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Lavaca School District and Arkansas School Boards Association v. Hatfield

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

September 4, 2019

LAVACA SCHOOL DISTRICT AND ARKANSAS SCHOOL BOARDS ASSOCIATION APPELLANTS
v.
PAT HATFIELD APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE ARKANSAS WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION [NO. G408038]

          Ledbetter, Cogbill, Arnold & Harrison, LLP, by: James A. Arnold II and Victor L. Crowell, for appellants.

          Walker, Shock & Harp, PLLC, by: Eddie H. Walker, Jr., for appellee.

          LARRY D. VAUGHT, JUDGE.

         Appellants Lavaca School District and Arkansas School Boards Association (collectively "the district") appeal the Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission's (Commission) decision reversing the decision of the administrative law judge (ALJ) who denied appellee Pat Hatfield's request for additional medical benefits. While the ALJ concluded that Hatfield's claim was barred by the statute of limitations, the Commission disagreed and found that she had received reasonable and necessary medical treatments that tolled the statute of limitations. This factual finding is supported by substantial evidence, so we affirm the Commission's decision.

         Hatfield was employed by the district when she first sustained an undisputedly compensable injury to her right knee as a result of falling in the bathroom on April 11, 2014. Hatfield filed for workers'-compensation benefits on October 3, 2014, and the district subsequently paid for medical treatment, including surgery.

         Hatfield had what she called a "flare up" with her right knee in July 2015 and received medical treatment until December 29, 2015 when her treating physician, Dr. Trent Johnson, released her to work with no restrictions. On March 14, 2016, Lavaca School District's attorney emailed Hatfield's attorney and Dr. Johnson, advising them that Hatfield must request and receive advance authorization for any additional medical treatment related to her knee injury. Hatfield was then treated by Dr. Johnson, without requesting or obtaining advanced authorization, on May 6 and June 21, 2016. At both of these appointments, Hatfield complained of pain in her right leg, shooting down from her back and hip. She was prescribed physical therapy for her back and given an injection in her hip. On April 27, 2017, Hatfield was again seen by Dr. Johnson, without advance authorization, for problems specifically related to her right knee. The district did not pay for any of the three treatments for which Hatfield failed to obtain prior approval.

         On March 1, 2018, Hatfield filed a claim for additional medical benefits for her right knee stemming from her compensable injury. Although the district initially claimed to have provided all reasonable and necessary treatment up to and through June 21, 2016, it later revised its position and asserted that the last benefits that had been paid on Hatfield's claim were in December 2015, which would make her claim for additional benefits time-barred under the applicable statute of limitations.

         The ALJ agreed with the district, concluding that Hatfield's claim for additional benefits was time-barred. Hatfield appealed to the Commission, which found that Hatfield had received periodic medical treatment that was reasonable and necessary to treat her compensable injury and that the statute of limitations was therefore tolled. The Commission reversed the ALJ's decision, and this appeal followed.

         To the extent that the issue before us includes pure questions of law, we review such issues de novo. Stewart v. Ark. Glass Container, 2010 Ark. 198, at 6–7, 366 S.W.3d 358, 361– 62. It is for this court to decide what a statute means, and we are not bound by the Commission's interpretation and application of the statute. Id. Regarding findings of fact, however, we view the evidence and all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom in the light most favorable to the Commission's findings, and we affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Graves v. Hopper, 2018 Ark. App. 193, at 11, 547 S.W.3d 448, 454. Substantial evidence exists if reasonable minds could reach the Commission's conclusion. Id. We will not reverse the Commission's decision unless fair-minded persons with the same facts before them could not have reached the Commission's conclusions. Id. The issue is not whether we might have reached a different result or whether the evidence would have supported a contrary finding. Id. Questions of weight and credibility are within the sole province of the Commission, which is not required to believe the testimony of the claimant or of any other witness but may accept and translate into findings of fact only those portions of the testimony it deems worthy of belief. Id. Once the Commission has made its decision on issues of credibility, the appellate court is bound by that decision. Id.

         The only issue before us is whether Hatfield's March 5, 2018 application for additional medical benefits is barred by Arkansas Code Annotated section 11-9-702(b), which states in pertinent part:

(b) Time for Filing Additional Compensation.
( 1) In cases in which any compensation, including disability or medical, has been paid on account of injury, a claim for additional compensation shall be barred unless filed with the commission within one (1) year from the date of the last payment of compensation or two (2) years from the date of the injury, whichever is greater.
(c) A claim for additional compensation must specifically state that it is a claim for additional compensation. Documents which do not specifically request additional benefits shall not be ...

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