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Peter Sylves was employed by the County as a deputy sheriff. He took a service retirement and then worked for the Pauma Police Department on a reservation belonging to the Pauma Band of Luiseno Indians.

He filed an application for adjudication of claim on July 16, 2014. He claimed a continuous trauma for “hypertension, GERDS [gastroesophageal reflux disease], left shoulder, low back and both knees.”

After a hearing, the WCJ issued his findings of fact. Under the heading titled “Statute of Limitations,” he found: “Pursuant to Labor Code section 5500.5, applicant’s continuous trauma is limited to the last year of injurious exposure, even if it is with the Pauma Tribal Police.” The WCJ found that Sylves’s knee and left shoulder injuries, his GERDS, and his sleep disorder were not compensable injuries arising in and out of employment. However, he also found that Sylves’s hypertension and back injury were compensable and arose from employment with the County.

Both parties requested reconsideration. An opinion and decision after reconsideration found “substantial medical evidence support[ing] industrial injury to [Sylves’s] left shoulder, bilateral knees, GERD and sleep disorder.”

With respect to the statute of limitations, the WCAB explained that the time in which to file a claim did not begin to run until a doctor told him the symptoms for which he had been receiving treatment were industrially related; since medical confirmation did not occur until 2013, Sylves’s 2014 application was timely. The WCAB further found that section 5500.5 “is not a Statute of Limitations but provides for a supplemental proceeding in which multiple defendants have an opportunity to apportion liability.” Finally, it agreed with Sylves that section 5500.5 cannot limit liability to the Pauma Police Department in this case because the WCAB lacks jurisdiction over the tribe.

The Court of Appeal granted review  in the published case of County of Riverside v WCAB and Peter Sylves in order to provide better clarity regarding the application of section 5500.5. It affirmed the WCAB decision after reconsideration.

Limiting the liability of the defendants in a workers’ compensation case is not the same as prescribing the time in which that case can be filed. Since neither the language nor the history of section 5500.5 evidences a concern with the limitations period for filing an application for workers’ compensation benefits, the court rejected the County’s suggestion that the WCAB violated section 5500.5(a) when it found Sylves’s claims to be timely. Section 5500.5(a) does not relate to the statute of limitations for filing an application for adjudication of benefits.

Section 5500.5(a) provides that “In the event that none of the employers during [last year] of occupational disease or cumulative injury are insured for workers’ compensation coverage or an approved alternative thereof, liability shall be imposed upon the last year of employment exposing the employee to the hazards of the occupational disease or cumulative injury for which an employer is insured for workers’ compensation coverage or an approved alternative thereof.”

The WCAB lacks jurisdiction over federally recognized Indian tribes. The fact that the Pauma Police Department is not subject to the WCAB’s jurisdiction means the department was not “insured for workers’ compensation coverage or an approved alternative thereof.” Consequently, liability is imposed on the next employer in line that had workers’ compensation insurance. In this case, that employer is the County.

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