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Tuscaloosa County v. Beville

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

April 19, 2019

Tuscaloosa County
Chaka Beville

          Appeal from Tuscaloosa Circuit Court (CV-15-901273)

          EDWARDS, JUDGE.

         Chaka Beville was employed as a correctional officer at the Tuscaloosa County jail. On December 23, 2014, Beville slipped and fell, injuring her left wrist. After conservative treatments failed, Beville underwent surgery and physical therapy to address her injury. In November 2015, Beville sued Tuscaloosa County ("the county") in the Tuscaloosa Circuit Court ("the trial court"), seeking workers' compensation benefits.[1] After a trial held on June 28, 2017, the trial court entered a judgment[2] determining that Beville had "suffered a 60% injury to her left upper extremity" and awarding Beville $29, 304 in benefits.[3] The county appeals.

         Our review of workers' compensation judgments is well settled. "In reviewing pure findings of fact, the finding of the circuit court shall not be reversed if that finding is supported by substantial evidence." Ala. Code 1975, § 25-5-81(e)(2). Our supreme court has explained that a trial court's finding of fact is supported by substantial evidence if it is "supported by 'evidence of such weight and quality that fair-minded persons in the exercise of impartial judgment can reasonably infer the existence of the fact sought to be proved.'" Ex parte Trinity Indus., Inc., 680 So.2d 262');">680 So.2d 262, 269 (Ala. 1996) (quoting West v. Founders Life Assurance Co. of Florida, 547 So.2d 870, 871 (Ala. 1989)); see also Ala. Code 1975, § 12-21-12(d). In completing our review, this court "will view the facts in the light most favorable to the findings of the trial court." Whitsett v. BAMSI, Inc., 652 So.2d 287, 290 (Ala. Civ. App. 1994), overruled on other grounds, Ex parte Trinity Indus., 680 So.2d at 269. We review legal issues without a presumption of correctness. See Ala. Code 1975, § 25-5-81(e)(1).

         The testimony at trial indicated that Beville continued to work after her December 2013 accident and that she did not take the nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory medication prescribed to her by Dr. Phillip Bobo, who initially treated her after her accident. However, Beville also suffered from knee, back, and neck pain after her accident; although the trial court determined that any injury to Beville's left knee, back, and neck were not compensable, Beville testified, and her medical records reveal, that she was prescribed several medications between March 2014 and the date of trial by physicians other than Dr. Bobo, including a muscle relaxer, a synthetic opioid pain reliever, and non-opioid pain relievers. Beville's medical records also reveal that she continued to report wrist pain in the months following the accident and that, after cortisone injections failed to provide lasting relief, Beville underwent surgery on her wrist. After the surgery, she attended physical therapy, at which she continued to complain of varying degrees of pain and of burning and numbness with the use of her wrist throughout therapy. The physical-therapy notes indicate that, although therapy was decreasing her pain in the short term, she continued to have pain after certain treatments "wore off."

         In October 2014, after she reached maximum medical improvement ("MMI"), Beville underwent a functional-capacities evaluation ("FCE"). The results of that FCE indicated that Beville could not perform the duties of her employment as a correctional officer because of deficits in her ability to lift, carry, and push. According to the FCE report, "the primary limiting factors during [the FCE] were complaints of wrist pain." The FCE determined that Beville could perform within the "light plus" category, which requires "exerting up to 30 pounds of force occasionally and/or up to 10 pounds of force frequently." The FCE reflected that Beville was able to lift 40 pounds from floor to waist but that she stopped that task complaining of wrist pain and that she was able to lift 30 pounds from waist to overhead but, again, stopped the task complaining of pain in her wrist. The FCE did not specifically state the restrictions placed on Beville.

         Dr. John P. Buckley, Beville's authorized treating physician, issued a statement of physical-impairment rating. He stated that he had determined that Beville had suffered a 4% impairment to her left upper extremity. He explained that Beville had "decreased joint mobility and increased stiffness" in her wrist and limited grip strength in her left hand. However, Dr. Buckley stated that he had not assigned an impairment rating for the loss of strength in Beville's left hand because, he said, he expected her loss of strength to improve over time.

         The parties entered into several stipulations at the beginning of the trial. One of those stipulations was that "Dr. Buckley assigned a 4% impairment rating to [Beville's] wrist." The parties also stipulated that "[a] 4% impairment rating to [Beville's] wrist equates to a monetary value of $1, 953.60."

         Citing, among other authorities, Fab Arc Steel Supply, Inc. v. Dodd, 168 So.3d 1244, 1257 (Ala. Civ. App. 2015), and Vann Express, Inc. v. Phillips, 539 So.2d 296, 298 (Ala. Civ. App. 1988), the county argues that the trial court did not honor the parties' joint stipulations or give those stipulations a "reasonable construction." According to the county, the stipulations mentioned above indicate that the parties agreed that Dr. Buckley's 4% physical-impairment rating was, in fact, the physical-impairment rating applicable to Beville. However, Beville contends that the stipulations indicate the parties' agreement (1) that Dr. Buckley had assigned Beville a 4% physical-impairment rating and (2) that using that 4% rating equated to compensation of $1, 953.60. That is, she contends that the stipulations were merely limited to stating Dr. Buckley's assigned physical-impairment rating and the amount of compensation that would correspond to that physical-impairment rating and that they were not intended to foreclose the trial court from considering, based on the evidence presented, Beville's actual physical-impairment rating. We agree. See Dodd, 168 So.3d at 1257 (explaining that a stipulation that a particular physician had placed the employee at MMI on a certain date did not stipulate the date of MMI but instead "specifically left open for determination by the trial court the assignment of any disability, which would include the date of MMI, as a result of the employee's disputed injuries").

         Furthermore, at the close of the trial, the trial court specifically requested posttrial briefs addressing, among other things, whether it could assign a different physical-impairment rating than that assigned by Dr. Buckley. Although the county argued in its posttrial brief that the evidence supported Dr. Buckley's assigned 4% physical-impairment rating, the county conceded that the trial court was free to assign an impairment rating based upon the evidence and its own observations; at no time did the county indicate that the issue of Beville's physical-impairment rating was not open for the trial court's determination. Thus, because the county did not apprise the trial court that the stipulations foreclosed the trial court's determination of Beville's physical-impairment rating and instead indicated in its posttrial brief that the trial court was free to assign an impairment rating based upon the evidence and its own observations, we need not further consider the county's argument that the trial court was bound by the stipulations to assign Beville a 4% physical-impairment rating. See G.A. West & Co. v. McGhee, 58 So.3d 167, 177 (Ala. Civ. App. 2010) (quoting State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Motley, 909 So.2d 806, 821 (Ala. 2005)) (explaining that this court "'cannot consider arguments advanced for the purpose of reversing the judgment of a trial court when those arguments were never presented to the trial court for consideration or were raised for the first time on appeal'").

         The county next argues that the trial court's determination that Beville suffered a 60% impairment to her arm is not supported by the evidence presented at trial. The county concedes that "the trial court must consider all the evidence, including its own observations, and it must interpret the evidence to its own best judgment." Compass Bank v. Glidewell, 685 So.2d 739, 741 (Ala. Civ. App. 1996). However, the county contends that the record lacks substantial evidence from which the trial court could have concluded that Beville suffered a 60% loss of use of her left arm.

         Beville relies on the following principle of law regarding the effect of expert testimony on a trial court's conclusions in workers' compensation cases:

"It is well settled that the trial court has the duty to determine the extent of disability and is not bound by expert testimony in making that determination; yet, in making its determination, the trial court must consider all the evidence, including its own observations, and it must interpret the evidence to its own best judgment. Wolfe v. Dunlop Tire Corp., 660 So.2d 1345 (Ala. Civ. App. 1995). Specifically, a trial court is not bound to accept a physician's assigned impairment rating and is free to make its own determination as to an employee's impairment. Checker's Drive-In Restaurant v. Brock, 603 So.2d 1066 (Ala. Civ. App. 1992)."

Glidewell, 685 So.2d at 741. We further explained in Glidewell that no language in the Workers' ...

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