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The Court Upholds Penalties Against Claimant for Blatant Abuse of Workers’ Compensation and Appellate System

Smith v. WCAB (Consolidated Freightways, Inc.), No. 606 C.D. 2014, filed March 9, 2015

Factual and Procedural Background
Claimant filed a petition alleging disability due to a brief exposure to a chemical in February 1996. The WCJ dismissed the claim petition after two hearings and review of expert medical reports. The WCJ also denied a petition to review medical treatment seeking to recover medical expenses allegedly related to this incident, as she concluded his symptoms were due to a non-work related hiatal hernia. The Board affirmed, and no further appeals were filed.

The Claimant then filed additional petitions related to the same February 1996 incident, in which he sought to re-litigate the same alleged injury. Claimant had filed appeals up to the Pennsylvania and United States Supreme Court levels. In all, Claimant had been before the Commonwealth Court 5 times trying to litigate the same issues. The Court noted that on the fourth occasion, claimant’s petition had been denied based on its being barred by res judicata and collateral estoppels. The separate instances of litigation had been going on for over a decade.

Before the Court on this occasion were petitions to review medical treatment and/or billing, and for penalties. This brought the total number of petitions filed on the claim to approximately 17 filed over the course of nearly 20 years. Employer raised collateral estoppels and res judicata as well as the statute of limitations in its answer. The WCJ agreed with employer, and dismissed the petitions. This decision was affirmed by the Board, and the appeal to the Commonwealth Court followed.

Commonwealth Court
Decision The Commonwealth Court affirmed, holding that the petitions were barred by collateral estoppels and res judicata. The Court then went a step further, referencing the Supreme Court cases of Phillips v. WCAB (Century Steel) and Patel v. WCAB (Saquoit Fibers Company). The Commonwealth Court held that although Phillips had declined to award an employer attorney fees for a frivolous appeal, the matter of whether sanctions could be imposed under Pa. R.A.P. 2744 had been left open. The Court felt that without the ability to impose such sanctions, there was no way to curb the abuse of the system being demonstrated in this claim. Therefore, while affirming the Board, the Court also imposed an award of costs and counsel fees payable to employer for what was incurred to defend that appeal. The award was imposed against both claimant and his counsel, who had represented claimant throughout that time frame.