Mar 26, 2015

Employee Receives Legal Fees Award After Georgia Employer Unreasonably Defends Against Workers’ Compensation Claim

The Georgia Court of Appeals has ordered an employer who unreasonably defended
a workers’ compensation claim to pay its former employee’s
legal fees. In
Waters v. PCC Airfoils, LLC, a woman claimed she suffered repetitive injuries to her left hand and
wrist as a result of her employment. Following an October 2009 workplace
incident, the employee was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in both
wrists. The worker notified her employer about the injury and sought treatment
from an approved doctor.

The next month, the physician noted the woman was not required to perform
repetitive duties using her left hand. Still, he recommended she undergo
surgery on both wrists. The woman elected to undergo the two surgeries
at different times so that she retained the use of one hand during her
recovery. Her right wrist surgery took place in December 2009. In January
2010, her doctor recommended that the worker pursue formal occupational
therapy for both hands as a result of her ongoing pain. At the time, he
also stated the woman had limited use of both arms.

In November 2010, the woman apparently suffered another workplace injury.
She underwent surgery on her left wrist the following month. About six
months after her second surgery, her physician stated it was his opinion
that the employee’s left hand injury was not work-related. He added
that he did not feel any of her ongoing physical ailments resulted from
her October 2009 workplace incident.

Next, the woman filed a workers’ compensation benefits claim for
both workplace incidents. Following a hearing, an administrative law judge
(“ALJ”) denied the woman’s request for benefits for
her November 2010 accident. Still, the ALJ awarded the employee workers’
compensation benefits for her left hand injury and any medical bills stemming
from the October 2009 incident. In addition, the ALJ issued an attorney’s
fees award equal to one-fourth of the worker’s income benefits,
due to the employer’s unreasonable defense against the employee’s
benefits claim.

After that, the woman’s employer appealed the ALJ’s order to
the Workers’ Compensation Board. The Board adopted the ALJ’s
decision in its entirety, and the employer sought review by the Superior Court
of Coffee County. The Superior Court affirmed the Board’s decision
with regard to the woman’s workers’ compensation benefits
and medical expenses but overturned her legal fees award due to the conflicting
medical testimony offered by her doctor. In response, the worker appealed
the court’s decision to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the court examined whether the employer unreasonably defended
against the woman’s claim for workers’ compensation benefits.
According to the Court of Appeals, OCGA §
34-9-108(b)(1) allows an ALJ or the Board to assess attorney’s fees against a party
that unreasonably prosecutes or defends a Georgia workers’ compensation
case. The court next stated it was required to affirm the Board’s
decision regarding whether an employer has unreasonably defended a benefits
request if there was any evidence offered to support the award.

After examining the ALJ’s statement of facts, the appellate court
stated the physician’s testimony was inconsistent. Although the
doctor initially recommended surgery on both wrists, he claimed more than
18 months later that the woman’s left wrist harm was not work-related.
The court said an employer’s defense may be reasonable in cases
where inconsistent medical testimony was offered. Despite this, the court
found that the instant case was distinguishable because the employer failed
to dispute the physician’s initial medical opinion at the time it
was offered.

According to the appeals court, the ALJ clearly made a credibility determination
when she weighed the doctor’s initial testimony against his later
statements. Since there was evidence to support the ALJ’s holding
that the employer’s defense was unreasonable, the Georgia Court
of Appeals reversed the Superior Court’s decision and reinstated
the ALJ’s award for legal fees.

If you suffered a disabling
repetitive stress injury at work, an experienced Atlanta workers’ compensation lawyer
may be able to help you. To discuss your right to recovery with a hardworking
Conyers workers’ compensation attorney, do not hesitate to call
the Law Offices of Nathaniel F. Hansford at (770) 922-3660 or contact
us through our website today.

Additional Resources:

Waters v. PCC Airfoils, LLC, 760 SE 2d 5 – Ga: Court of Appeals 2014

Photo credit: Alvimann, MorgueFile