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Buckhaults v. Public Employees' Retirement System

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

August 27, 2019

SHERRY BUCKHAULTS APPELLANT
v.
PUBLIC EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM OF MISSISSIPPI APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 06/27/2018

          COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT TRIAL JUDGE: HON. JEFF WEILL SR.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: GEORGE S. LUTER

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: S. MARTIN MILLETTE III

          BEFORE BARNES, C.J., McDONALD AND C. WILSON, JJ.

          C. WILSON, J.

         ¶1. Sherry Buckhaults worked as a "Mental Health Direct Care Alternate Supervisor" for the Ellisville State School. After being slapped on the right side of her face by a patient at work, Buckhaults filed an application for duty-related disability benefits with the Public Employees' Retirement System of Mississippi (PERS). The PERS Medical Board (Medical Board) concluded that Buckhaults's claim did not meet the statutory definition for duty-related disability and denied Buckhaults's request for duty-related disability retirement benefits. Buckhaults appealed the Medical Board's denial, and the PERS Disability Appeals Committee (Appeals Committee) likewise found that Buckhaults's request should be denied because she was not disabled as a direct result of the on-duty incident. The PERS Board of Trustees (PERS Board) adopted the Appeals Committee's recommendation and denied Buckhaults's request for disability retirement benefits. Buckhaults then appealed to the Hinds County Circuit Court, and the circuit court affirmed the PERS Board's decision. Buckhaults now appeals to this Court; she contends that the PERS Board's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and is arbitrary and capricious. Disagreeing, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. On May 31, 2012, while working the night shift at the Ellisville State School, Buckhaults was slapped on the right side of her face by a developmentally-disabled male patient. The incident occurred around 5:25 a.m. Buckhaults testified that she did not lose consciousness from the slap but did develop an immediate headache. Buckhaults also reported having welts from the slap but no broken skin. Around 6:30 a.m., Buckhaults finished her shift, went home, and went to bed.

         ¶3. That afternoon, after getting some sleep, Buckhaults went to an urgent care clinic. According to Buckhaults's testimony, she had a stiff neck and an irritated eye from the slap. She was worried that the patient who slapped her might have had fecal matter on his hands from his colostomy. The nurse practitioner prescribed Buckhaults eye drops, told her to take ibuprofen for her headache and neck pain, and released Buckhaults to return to work with no restrictions. Buckhaults returned to work that night. During her shift that night, Buckhaults developed vertigo and became sick. Buckhaults continued to work until June 6, 2012, when she quit because she felt she could no longer perform her job.

         ¶4. On September 26, 2012, Buckhaults filed an application for PERS duty-related disability benefits based on the May 31, 2012 on-duty incident. Having only two years of service credit, Buckhaults was an unvested members of PERS, so she was not eligible for non-duty-related disability benefits. According to Buckhaults, she could not work due to dizziness, vertigo, nausea, headaches, and occasional vomiting-all of which she attributed to the May 31, 2012 incident.

         ¶5. On December 4, 2012, the Medical Board concluded Buckhaults's claim did not meet the statutory definition for duty-related disability and denied Buckhaults duty-related disability retirement benefits. Buckhaults appealed the Medical Board's denial. The Appeals Committee, comprised of two physicians and a nurse, who was also a lawyer, held an initial hearing on July 8, 2013. On March 17, 2014, the Appeals Committee provided the PERS Board a detailed fifteen-page statement of factual findings and conclusions of law.

         ¶6. In its statement, the Appeals Committee noted:

The evidence shows that prior to the May 31, 2012, incident Ms. Buckhaults had well-documented problems with Meniere's disease in her left ear which her [ENT] specialist, Dr. [James] House, stated was not caused by a trauma. Meniere's disease is a disorder of the inner ear that is characterized by vertigo, nausea, vomiting, tinnitus, and progressive deafness due to swelling of the endolymphatic duct. . . . All of Ms. Buckhaults complaints are symptoms of Meniere's and the medical records document that they pre-date her work injury. In fact, the medical records indicate these symptoms developed in September 21, 2010, before she even started working at Ellisville State School. . . . While the medical records indicate that her dizziness and vertigo had improved somewhat in the weeks prior to the incident, there is no evidence that she had been cured. . . . The testing performed both before the work incident and shortly after the work incident supports this finding [that Ms. Buckhaults's ...

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