FRANCIENE SMITH A/K/A FRANCIENCE SMITH A/K/A FRANCINE SMITH APPELLANT
COMPFIRST/L.C. INDUSTRIES AND LEGION INSURANCE COMPANY APPELLEES
DATE OF JUDGMENT: 06/11/2014
MISSISSIPPI WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COMMISSION
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: STEVEN HISER FUNDERBURG
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEES: LORI JORDAN GRAHAM
BEFORE GRIFFIS, P.J., ISHEE AND MAXWELL, JJ.
¶1. While the doctrine of res judicata applies to Mississippi workers' compensation claims, there is a statutory exception. Under Mississippi Code Annotated section 71-3-53 (Rev. 2011), the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Commission has discretionary authority to "terminate, continue, reinstate, increase, or decrease such compensation, or award compensation" in an otherwise-final compensation case. But it can only do so if there is either "a change in conditions or . . . a mistake in a determination of fact." Miss. Code Ann. § 71-3-53. This discretionary authority also has a time limit. The Commission may only review a compensation case "at any time prior to one (1) year after" the last payment of compensation or the rejection of a claim, but not after. Id.
¶2. Our review here shows the Commission erred in rejecting Franciene Smith's request to review her decade-old compensation award by misinterpreting section 71-3-53's time limitation. Instead of reading section 71-3-53 as granting authority to reopen a case at "any time prior to one (1) year after date of the last payment of compensation . . . or at any time prior to one (1) year after the rejection of a claim, " the Commission ruled it could only reopen a case during the one year after the last payment of compensation or rejection of a claim. And because Smith's claim had never been rejected nor had she received a final compensation payment-due to her ongoing medical bills-the Commission found section 71-3-53's provisions had never been "triggered." So it ruled it had no statutory authority to avoid the preclusive effect of res judicata on Smith's compensation award.
¶3. But the fact the one-year period had not yet been "triggered" actually leads to the opposite result. Smith filed her motion to reopen "prior to one (1) year after" her final compensation payment. Thus, under section 71-3-53, the Commission does have jurisdiction to review Smith's case-that is, if it first finds Smith has shown her conditions have changed or her original award was based on a mistake of fact.
¶4. Because the Commission erroneously interpreted section 71-3-53, we must reverse the Commission's order denying Smith's request to reopen her case. We remand this case back to the Commission to decide if Smith proved a change in conditions that warrants reopening her claim.
Background Facts and Procedural History
I. 2002 Compensation Award
¶5. After a 2001 work-connected injury to her right shoulder, Smith filed a petition to controvert. In 2002, the administrative judge (AJ) found Smith had suffered a total loss of use of her upper-right extremity. This loss entitled her to permanent partial disability. But the AJ found "the record, as a whole, [did] not support a finding of permanent total disability despite the fact [Smith's employer] terminated [Smith] and there is significant proof that [she] has pursued other employment unsuccessfully." Instead, the AJ found Smith was temporarily totally disabled for the days she did not work between June 9, 2001, and June 3, 2002. And she ordered Smith be compensated for this period. The AJ also ordered Smith's employer and its insurance carrier to pay for all medical services and supplies connected to the injury.
¶6. Smith elected to receive her permanent partial disability and temporary total disability in a lump-sum payment. She received her final disability payment on June 29, 2004. And her employer, L.C. Industries, and its insurance carrier, Legion Insurance Company, informed Smith of the finality of this payment. Though final notice of payment was given via Form B-31 filed with the Commission on December ...