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Harper v. Banks, Finley, White & Co. of Miss., P.C.

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

July 2, 2015

MILTON HARPER, DECEASED, BY AND THROUGH HIS DEPENDENTS, MAGGIE HARPER AND ANDREA HARPER
v.
BANKS, FINLEY, WHITE & CO. OF MISSISSIPPI, P.C

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF HINDS COUNTY. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 09/27/2011. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. WILLIAM A. GOWAN, JR. TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: WILLIE T. ABSTON PHILLIP ANDREW LAIRD, JR. DEBRA M. BROWN.

FOR APPELLANTS: WILLIE T. ABSTON.

FOR APPELLEE: PHILLIP ANDREW LAIRD, JR.; WILLIAM ANTHONY DAVIS, III; H. THOMAS WELLS, III.

KITCHENS, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT. DICKINSON AND RANDOLPH, P.JJ., LAMAR AND KING, JJ., CONCUR. WALLER, C.J., DISSENTS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY CHANDLER, PIERCE AND COLEMAN, JJ. COLEMAN, J., DISSENTS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY WALLER, C.J., AND CHANDLER, J.

OPINION

Page 1156

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI

NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - WORKERS' COMPENSATION

KITCHENS, JUSTICE:

[¶1] Milton Harper, the managing partner and president of Banks, Finley, White & Company of Mississippi (" Banks" ), suffered a severe stroke on August 3, 2000, and died of another stroke on July 10, 2001. His dependents sued Banks for workers'

Page 1157

compensation benefits. The administrative law judge and the Workers' Compensation Commission held that Harper's injuries and death arose out of the scope and course of his employment at Banks. On appeal, the Circuit Court of the First Judicial District of Hinds County agreed that substantial evidence in the record supported the Commission's conclusion that Harper's stroke arose out of his employment, but that court held that Harper's dependents were barred from recovering workers' compensation benefits because Harper had failed to obtain workers' compensation insurance for Banks. In turn, the Court of Appeals in Harper v. Banks, Finley, White & Co. of Mississippi, 136 So.3d 462, 467 (Miss. Ct.App. 2014), held that Harper's dependents were not barred from recovery because Section 71-3-79 of the Mississippi Code[1] allows members of partnerships to exempt themselves from workers' compensation coverage by giving notice in writing. Id. at 466. Because Harper had not opted out of coverage in writing, the Court of Appeals held that Banks was required to provide workers' compensation benefits to Harper's beneficiaries. Id. On writ of certiorari, we hold that the Court of Appeals erred in applying Section 71-3-79 of the Mississippi Code to the facts of this case. Because Banks did not have workers' compensation insurance coverage, there was no coverage for Harper to opt out of in writing as contemplated by Section 71-3-79. Instead, we hold that Section 71-3-5[2] of the Mississippi Code

Page 1158

controls the analysis of this case: because Banks had more than five employees, it was required to obtain workers' compensation insurance and provide workers' compensation benefits to its employees. Moreover, we hold that the Workers' Compensation Commission's finding that Harper suffered a fatal injury through the course of his employment at Banks is supported by substantial evidence.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

[¶2] The relevant facts are adequately stated in the Court of Appeals' opinion:

Harper was the managing partner and president of the accounting firm Banks, Finley, White & Company of Mississippi (Banks). He was first diagnosed with high blood pressure on January 4, 1995, by Dr. Marvin Jeter. In October 1995, Harper went to the emergency room after becoming dizzy. At that time, Dr. Jeter began prescribing him blood-pressure medication. Harper saw Dr. Jeter four times from 1995 until 1998. During that time, Harper would intermittently take his blood-pressure medication, which resulted in his blood pressure ranging from normal to elevated.
On August 3, 2000, Harper was rushed to the emergency room at St. Dominic Hospital. Dr. Jeter examined Harper, noted that he had not been taking his blood-pressure medication, and concluded that he had suffered a stroke. Dr. Jeter referred Harper to Dr. Salil Tuwari, a neurologist. After a series of tests, it was determined that Harper had suffered multiple small-vessel strokes in the brain.
After resting for two weeks, Harper returned to work, initially part-time and then to his usual full-time schedule of 8:00 a.m. until 6:30 or 7:30 p.m. However, Harper did not work as many weekends as he did prior to his stroke.
In the early morning of Sunday, July 8, 2001, Harper woke up to go to the restroom. When he returned, Harper's wife, Maggie, asked him a question, and Harper responded with unintelligible noises and became nonresponsive. Harper was taken by ambulance to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, immediately put on life support in the intensive-care unit, and never regained consciousness. On July 10, 2001, Harper was taken off life support and died from the stroke he had suffered two days earlier.
On July 29, 2002, Maggie and her daughter, Andrea Harper, filed two petitions to controvert with the Commission, seeking workers' compensation benefits for Harper's strokes on August 3, 2000, and July 8, 2001. The administrative judge (AJ) found that Harper's strokes were too proximally connected to separate and combined the cases. The AJ held a hearing that began on September 25, 2008, and concluded on November 12, 2008.
The AJ found Maggie and Andrea proved that Harper's work-related stress caused his high blood pressure, which, in turn, caused his stroke on August 3, 2000, and his death on July 10, 2001. The AJ found that Maggie and Andrea proved a compensable workers'

Page 1159

compensation claim, and that Banks did not prove Harper had a preexisting condition to warrant denial of the claim or apportionment.
Banks appealed to the Commission, which heard the case on December 7, 2009. The Commission affirmed the AJ's findings with regard to the compensability of the claim. However, the Commission held that Harper had a clearly identifiable preexisting condition that materially contributed to his death, and it apportioned the benefits by sixty-five percent. One commissioner dissented, stating that he would deny the claim because the stroke was not in any way work related.
Banks appealed to the Hinds County Circuit Court. The circuit court agreed that substantial evidence supported the Commission's findings that: (1) Harper's strokes arose out of and in the course of employment; (2) Harper was an officer of a corporation; and (3) Harper's workers' compensation benefits should be apportioned. But the circuit court reversed the Commission's judgment because it found that Harper's decision not to obtain workers' compensation insurance disqualified him from receiving benefits that he would have otherwise been entitled to receive.

Harper, 136 So.3d at 464-65.

[¶3] The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part the Hinds County Circuit Court's decision. Id. at 465-67. The court found that " [a]s president of Banks, Harper was responsible for making decisions regarding insurance" and that " Harper erroneously determined that Banks did not have the requisite number of employees to legally mandate Banks to purchase workers' compensation insurance." Id. at 465. Ultimately, based on an error in statutory interpretation, Harper chose not to obtain workers' compensation insurance for Banks. Id.

[¶4] However, the Court of Appeals held that Harper's decision not to obtain workers' compensation insurance did not preclude his dependents from recovering workers' compensation benefits from Banks. Id. at 465. Applying Section 71-3-79 of the Mississippi Code, the court held that " [the statute] clearly states that an 'executive officer may reject [the] coverage by giving notice in writing to the carrier of this election not to be covered as an employee." ' Harper, 136 So.3d at 466 (quoting Miss. Code Ann. § 71-3-79). Thus, because Harper did not reject workers' compensation insurance coverage in writing, the Court of Appeals found that he had not waived coverage by failing to obtain insurance. Harper, 136 So.3d at 466.

[¶5] Moreover, the Court of Appeals held that evidence in the record supported the Commission's decision that Harper's strokes and subsequent death were caused by his stress at work. Id. at 465-67.

[¶6] Banks filed with this Court a Petition for Writ of Certiorari. We granted Banks's petition to review two issues: (1) whether Section 71-3-79 of the Mississippi Code applies to the facts of this case and (2) whether the Workers' Compensation Commission's finding that Harper suffered a compensable injury is supported by substantial evidence.

DISCUSSION

I. Whether Section 71-3-79 of the Mississippi Code applies to the facts of this case.

[¶7] In reviewing questions of law, this Court applies a de novo standard of review. Natchez Equip. Co., Inc. v. Gibbs, 623 So.2d 270, 273 (Miss. 1993). When engaging in statutory interpretation,

Page 1160

this Court's duty is " to neither broaden nor restrict the legislative act." Miss. Dep't of Transp. v. Allred, 928 So.2d 152, 156 (Miss. 2006). Additionally, " courts cannot restrict or enlarge the meaning of an unambiguous statute." Green v. Cleary Water, Sewer & Fire Dist., 910 So.2d 1022, 1027 (Miss. 2005).

[ When] considering a statute passed by the Legislature, . . . the first question a court should decide is whether the statute is ambiguous. If it is not ambiguous, the court should simply apply the statute according to its plain meaning and should not use principles of statutory construction. Whether the statute is ambiguous or not, the ultimate goal of this Court is to discern and give effect to the legislative intent.

Allred, 928 So.2d at 154 (quoting City of Natchez v. Sullivan, 612 So.2d 1087, 1089 (Miss. 1992) (citations omitted)).

[¶8] Section 71-3-79 of the Mississippi Code, provides:

Acceptance of a premium on a policy securing to an employee compensation, either alone or in connection with other insurance, shall estop the carrier so accepting from pleading that the employment of such employee is not covered under this chapter or that the employment is not carried on for pecuniary gain.
When any member of a partnership, firm, or association who does or does not perform manual labor, and where there is coverage of fellow employees, elects to take coverage under the provisions of this chapter, the intent of the insured as well as acceptance by the carrier shall be shown by endorsement to the policy. Any such affirmative action by the parties shall entitle said members or officers to the benefits enjoyed by an employee under this chapter. Every executive officer elected or appointed and empowered in accordance with a charter and bylaws of a corporation, other than nonprofit charitable, fraternal, cultural, or religious corporations or associations, shall be an employee of such corporation ...

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