Unanimous Ruling on "Deputy Commissioners" Could Impact Hundreds of Workers Compensation Cases

The North Carolina Industrial Commission is the governing body of workers’ compensation claims in this state.  Deputy Commissioners (essentially judges) hear the testimony of injured workers and witnesses, doctors are deposed and the Deputy Commissioner makes a ruling on the case based on all of the evidence.  In the last few years, there has been quite some turnover at the Commission.  This transition has resulted in different Deputy Commissioners rendering decisions on cases that were heard by other Deputy Commissioners.  The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently held that this practice was inconsistent with the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act.    

The issue in Bentley v. Jonathan Piner Construction was whether Plaintiff was an employee of Jonathan Piner Construction.  The original case was heard by Deputy Commissioner Vilas.  Deputy Commissioner Vilas then left the Commission and the case was assigned to Deputy Commissioner Shipley.  He issued a decision stating that Plaintiff was not an employee of Jonathan Piner Construction.  Plaintiff appealed, and the Full Commission affirmed the decision of Deputy Commissioner Shipley.  

This was an issue of the first impression at the North Carolina Court of Appeals. On appeal, Plaintiff argued N.C.G.S. §97-84 requires that the Deputy Commissioner who heard the case must also make a ruling on the case. The statute states, “The Commission or any of its members shall hear the parties at issue and their representatives and witnesses and shall determine the dispute in a summary manner.  The Commission shall decide the case and issue findings of fact based upon the preponderance of the evidence in view of the entire record.  The award, together with a statement of the findings of fact, ruling of law, and other matters pertinent to the questions at issue shall be filed with the record of proceedings within 180 days of the close of the hearing record unless time is extended for good cause by the Commission, and a copy of the award shall immediately be sent to the parties in dispute. The parties may be heard by a deputy, in which event the hearing shall be conducted in the same way and manner prescribed for hearings which are conducted by a member of the Industrial Commission and said deputy shall proceed to a complete determination of the matters in dispute, file his written opinion within 180 days of the close of the hearing record unless time is extended for good cause by the Commission, and the deputy shall cause to be issued an award pursuant to such determination.”

The Court of Appeals interpreted “a deputy,” “said deputy, and “the deputy” to mean the same deputy should handle the case from beginning to end.  Bottom line is that hundreds of cases will be affected by this unanimous ruling from the North Carolina Court of Appeals.  No word yet on whether the Supreme Court will review it.

Published on November 2, 2016