Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP

The North Carolina Court of Appeals Disagrees on the Standard of Review of the Industrial Commission’s Jurisdiction

North Carolina appellate courts do not judge the credibility of witnesses or weigh evidence. That is, unless they are reviewing whether the Industrial Commission has jurisdiction to hear a particular matter. In that case, the appellate court has both the “right, and the duty” to independently review the record, assess the evidence, and make its own independent findings of fact that relate to jurisdiction. Or does it?

In Cunningham v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed a determination that the Industrial Commission did not have jurisdiction to hear the plaintiff’s claim. Jurisdiction depended on whether the plaintiff filed her claim within the applicable statute of limitations. The Deputy Commissioner, based on the evidence presented, found she did not. The Full Commission affirmed, ostensibly agreeing with the Deputy Commissioner’s findings of jurisdictional facts.

The Court of Appeals, in a published opinion, reversed. The Court wrote that the finding of a jurisdictional fact is “not conclusive upon appeal,” irrespective of whether it has evidentiary support. Instead, the appellate court must perform its own “independent findings” of jurisdictional facts based on all of the evidence in the record.” This requires a reviewing court to decide if the greater weight of the evidence supports the findings germane to the issue of jurisdiction. For support, the Court cited Capps v. Se. Cable, 214 N.C. App. 225, 715 S.E.2d 227 (2011) and Morales–Rodriguez v. Carolina Quality, 205 N.C. App. 712, 698 S.E.2d 91 (2010), two relatively recent Court of Appeals opinions. And the Court, after it reviewed a “discontinuation note,” in the plaintiff’s medical records and the testimony of witnesses, found the greater weight of the evidence supported a finding of jurisdiction. 

In dissent, Judge John Tyson disagreed with the majority’s characterization of the standard of review. In his view, the Court of Appeals must consider two questions when it reviews an appeal from the Full Commission: (1) whether competent evidence exists to support the findings of fact, and (2) whether the findings of fact justify the conclusions of law. Judge Tyson drew no distinction when jurisdiction is subject to review. Judge Tyson did not cite Capps or Morales-Rodriguez, intimating his view that both cases applied an incorrect standard of review. In summary, Judge Tyson wrote, the majority opinion “exceeds its lawful scope of appellate review” by “reweigh[ing] the evidence and credibility of the testimony as finders of fact” to arrive at its desired outcome.

Judge Tyson’s dissent provides the appellee in Cunningham with an appeal of right to the North Carolina Supreme Court under North Carolina General Statute § 7A-30(2). Supreme Court review may clarify how the jurisdiction of the Industrial Commission is reviewed by an appellate court – does the Court of Appeals weigh the evidence anew and render its own findings of jurisdiction facts or, as Judge Tyson wrote, does it defer to findings supported by competent evidence?

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