ANALYSIS OF AUGUST 26, 2021 SUPREME COURT OPINION
(Posted August 26, 2021) After the whiz-bang developments in the last two days, it’s nice to return to the placid normalcy of a relatively low-profile opinion day. This morning, the Supreme Court of Virginia hands down a single published opinion in a Workers’ Compensation case. City of Charlottesville v. Sclafani involves an award of medical benefits and temporary total disability.
The claimant is a police officer who sustained shoulder injuries during a day of training. The training called for him to play the part of an arrestee; other officers repeatedly took turns subduing him, handcuffing him while he lay prone, and raising him off the ground. Here’s how Justice Powell, the author of today’s opinion, describes what happened:
During the training, Sclafani experienced some discomfort but there was never any significant pain. However, at the end of the day he discovered that he could not straighten his left arm to reach the steering wheel of his car and go home. As the evening progressed, Sclafani found that he could no longer move his arm up or down. According to Sclafani, he did not feel any pain until the next morning.
A few days later, the officer sought medical treatment. He was eventually diagnosed with two shoulder injuries, including a torn rotator cuff, requiring surgery. He later returned to light-duty work and eventually to his regular duties.
At a hearing before a deputy commissioner, the officer acknowledged that he didn’t feel a sudden onset of pain, but noted that at one point late in the day, he “was picked up a little weird” and felt discomfort. He identified that event as the cause of his injury.
The deputy commissioner ruled that the officer had not established an injury by accident. Specifically, the deputy found no sudden precipitating event that caused the injury. The full commission reversed and awarded benefits, saying that the day’s training session “provided the necessary rigidity of temporal precision to constitute one event.”
As a big advocate of simplicity in language, the ponderousness of that phrase caused me to shudder; but I’ll let it pass.
The City appealed to the CAV, which reversed in 2019 and sent the case back to the commission. The appellate court ruled that there wasn’t enough “temporal precision” to establish an injury by accident when the relevant window was eight hours long.
On remand, the commission, duly chastened, found that the injury necessarily happened after lunch, because the officer noted no problems before then. Reasoning that a four-hour period was sufficiently exact, the commission awarded the same benefits as before.
Now we’re headed back to the CAV, where the City argued that four hours wasn’t tight enough, either. But the court had a rude shock in store: It ruled that the court’s previous findings were the law of the case because, instead of appealing the earlier CAV judgment to the Supreme Court, the City had accepted remand to the commission. The court refused to reconsider its previous holdings and affirmed the award.
That brings us to the current appeal. The justices begin by reversing the law-of-the-case ruling. In a 1998 decision, the Supreme Court had held that a party may accept remand from the CAV without waiving the right to appeal the ultimate ruling to the SCV. The justices find these circumstances to be indistinguishable from that 1998 decision.
The justices next disagree that a four-hour window is precise enough to prove an injury by accident. They do acknowledge that an injury needn’t be instantaneous, citing a 2016 decision where they approved benefits for an injury sustained during the course of a 45-minute rescue. But they can’t stomach four hours.
Just when it looks like the officer’s claim is going down in flames, the right-for-the-wrong-reason doctrine rides in and saves the day for him. The justices recount the officer’s testimony that he had been picked up once “a little weird” and that he felt discomfort after that. This evidence, they rule today, is sufficient support for an award of benefits when considering the evidence in a light most favorable to the officer, who prevailed in the commission. The City thus wins two battles but loses the war, as the Supreme Court unanimously affirms the award of benefits.
There’s a small but interesting tidbit for appellate geeks in the congregation. What’s the difference between “right for the wrong reason” and “right for a different reason”? In a footnote on page 9 of today’s slip opinion, we learn that the court employs the former name when it expressly disapproves of the reasoning below. That’s what happened in the case decided today. In other instances, the justices may express no opinion on the reasoning below, but simply choose a different route to get to the same destination. In cases like that, they note that their reasoning is different, though the lower court’s isn’t necessarily wrong.