• You Have The Right to An Attorney But Not Additional Time: Examining the Role of An Unrepresented Claimant in the Workers’ Compensation Proceeding
  • August 14, 2015 | Author: Ashley S. Talley
  • Law Firm: Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C. - Philadelphia Office
  • Key Points:

    The unrepresented status of a claimant does not immediately afford additional time to present medical evidence.

    The denial of a request for continuance does not necessarily amount to a deprivation of due process rights and is within the discretion of a Workers’ Compensation Judge.

    Lay testimony of a claimant is insufficient to sustain a compensable workers’ compensation claim in the absence of unequivocal medical evidence obviously connecting an alleged injury and a work incident.

    The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently held that a claimant is not afforded additional time based upon her unrepresented status alone. In Deborah Roundtree v. WCAB (City of Philadelphia), 2015 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 203 (Pa.Commw. May 8, 2015), the claimant was employed as a forensic technician for the City of Philadelphia. During her employ, she was allegedly exposed to long-term harassment and a hostile work environment. According to a claim petition filed pro se, as a direct result of this exposure, the claimant suffered alleged psychiatric injuries in the form of a “severely depressed mood, loss of interest in normal activities, fatigue, agitation, very poor concentration, loss of appetite, difficulty initiating and maintain sleep, recurrent thoughts of death, nausea, diarrhea, fibromyalgia and extreme mental anguish.” Payment of medical bills, attorneys fees and full disability benefits were requested, and an answer was filed on behalf of the employer.

    Proceeding unrepresented in the litigation, the claimant failed to attend the initial hearing on the claim petition. At the relisted hearing, the claimant, appearing pro se, was instructed by the Workers’ Compensation Judge to present testimonial and medical evidence within 30 days. Although she testified before the Judge at the 30-day listing, the claimant failed to present the required medical evidence. She was provided an additional 90 days to submit any such evidence in support of her claim.

    When she attempted to submit medical records at the 90-day listing, the Workers’ Compensation Judge sustained the objections of employer’s counsel on the grounds of hearsay and directed the claimant to obtain a medical deposition within 30 days or limit her claim to 52 weeks.

    A final hearing took place 30 days later with the claimant again failing to submit any medical evidence per the initial instructions of the Workers’ Compensation Judge, and the record was closed. The employer’s motion to dismiss the case without prejudice was granted, and the claimant appealed.

    The Judge’s decision was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, who emphasized the Workers’ Compensation Judge’s discretion to dismiss a claim petition when a claimant fails to satisfy the initial deadlines established at trial. The Appeal Board specifically made mention of the time afforded by the Workers’ Compensation Judge and numerous directives to obtain medical testimony, all of which were ignored by the claimant.

    Upon appeal to the Commonwealth Court, the claimant presented two arguments for consideration. Pointing to the failure of the Workers’ Compensation Judge to provide additional time for the submission of medical evidence in light of the her status as a “disabled lay person,” the claimant first argued that the dismissal of her claim amounted to a deprivation of due process under the law. The Commonwealth Court, in rejecting this argument, emphasized the overarching principles of 34 Pa. Code § 131.13(b), which sets forth several factors for a Workers’ Compensation Judge to consider in adjudicating a request for a continuance or postponement. A decision to grant or deny a request for a continuance is discretionary and one which may only be overturned based upon a “clear showing of an abuse of discretion.” Considering these factors, the court concluded that there was no abuse in discretion in denying the claimant’s request for continuance when the dismissal of her claim petition was solely the product of her repeated failures to adhere to the deadlines set forth by the Workers’ Compensation Judge. The court noted that the claimant was given multiple opportunities to present medical evidence and, despite such directives, failed to submit any evidence to support her claim. As aptly noted by the Workers’ Compensation Judge, the claimant failed to take any action to advance her case solely on the basis that she was unrepresented, a fact which was more than accounted for by the Workers’ Compensation Judge. Thus, when applying the factors set forth in 34 Pa. Code § 131.13(b), all of which serve to ensure that medical evidence is scheduled promptly to avoid delay and postponement, the court found that the Workers’ Compensation Judge did not abuse her discretion in denying further continuances of the claim.

    The court likewise rejected the argument that lay testimony was sufficient on its face to support a compensable claim in the absence of medical evidence. Relying upon the well-established principles of Section 301(c) of the Workers’ Compensation Act, the court reiterated the claimant’s burden of establishing a causal connection through the presentation of unequivocal medical evidence. The court indicated that, while the requirement of such evidence could be waived in the event of an “obvious medical connection” between the alleged injury and symptoms, the present allegation of a psychiatric injury as a result of exposure to a hostile work environment was not “obvious to an untrained lay person.” Therefore, the court concluded, medical evidence of a causal relationship was required and the Workers’ Compensation Judge did not err in requiring the claimant to submit medical evidence in support of her claim.