that his injury arose out of an in the course of his employment.”  The majority opinion concluded “t]he prior remand to reopen the proofs on the issue of arising out of and in the course of employment was improvidently ordered” and “[p]laintiff failed to sustain his burden of proving this critical element of his prima facie case at trial.”

As the Court of Appeals points out in its opinion reversing the Appellate Commission, MCL 418.861a(12) gives the Commission the authority to “remand a matter to a worker’s compensation magistrate for purposes of supplying a complete record if it is determined that the record is insufficient for purposes of review.”  (emphasis added).  Here, neither party challenged the actual decision to remand.  The Appellate Commission retained jurisdiction, so, presumably, it would rule on the issue concerning the proofs subsequently submitted pertaining to the question of “arising out of and in the course of employment”.

However, the Appellate Commission ruled instead that the claimant had failed to prove his case at the first trial and therefore, it was justified in reversing the magistrate’s second opinion, which was rendered after presentation of proofs as to the very issue.

First, the Court of Appeals correctly points out that because neither party challenged the initial remand, the Appellate Commission could not essentially sua sponte rule on that unpreserved issue by finding that it should not have remanded the matter in the first place.  See MCL 418.361a(11) (“the commission shall review only those specific findings of fact or conclusions of law that the parties have requested be reviewed“) (emphasis added).

Second, the Court of Appeals also ruled, correctly, that the “law of the case doctrine” precluded the Appellate Commission from revisiting the issue on the basis of the prior record presented at the first proceeding.  The law of the case doctrine binds an appellate tribunal after remand in the same case and on materially the same facts to any decision the appellate court previously made.  New Properties, Inc. v. George D. Newpower, Jr., Inc., 282 Mich. App. 120, 132 (2009).  Although the law of the case doctrine does not apply where an appellate tribunal remands a matter because a material issue of fact exists, it does apply if the tribunal makes a contrary ruling based on the same material facts.  Since the Appellate Commission here overturned its decision to remand for additional fact-finding, and further overruled the magistrate’s original opinion finding a work-related disability had been proved, the law of the case doctrine had been violated.  The Commission “made its second determination on the basis of the prior record, or, in other words, on the basis of the same facts that it had previously determined to be insufficient.”

The Court of Appeals concluded that the Commission based its decision on fundamentally erroneous legal reasoning and, in doing so, violated the integrity of the administrative appellate process.  The Court remands ordering the Appellate Commission to review the supplemental record and the second opinion from the magistrate.

The case is attached here:  Mohny

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