Mandamus Treated As Appeal of Final Workers’ Compensation Judgment — Court Notes “Tension” In Precedent And Follows “Emerging” Rule

The Court of Civil Appeals treated a mandamus petition as an appeal from a “final judgment” in this workers’ compensation suit. The court recognized that this “emerging” practice of treating certain workers’ compensation decisions as final and appealable is “in tension” with some existing precedent. Ultimately, the appellate court reversed the lower court for failing to include findings of fact and conclusions of law in its decision. Belcher-Robinson Foundry, LLC v. Narr, No. 2080928 (Ala. Civ. App. Jan. 29, 2010).

The trial court entered a decision ruling that the plaintiff employee had been injured on the job, that he was temporarily totally disabled, and that his employer was consequently responsible for medical payments under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. Within the time allowed for filing an appeal, the employer challenged this decision by petitioning the Court of Civil Appeals for a writ of mandamus.

The appellate court decided to treat the petition as an appeal from a final judgment. Under two recent decisions — Fluor Enterprises, Inc. v. Lawshe, 16 So. 3d 96 (Ala. Civ. App. 2009) and Wix Corp. v. Davis, 945 So. 2d 1040 (Ala. Civ. App. 2005) — the court explained,

a petition for an extraordinary writ that errantly [sic] challenges the correctness of a final, appealable judgment entered in a workers’ compensation action will nonetheless support this court’s review of the pertinent judgment by appeal.

The court then outlined when this might occur:

To be sure, a mere compensability determination that awards no relief, other than directing an employer to allow medical treatment, is not a “final judgment” that is subject to appellate review, but is instead reviewable by an appellate court only by a petition for a writ of mandamus. However, as Fluor Enteprises indicates, the rule is now emerging that when a trial court goes further, and awards medical benefits and temporary-total-disability benefits in addition to determining compensability, the trial court has rendered a final judgment that is susceptible to appellate review.

(Citation omitted) (emphasis in original). The court acknowledged that this emerging rule was “in tension” with some of its older precedent, but decided to “follow the reasoning of Fluor Enterprises,” which, it noted, was a recent and unanimous decision.  The court also noted (as "undisputed") that the plaintiff had not yet "reached maximum medical improvement so as to render ripe for decision the issue of [his] entitlement, if any, to permanent-disability benefits . . . ."

The court then turned to the merits of the (now) appeal. Contrary to the requirements of Ala. Code § 25-5-88, the trial court had failed to include statements of fact and conclusions of law in its “summary” decision. The Court of Civil Appeals therefore reversed the decision and remanded the case to the circuit court.