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A Utah appellate court incorrectly applied an “abuse of discretion” standard of review in a workers compensation case, even through it rightly denied benefits to the claimant in that decision, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled.
Michael Murray worked as a park ranger for Utah State Parks and Recreation, court records show. He injured his lower back in July 2008 when he was standing in a patrol boat and a wave knocked him off balance, causing him to stumble.
Mr. Murray filed a workers comp claim in September 2008, court records show. However, an administrative law judge denied his claim after finding that Mr. Murray's injury was caused by a pre-existing lower back condition rather than by losing his balance on the boat.
The Utah Labor Commission reviewed Mr. Murray's case and affirmed the judge's decision, records show. Mr. Murray appealed that ruling to the Utah Court of Appeals, which found that the commission ruled correctly in Mr. Murray's case based on an “abuse of discretion” standard.
The appellate court used that standard based on a provision of the Utah Administrative Procedures Act, which says that “questions of law and mixed questions of law and fact are generally reviewed for correctness” except when an agency has been “explicitly or implicitly granted” to apply state laws, records show. Based on those provisions, the court determined that it should review whether the labor commission abused its discretion when it ruled in Mr. Murray's case.
Mr. Murray appealed his case to the Utah Supreme Court, arguing that the appellate court used an inappropriate standard of review and that the labor commission misapplied Utah's workers comp law to his case, records show.
In a unanimous decision Friday, the Utah high court found that the appellate court used an incorrect standard of review in Mr. Murray's case.
The high court said Mr. Murray's case represented a “traditional mixed question of law and fact” that gave the labor commission authority to apply Utah workers comp law, and that its ruling did not depend on using discretion to find a correct ruling. Therefore, the appellate court could not use an “abuse of discretion” review in reviewing the commission's decision.
In “the context of mixed questions, we sometimes afford deference to a trial court's decision as a matter of institutional competency,” the Supreme Court opinion reads. “But the trial court does not have discretion to reach anything other than the 'right' answer. In other words, 'discretion' and 'deference' are distinct concepts.”
Despite using the wrong review standard, the appellate court's decision to deny benefits to Mr. Murray was “harmless” because the ruling would have remained the same under a different standard of review, records show.
Even “under a nondeferential standard of review, Mr. Murray failed to establish that his boat accident, rather than his pre-existing back condition, was the legal cause of his injury,” the opinion reads.