There was no dispute that the Claimant sustained a compensable back injury. The Employer denied entitlement to any continuing benefits asserting that the injury was a temporary exacerbation only for which just a closed period of benefits was due. As is typically the case, since this claim arose in the concurrent jurisdiction of Georgia, the Claimant’s attorney filed claims for benefits under both the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act and the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.
While the longshore claim was still pending, the matter proceeded to hearing before the State Board of Workers’ Compensation of Georgia. That ALJ denied the claim. The Claimant took an appeal of that decision to the Appellate Division, which affirmed the denial of benefits. An appeal of the Appellate Division’s decision was taken before the Superior Court of Georgia, which also resulted in an affirmance of the decision. A subsequent appeal was then taken to the Court of Appeals.
While the appeal of the state claim was pending before the Court of Appeals, the longshore claim proceeded to hearing. The benefits claimed and the defenses asserted were identical to what was presented in the state forum, as were the parties. Thus, the Employer asserted a further defense before the longshore ALJ, that the claims were barred by collateral estoppel. In response, the Claimant asserted that since the burdens of proof were different between each forum, and that the evidence presented was not identical, collateral estoppel should not apply to bar the claim. The Claimant further asserted that since the Georgia claim was on appeal and that appeal was still pending, the decision in that forum denying benefits was not yet final.
After the longshore hearing but before the ALJ had issued her decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals rendered its decision on the state claim, affirming the denial of benefits. No appeal of that decision was taken to the Georgia Supreme Court (despite the filing of a notice of intent to do so). The longshore ALJ then issued her decision, finding that the claim was barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Recognizing that the issues and the parties were identical in both actions, and further recognizing that the burdens of proof were identical in both actions, the preponderance of the evidence standard, the Claimant’s claim was barred by collateral estoppel.
Claimant had asserted that because he had the benefit of the Section 20(a) presumption in the longshore claim, but had no such presumption in the state claim, collateral estoppel could not apply. This argument was specifically rejected by the ALJ, noting that while the presumption aids the claimant in demonstrating a causal connection between the work injury and the harm, once the presumption is rebutted and it drops from the case, the issue of causation must be resolved on the whole body of proof, and the claimant has the burden of persuasion at that point.
The Claimant appealed the ALJ’s decision to the Benefits Review Board which, two months ago, affirmed the ALJ’s denial of the claim based upon the application of the doctrine of collateral estoppel. No appeal of the Benefits Review Board’s decision was taken.
Mr. Eckels represented the Employer at all stages in the state claim, and the hearing before the longshore ALJ. He, along with Kevin Franz of the firm’s appellate department, handled the appeal before the Benefits Review Board.