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Annayeva v. Sab of TSD of City of St. Louis

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Fourth Division

July 30, 2019

MARAL ANNAYEVA, Claimant/Appellant,

          Appeal from the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission


          Colleen Dolan, Chief Judge.

         Maral Annayeva ("Claimant") appeals the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission's (the "Commission") decision affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ") denying Claimant's workers' compensation claim. In affirming the ALJ's decision, the Commission determined that Claimant failed to show that she sustained an injury arising out of and in the course of her employment because "there was nothing about [Claimant's] work that caused her to fall" and the accident occurred before Claimant clocked in for work. On appeal, Claimant argues that the Commission erred by finding that: Claimant did not prove that her accident "arose out of" her employment because there was competent and substantial evidence that Claimant's fall occurred as a result of an accumulation of salt, dirt, and moisture on her employer's hallway floor (Point I); Claimant did not prove that her injuries occurred "in the course of" her employment because, although she had not clocked in, she was walking inside her place of employment on her way to her assigned work area when she slipped and fell (Point II); and Claimant failed to prove a medical causal connection between her accident and her injuries because there was a unanimity of medical opinion from board-certified psychiatrists that Claimant's subjective complaints are an expected manifestation of her diagnosed Somatic Symptom Disorder and are not a result of lying or malingering (Point III). We find that the Commission's award concluding that Claimant's injury did not arise out of and in the course of her employment was unsupported by competent and substantial evidence. Accordingly, we reverse and remand.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Claimant began working for the Special Administrative Board of the Transitional School District of the City of St. Louis ("Employer") on October 29, 2007. Her last position with Employer was that of a high school teacher at Roosevelt High School teaching English as a second language. On January 8, 2013, Claimant sustained injuries after she slipped and fell in Employer's hallway at the beginning of her work day. Claimant subsequently filed a claim for workers' compensation. On February 14, 2018, a hearing was held before an ALJ at the St. Louis Division of Workers' Compensation. At the hearing, Claimant testified that she arrived at work at around 7:30 a.m. on January 8, 2013, and parked her car in the school's parking lot (where students and teachers park) next to the school building. She walked from the parking lot to the school's main entrance carrying a bag with curriculum folders, student papers and tests, and lesson plans. Claimant always used this entrance to enter the school. When she arrived at the front entrance, she walked through a pair of double doors; there were no mats on the outside of the building, between the two sets of doors, or on the inside of the second set of double doors on which she could wipe her feet. After she entered the building, Claimant was heading to the "clock room" to clock in when she slipped on the floor and fell forwards, landing on her hands and knees. The guards at the entrance rushed over and helped her get up and sit on a chair. When she sat down, she noticed that her clothes were dirty. Claimant was taken to the nurse's office where she filled out a report of injury ("Injury Report"). In the Injury Report, Claimant wrote that she had slipped, however, when asked to specify the conditions that caused the accident, she wrote that she "could not determine the cause of the accident."

         That same day, Claimant went to the emergency room and received treatment and medication; Claimant also returned to the emergency room the following day due to the pain she was experiencing. Subsequently, Claimant returned to work briefly, but experienced too much pain and could not continue working. Over time, Claimant continued treatment for her injuries that she claimed she sustained from the fall. Her medical records indicated that she received medical treatment, including: injections to her knee, spine adjustments, an MRI of her head, x-rays of her lumbar spine, water therapy, neurological evaluations, and was prescribed psychiatric medication. Both parties presented expert testimony of medical professionals who performed independent medical and psychiatric examinations of Claimant and also presented testimony of vocational rehabilitation counselors, who conducted vocational assessments to determine Claimant's employability in the open labor market.

         On May 18, 2018, the ALJ entered his award denying compensation for benefits because Claimant failed to prove the issue of medical causation. The ALJ found that Claimant had "failed to provide credible testimony to [the] Court" and found that her testimony regarding her "injuries and their subsequent effects verged on the point of malingering." Further, the ALJ found Claimant's experts' opinions "specious" because they were based on Claimant's "own subjective description of her maladies." The ALJ concluded that there was "little or no objective medical finding to support any of Claimant's anomalies." The ALJ further concluded that "Claimant has not met her burden of showing the incident of January 8, 2013 was the prevailing factor causing the physiological and/or psychological complaints[;]" therefore, the ALJ denied Claimant's claim on the basis of lack of medical causation. As to Second Injury Fund ("SIF"), the ALJ concluded that the evidence did not show a compensable injury, and thus, SIF had no liability in this case.

         The majority of the Commission affirmed the decision of the ALJ with a supplemental opinion in which it denied compensability of Claimant's claim based upon a finding that Claimant's injuries did not arise out of and in the course of her employment. In regards to the hazardous condition of the hallway, the Commission highlighted that Claimant had first indicated during her testimony that the condition of the tile was "normal" and, after she was asked several follow-up questions, she explained that there were "some particles of dirt, ice, dust, [and] moist[ure]" on the floor due to "foot traffic." Thus, the Commission held that, "[b]ecause [Claimant] did not focus on the alleged hazardous condition of the floor until specifically asked by her attorney, [Claimant's] testimony on the alleged hazardous condition is questionable."[1]The Commission also found that Claimant's medical records did not "indicate any mention of a hazardous condition regarding the hallway floor," and noted that the Injury Report that Claimant filled out on the day she fell included Claimant's statement that she "could not determine the cause of the accident." The Commission concluded that the "risk source was walking; [Claimant] was walking on an even, flat surface when she fell. There was nothing about Claimant's work that caused her to fall." The Commission also found that Claimant was "injured while she was at work, but not because she was at work" (emphasis in original). Noting that Claimant had not even clocked in for work, the Commission found that "[Claimant] was not in her course of employment at the time of the incident because she had not started for the day." The Commission further held that, because Claimant did not establish that her injury arose out of and in the course of her employment, the remaining issues were moot.

         This appeal follows.

         II. Standard of Review

         On appeal, this Court reviews the Commission's decision to determine whether it is "supported by competent and substantial evidence upon the whole record." Miller v. Mo. Highway & Transp. Comm'n, 287 S.W.3d 671, 672 (Mo. banc 2009); Mo. Const. art. V, § 18; see also White v. ConAgra Packaged Foods, LLC, 535 S.W.3d 336, 338 (Mo. banc 2017).

         Pursuant to [§] 287.495.1, [2] this Court shall review only questions of law and may modify, reverse, remand for rehearing, or set aside the award upon any of the following grounds and no other:

(1) That the [C]ommission acted without or in excess of its powers;
(2) That the award was procured by fraud;
(3) That the facts found by the [C]ommission do not support the award; [and]
(4) That there was not sufficient competent evidence in the record to warrant the making of the award.

Porter v. RPCS, Inc., 402 S.W.3d 161, 171 (Mo. App. E.D. 2013). "The Commission's findings will not be disturbed unless they are unsupported by competent and substantial evidence on the whole record." Thompson v. Treasurer of Missouri, 545 S.W.3d 890, 893 (Mo. App. E.D. 2018). While we defer to the Commission on issues concerning credibility and the weight given to conflicting evidence, we independently review questions of law without deference to the Commission's findings. Id. "When the relevant facts are not in dispute, the issue of whether an accident arose out of and in the course of employment is a question of law requiring de novo review." Wright v. Treasurer of Missouri as Custodian of Second Injury Fund, 484 S.W.3d 56, 59 (Mo. App. E.D. 2015) (quoting Miller, 287 S.W.3d at 672).

         III. Discussion

         Point I & II

         Claimant asserts three points on appeal. We will consider Claimant's first and second points together because both points concern the Commission's determination of whether Claimant's injuries arose out of and in the course of her employment.

         "In 2005, the [Missouri Workers' Compensation Act] was revised to provide that its provisions are to be construed strictly and to require the evidence to be weighed impartially without giving any party the benefit of the doubt." Miller, 287 S.W.3d at 673; see also § 287.800. Specifically, § 287.020.2 narrowed the definition of "accident":

2. The word "accident" as used in this chapter shall mean an unexpected traumatic event or unusual strain identifiable by time and place of occurrence and producing at the time objective symptoms of an injury caused by a specific event during a single work shift. An injury is not compensable because work was a triggering or precipitating factor.

Miller, 287 S.W.3d at 672-73. "The workers' compensation statutes expressly instruct that section 287.020.3(2) controls the determination of whether an employee's injury shall be deemed to have arisen out of and in the course of employment." Porter, 402 S.W.3d at 171. Section 287.020.3(2) states that:

An injury shall be deemed to arise out of and in the course of the employment only if:
(a) It is reasonably apparent, upon consideration of all the circumstances, that the accident is the prevailing factor in causing the injury; and
(b) It does not come from a hazard or risk unrelated to the employment to which workers would have been equally exposed outside of and unrelated to the employment in normal nonemployment life.

         Claimant limits the argument in her first two points on appeal to the application of § 287.020.3(2)(b). A workers' compensation claimant bears the burden of showing that a causal connection exists between his or her injury and his or her work activity in order for the injury to "arise out of and in the course of employment." Porter, 402 S.W.3d at 172. A causal connection between a claimant's work activity and his injury, as would support a workers' compensation claim, first requires identification of the risk source of a claimant's injury and then requires a comparison of that risk source or activity to normal nonemployment life. Gleason v. Treasurer of State of Missouri-Custodian of Second Injury Fund, 455 S.W.3d 494, 499 (Mo. App. W.D. 2015). "The injury must have occurred because the risk was due to some condition of the worker's employment[;] [i]n other words, the employee must have been injured because she was at work and not simply while she was at work." Randolph County v. Moore-Ransdell, 446 S.W.3d 699, 706 (Mo. App. W.D. 2014). Thus, we first examine the Commission's determination of the risk source of claimant's injury before reviewing whether Claimant's injury arose out of and in the course of her employment.

         A. The Commission's rejection of Claimant's testimony and its determination of the risk source of Claimant's injury

         In determining the risk source, the Commission cited the holding in Miller, 287 S.W.3d at 674, [3] and concluded that "here, the risk source was walking; [Claimant] was walking on an even flat, surface when she fell. There was nothing about [Claimant's] work that caused her to fall." In rejecting Claimant's testimony ...

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