May 8, 2013
Reimbursement of Fees

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

In July 2009, Jeff Holmes sought workers’ compensation benefits for injuries arising from an accident at his place of work – Crawford Machine, Inc. Holmes alleged that while he was working on a machine and using a tool to tighten wires, he was jolted with electricity for approximately 30 seconds.

The Ohio Industrial Commission, which handles such matters, allowed his claims for left shoulder strain, electrical shock, low back strain, left rotator cuff tear, left posterior shoulder dislocation, and an abrasion of the right fifth finger.

Crawford Machine appealed the allowance to the common pleas court, and after a trial, a jury found that Holmes could participate in the workers’ compensation fund, but only for the abrasion on his right fifth finger. The jury disallowed all the other claims.

After that, Holmes filed a motion seeking reimbursement for attorney fees and costs incurred as a result of the appeal. Crawford Machine opposed the motion, arguing that Holmes was not entitled to reimbursement of his attorney fees or costs, because he had not incurred any fees in relation to his finger abrasion condition. But the trial court granted Holmes’s motion and ordered that his attorney be paid $4,200 in fees and that Holmes be reimbursed for costs in the amount of $7,551.

Neither party was particularly satisfied. Crawford Machine appealed from the judgment granting attorney fees, and Holmes appealed from the judgment allowing one, but not all, of his claims.

The Third District Court of Appeals upheld the judgment allowing only one of Holmes’s claims, but it reversed the trial court’s judgment ordering attorney fees and costs. It so happened that the Third District’s decision on the attorney fees was in conflict with a decision by the Tenth District Court of Appeals in a similar case that had been decided in 2003.

When a conflict of this sort arises, the matter comes before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio – for a final resolution.  The question before us was this: Does the trial court abuse its discretion by taxing an opposing party attorney’s fees that are strictly related to the claims for which the trier of fact determined that the employee was ineligible to participate in the workers’ compensation fund?

Ohio law provides for the reimbursement of the “cost of any legal proceeding,” including attorney fees, incurred by a claimant who prevails on a workers’ compensation appeal. Reimbursement for these costs “is subject to the trial court’s determination of their reasonable necessity to the presentation of the claimant’s appeal.” The law states that the “attorney’s fees shall not exceed forty-two hundred dollars.”

Our court has previously explained that this law is intended to protect a claimant who is forced to litigate an appeal.  Since claimants in this position incur out-of-the-ordinary expenses in order to establish their right to participate in the workers’ compensation fund – which are expenses that other claimants do not incur – the law provides a financial award to a successful claimant so that he can retain more of the recovery.

The policy behind the law – and our cases that have interpreted the law – focus not on the outcome of the particular claims raised by a claimant, but instead on the cost of litigating the appeal.

Once again, the issue before us was whether, after a claimant’s right to participate in the workers’ compensation fund has been established, a trial court abuses its discretion by awarding the claimant reimbursement for costs related to the conditions for which the trier of fact determined that the claimant was ineligible to participate in the fund.

The Third District determined that a trial court’s decision to reimburse costs that were related only to unsuccessful claims and/or conditions is an abuse of discretion. But the Tenth District, in 2003, concluded that if a claimant is successful with at least one of his claims, a trial court does not abuse its discretion in awarding the claimant all of his costs.

The plain language of the law in question answers the conflict. The law applies specifically to a claimant who is adjudged on appeal to be eligible to participate in the fund. In other words, the event that triggers the availability of reimbursement is the establishment on appeal that a claimant has the right to participate in the fund.

The law doesn’t delineate additional factors that must be satisfied by the claimant. In fact, language referring to “allowed” or “nonallowed” conditions is not found anywhere in this law.

We would impermissibly add language to the law if we were to hold that a claimant must be reimbursed for costs only when his right to participate in the fund is established upon the final determination of an appeal and when the costs are related to a particular claim or condition.

Therefore, we concluded – by a five-to-two vote – that once a claimant’s right to participate in the workers’ compensation fund has been established, a trial court does not abuse its discretion by awarding the claimant reimbursement for costs related to the conditions for which the trier of fact determined the claimant was ineligible to participate in the fund.

In this case, Holmes was adjudged to be entitled to participate in the fund for only one of his claims – a fifth-finger abrasion. But that was enough to establish his right to participate in the workers’ compensation fund. Therefore, in accordance with the law, the trial court was required to reimburse him for his costs, including attorney fees, associated with his appeal.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is Holmes v. Crawford Machine, Inc., 134 Ohio St.3d 303, 2012-Ohio-5380. Case No. 2011-2040. Decided November 27, 2012. Majority opinion written by Justice Yvette McGee Brown.