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A Better Partnership
April 16, 2014

COA finds workers’ compensation hearings must be held in same locality as injury under plain language of statute

In Younkin v. Zimmer, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s writ of mandamus ordering the Michigan Administrative Hearing System and Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) to hold workers’ compensation hearings in the locality in which the injury occurred.  The court determined that the plain language of MCL 418.851 limited the geographic area in which the agencies could hold hearings.

Younkin injured his back while working at a GM facility in Flint and filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits.  The defendants, Zimmer and Hilfinger (the directors of the Michigan Administrative Hearing System and LARA, respectively) then indicated they would be closing the Flint office that heard workers’ compensation claims and transferring the claims to an office in Dimondale.  Younkin sued requesting a writ of mandamus ordering the defendants to hold hearings in the same locality in which his injury occurred.
The Court of Appeals found that the plain language of MCL 418.851 required the agencies to hold hearings in the locality in which the injury occurred, and thus a writ of mandamus was warranted.  The court indicated that Younkin had satisfied the requirements for mandamus (i.e., the proponent must show a “clear legal right to performance of the specific duty sought to be compelled,” and the defendant must have “a clear legal duty to perform such act.”).  That is, Younkin had a clear statutory right to a hearing in the same locality where his injury occurred, and the agencies had a duty to ensure magistrates held hearings in statutorily authorized locations.  The language of MCL 418.851, the court reasoned, by the use of the word “shall” clearly meant that the hearing location was mandatory.  Further, the term “locality,” although somewhat ambiguous, meant a “city, town, or similarly-sized district or region,” and not a region or district that is convenient to the agency.  Finally, the court reasoned that Crane v Leonard, Crossette & Riley, 214 Mich 218; 183 NW 204 (1921) does not permit parties to conduct hearings in localities contrary to statutory mandates merely because the locality is convenient.  Instead, Crane stands for the proposition that failure to hold hearings at the statutory location will not “void” the result of the hearing.
Here, as Younkin’s injury occurred in Flint, Dimondale was clearly not within the same “locality.”  Thus, although the agencies may have had a proper motive in desiring to consolidate offices in Dimondale, under the statute “[c]laimaints whose injuries occurred within Genesee County have a clear legal right to have disputes over their claims resolved at hearings held within that locality.”  Accordingly, as the statutory directive was clear, the writ of mandamus was proper.
The dissent would have reversed the trial court, finding that it incorrectly interpreted the term “locality.”  According to the dissent as the statute does not define “locality” the court should not impose a narrow definition of “locality” (e.g., a “city” or “county”).  Instead, the dissent reasoned, the agencies’ interpretation of “locality” to mean “region” and plan to consolidate offices was reasonable.

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