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SPECIAL EDITION – The Court of Appeal Pike Decision

On March 6, 2018, the California Court of Appeal issued its decision in County of San Diego v. WCAB (Pike), holding that for injuries on or after January 1, 2008, an injured worker is not entitled to receive temporary disability benefits for any dates more than five years after the date of injury.  The decision was certified for publication, and is now citable, binding authority on all cases going forward.

The facts of this case form a familiar pattern.  An applicant with a shoulder injury on July 31, 2010 settled his case in May, 2011 by Stipulations, and then filed a Petition to Reopen in May, 2015.  The Petition to Reopen alleged that his condition had worsened. He sought additional temporary disability benefits, which were paid through July 31, 2015.

Defendant stopped paying benefits because Labor Code §4656(c)(2) provides that temporary disability benefits for an injury occurring after January 1, 2008 “shall not extend for more than 104 compensable weeks within a period of five years from the date of injury.”  Defendant interpreted that statute to mean that no benefits are due for any period which is more than five years from the date of injury.

Applicant contended that since the petition to reopen was filed within five years of the date of injury, and the new period of temporary disability started within that five year period, the judge had continuing jurisdiction to award temporary disability benefits up to the 104 week cap, regardless of whether the temporary disability period extended beyond five years from the date of injury.  The trial judge agreed with applicant, and a WCAB panel, with one member dissenting, upheld the trial judge’s opinion.  The dissenting member of the panel agreed with defendant’s interpretation of the law.

In this decision, the Court of Appeal acknowledged that, while they generally will give deference to the WCAB’s interpretation of workers’ compensation statutes, they are not bound by the WCAB’s interpretation, and will not uphold it when it is clearly wrong.  In this case, the Court of Appeal held that the plain language of the statute, as well as the legislative history, prohibit awarding temporary disability benefits for a period beyond five years after the date of injury.

According to the decision, applicant’s attorney and CAAA, (which filed an amicus brief in support of the WCAB decision) argued that the judge could award temporary disability benefits for a period more than five years after the date of injury, because the judge has continuing jurisdiction over the case when a timely petition to reopen has been filed.  The Court responded that even if the Board has continuing jurisdiction to make decisions, they still have to follow the substantive law.  In this case, the substantive law, clearly stated in the statute, prevents an award of temporary disability benefits beyond five years from the date of injury.  The Court took significant time in its opinion to make the distinction between jurisdiction to act, and the requirement to follow the law when you do.

The Court also addressed the argument, which applicant’s attorneys seem to make in every case, that Labor Code §3202 requires the law to be interpreted liberally in favor of applicants.  The court’s response to this was almost sarcastic:  “While we are ‘mindful”[citation omitted] of section 3202, this principle of interpretation cannot “justify an otherwise erroneous construction” of section 4656. [citation omitted] That is because “the rule of liberal construction stated in section 3202 should not be used to defeat the overall statutory framework and fundamental rules of statutory construction. [citation omitted]”

From a defense perspective, this opinion was a joy to read, because you can almost hear the Court of Appeal panel’s exasperation with the Board panel’s interpretation of what the Court clearly views as an unambiguous statutory rule.  While the applicant’s attorney can still seek review from the California Supreme Court, this opinion is so well written, logical, and well supported, that we doubt any further review will be granted.

If you have questions about how this applies to cases in your caseload, we encourage you to contact your favorite Mullen & Filippi attorney.