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Arkansas Department of Correction and Arkansas Insurance Department v. Jennings

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

September 13, 2017

ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION AND ARKANSAS INSURANCE DEPARTMENT, PUBLIC EMPLOYEE CLAIMS DIVISION APPELLANTS
v.
CHRISTIE DAWN JENNINGS APPELLEE

         APPEAL FROM THE ARKANSAS WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION [NO. G504734]

          Charles H. McLemore Jr., Public Employee Claims Division, for appellant.

          Matthew, Sanders & Sayes, P.A., by: William Ray Sanders, for appellee.

          OPINION

          LARRY D. VAUGHT, Judge.

         Appellants, Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC) and the Public Employee Claims Division of the Arkansas Insurance Department (collectively referred to throughout as appellants), appeal the decision of the Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission (the Commission) reversing the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision and awarding appellee, Christie Dawn Jennings, benefits under Arkansas Code Annotated section 11-9-505(a) (Repl. 2002). We affirm.

         On April 20, 2015, Jennings began working as a correctional officer at the East Arkansas Regional Unit of the ADC (commonly known as the Brickeys Unit). On June 29, 2015, Jennings was serving food in the barracks when she slipped on the wet floor and twisted her right knee. She alerted a coworker to the injury, and her coworker contacted the lieutenant. The lieutenant and the sergeant came down to the barracks and instructed Jennings to fill out an injury report, which she did. They then sent her to see Dr. James Jacobs in Wynne, and she was seen by Dr. Jacobs that day. Dr. Jacobs diagnosed her with a "sprain of right knee" and wrote that she was "unable to work." The ADC paid temporary total-disability benefits beginning June 30, 2015. On July 1, 2015, an MRI on Jennings's knee revealed "edema surrounding the superficial MCL, suggesting a grade I sprain" and "[p]atellofemoral and medial femorotibial compartment chondromalacia" with "small knee joint effusion." At a follow-up appointment on July 6, Dr. Jacobs again found that Jennings could not work. On July 13, Dr. Jacobs recommended that Jennings "wear knee brace, return to work 7/14/15." It is undisputed that the ADC paid temporary total-disability benefits through July 13, 2015.

         Jennings then returned to restricted work at the Brickeys Unit. She performed restricted duties for one month, working in the isolation area. She sat at a desk in a guard station and kept a log of who entered and exited the building. Although the general policy was to rotate employees to new work assignments every two weeks, Jennings worked the desk in isolation for a month while her knee continued to heal. On or about August 4, 2015, Jennings was rotated to a patrol position in the barracks. Jennings testified that the patrol job required a significant amount of walking and climbing stairs, which she had not done since her injury. She testified that when she woke up on the morning after her first day on patrol duty, her knee was severely swollen and she could not walk. She immediately called both her lieutenant and the ADC's designated contact person for workers'-compensation claims, Rudy Bischof (whom she could not reach). Jennings then went to see a doctor, who took her off work for a week due to the swelling in her knee. Bischof returned Jennings's phone call and instructed her to see Dr. Jacobs, which she did. Dr. Jacobs put Jennings on light duty from August 12 until she could be seen by an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Guinn, on August 26. It is undisputed that the ADC reinstated temporary total-disability benefits on August 6.

         On August 26, Dr. Guinn performed an MRI, diagnosed Jennings with a "Grade I MCL, " and prescribed physical therapy, a new knee brace, and "sitting duty" at work. Because the ADC had a policy of periodically rotating employees to different positions, it did not put her on a desk job such as the one she had just completed. Jennings was told that there were no light-duty positions available, and then on August 31, 2015, the ADC terminated Jennings's employment, stating that she was not a "qualified employee" under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Jennings's termination letter stated that once she had recovered and could perform all necessary job functions, she could reapply for her job and would be "considered for rehire." It is undisputed that the ADC continued to pay Jennings's temporary total-disability benefits until she reached maximum medical improvement and was released by Dr. Guinn to return to full duty.[1]

         On November 12, Jennings's attorney corresponded with the ADC counsel and demanded that Jennings be reinstated to her previous position, with all benefits, rank, pay, seniority, etc., as it was before she was terminated. The ADC refused to reinstate Jennings.

         Jennings filed a claim for additional compensation for a period beginning November 9, 2015, pursuant to Arkansas Code Annotated section 11-9-505 due to the ADC's refusal to return her to work. The ADC controverted the claim. After a hearing, the ALJ ruled in favor of the ADC, finding that Jennings had not proved that she was entitled to benefits. In an opinion dated October 25, 2016, the Commission reversed the ALJ and awarded Jennings benefits under section 11-9-505. The Commission awarded Jennings her average weekly wages for a period beginning November 10, 2015, and not exceeding one year, benefits not to be subtracted.

         In appeals from the Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission, we review the evidence and all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom in the light most favorable to the Commission's findings, and we must affirm if those findings are supported by substantial evidence. Mullin v. Duckwall Alco, 2016 Ark.App. 122, 484 S.W.3d 283. The issue on appeal is not whether the appellate court would have reached a different result or whether the evidence could support a contrary finding; if reasonable minds could reach the Commission's conclusion, we must affirm. Id.

Arkansas Code Annotated section 11-9-505(a)(1) states:
Any employer who without reasonable cause refuses to return an employee who is injured in the course of employment to work, where suitable employment is available within the employee's physical and mental limitations, upon order of the Workers' Compensation Commission, and in addition to other benefits, shall be liable to pay to the employee the difference between benefits received and the ...

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