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Austin v. Bio Tech Nutrients

Supreme Court of Idaho

June 17, 2019

BRENT AUSTIN, Claimant-Respondent,
v.
BIO TECH NUTRIENTS, Employer, and EMPLOYERS COMPENSATION INSURANCE COMPANY, Surety, Defendants-Appellants.

          Appeal from the Industrial Commission of the State of Idaho.

         The decision of the Commission is affirmed. Costs on appeal are awarded to Austin.

          Gardner Law Office, Boise, attorneys for Appellants. Michael McPeek argued.

          Ruchti & Beck Law Offices, Pocatello, attorneys for Respondent. Joel A. Beck argued.

          BEVAN, JUSTICE

         I. Nature of the Case

         This is a worker's compensation case. The dispute is whether Brent Austin filed a timely complaint for additional benefits with the Idaho Industrial Commission when it was filed more than a year after his employer, Bio Tech Nutrients, and its surety, Employers Compensation Insurance Company, (collectively "Defendants") stopped paying worker's compensation benefits. The Commission held that the one-year statute of limitations to file a complaint was tolled because the Defendants did not send a Notice of Claim Status ("NOCS") when they submitted Austin's final payment; as such, the Commission concluded Austin's complaint was timely filed. We affirm.

         II. Factual and Procedural Background

         On November 20, 2008, Austin was injured in the course of his employment with Bio Tech Nutrients. Austin received medical treatment from November 21, 2008, through June 20, 2014. From June 9, 2012, through July 18, 2014, Austin received temporary total disability ("TTD") benefits. On June 20, 2014, Dr. Fellars performed an independent medical evaluation and determined Austin had reached maximum medical improvement.

         On July 18, 2014, Defendants sent a NOCS to Austin that informed him his TTD benefits would stop immediately because of Dr. Fellars' determination Austin had reached maximum medical improvement. Even so, the NOCS explained that Dr. Fellars rated Austin's permanent partial impairment ("PPI") at 11% of the whole person, which correlated to $18, 694.50. The Defendants were to make bi-weekly payments beginning August 1, 2014, until the award was paid in full. The NOCS also included the disclaimer that "[t]his impairment rating does not settle your claim. However, MMI [Maximum Medical Improvement] means no further treatment is recommended which is likely to improve your industrial condition." (Emphasis in original). A copy of Dr. Fellars' medical report was attached to the July 18, 2014, NOCS.

         Despite what was said in the NOCS, Austin's PPI benefits began on July 19, 2014, and continued until June 22, 2015, when the Surety issued Austin a check for $2, 379.30. The remittance advice attached to this check indicated a payment description of "Permanent Partial Scheduled/Impairment" and included a comment of "PPI Final Payment." The June 22, 2015, check cleared the Surety's bank on July 10, 2015. The Defendants did not send Austin, nor file with the Commission, any NOCS or other written form of notice about Austin's "final payment" of PPI benefits.

         On July 20, 2016, Austin filed a worker's compensation complaint seeking medical benefits for chronic pain treatment, another surgery, and TTD benefits. In the complaint Austin also reserved the right to bring claims for additional PPI and permanent partial disability ("PPD") benefits after reaching maximum medical improvement. On July 26, 2016, Defendants filed an answer and asserted that Austin's complaint was barred by the statute of limitations of Idaho Code section 72-706(3).

         The proceedings were bifurcated and the parties submitted the sole issue of whether Austin's complaint was timely filed with the Commission. The crux of the issue was whether the Defendants had to provide a new NOCS with Austin's final payment. The Commission referred the matter to a Referee. Austin argued that the statute of limitations was tolled pursuant to Idaho Code section 72-604 because Defendants failed to file a NOCS as required by section 72-806. The Referee recommended that Austin's complaint was not timely. The Referee determined the Defendants did not have to send Austin a NOCS with his final payment for PPI benefits because his level of benefits did not change; the benefits simply went from being prospective to being realized. The Referee concluded that since no notice was required, the tolling provisions of Idaho Code section 72-604 did not apply, and Austin's complaint was untimely because it was filed more than a year after he received his last payment of income benefits.

         The Commission declined to adopt the Referee's recommendation and entered its own findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order in which it concluded that Austin's complaint was timely filed. The Commission held that Idaho Code section 72-806 required the Defendants to submit a NOCS with the last check for Austin's PPI payments, and that its failure to do so tolled the one-year statute of limitations based on the provisions of section 72-604. The Defendants filed a motion for reconsideration, which the Commission denied. The Defendants filed a permissive appeal to this Court.

         III. Issues on Appeal

         1. Whether the Commission erred when it held the Defendants were required to provide a NOCS when Austin's final PPI payment was issued.

         2. Whether the Commission erred in determining that the Defendants' failure to issue a NOCS when Austin's payments were terminated constituted a ...


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