Acts of Employees that Reduce Compensation

There are a few defenses often overlooked when investigating a workers’ compensation claim and deciding whether to admit liability.  Some of those defenses include safety rule violations, willful misleading of the Employer regarding the claimant’s physical abilities, and intoxication defenses.  These defenses should always be considered as part of a checklist when determining compensability and benefits owed to the claimant.  Each defense can reduce compensation to the claimant by up to 50% and can be taken immediately upon the filing of the initial filing the admission with the Division.  It is important to note the distinctions with each defense as they must be noted in the remarks section of the admission when filing with the Division.

 

Safety Rule Violations

 

Section 8-42-112(1), C.R.S. provides as follows; “The compensation provided for in articles 40 to 47 of this title shall be reduced fifty percent:

(a)  Where injury is caused by the willful failure of the employee to use safety devices provided by the employer;

(b)  Where injury results from the employee’s willful failure to obey any reasonable rule adopted by the employer   for the safety of the employee”

 

The key phrase to keep in mind with regard to safety rule violations and/or safety devices is the use of the word “willful.”  The word has been defined by the Supreme Court as “deliberate intent.”  The claimant must have known the rule communicated by the Employer and deliberately chose not to follow the Rule or use the safety device.  Negligence on the part of the claimant is not enough to allow safety rule violation.  However, intent can be inferred by the ALJ where the facts lead the trier of fact to consider that the claimant knew of the Rule and specifically chose not to follow it.  The burden of proof regarding safety rule violations is always on the Respondents to prove in court.  If successful, the safety rule violation is a 50% reduction that applies to all indemnity throughout the life of the claim.

 

Misleading the Employer regarding the claimant’s physical abilities

 

Section 8-42-112(1)(d), C.R.S. provides as follows; “Where the employee willfully misleads an employer concerning the employee’s physical ability to perform the job, and the employee is subsequently injured on the job as a result of the physical ability about which the employee willfully misled the employer. Notwithstanding any other provisions of articles 40 to 47 of this title, the provisions of this paragraph (d) shall apply in addition to any other penalty that may be imposed under section 8-43-402.”

 

Again, in order for the Employer to take a 50% reduction in benefits pursuant to this statute, the Employer must prove that the claimant willfully mislead the Employer regarding the claimant’s physical abilities to perform the job.  Should proof and documentation exist regarding the claimant’s intent to deceive the Employer, the ALJ can make the inference that the claimant’s actions were deliberate in order to obtain employment with the Employer or seek a position in which the claimant could not perform the job functions.

 

Intoxication defense

 

Given the current state of the law and the legalization of marijuana within Colorado, Respondents must always consider the intoxication defense when analyzing defenses in a claim.  Although marijuana is legal, the Employer still retains the right to prohibit the employee from using marijuana or other controlled substances in the workplace.  Section 8-42-112.5, C.R.S, indicates as follows,

(1) “Non-medical benefits otherwise payable to an injured worker are reduced fifty percent where the injury results from the presence in the worker’s system, during working hours, of controlled substances, as defined in section 18-18-102 (5), C.R.S., that are not medically prescribed or of a blood alcohol level at or above 0.10 percent, or at or above an applicable lower level as set forth by federal statute or regulation, as evidenced by a forensic drug or alcohol test conducted by a medical facility or laboratory licensed or certified to conduct such tests. A duplicate sample from any test conducted must be preserved and made available to the worker for purposes of a second test to be conducted at the worker’s expense. If the test indicates the presence of such substances or of alcohol at such level, it is presumed that the employee was intoxicated and that the injury was due to the intoxication. This presumption may be overcome by clear and convincing evidence.

(2)  As used in this section, “non-medical benefits” means all benefits provided for in articles 40 to 47 of this title other than disbursements for medical, surgical, nursing, and hospital services, apparatus, and supplies”

 

The key aspects of the statute to remember are “during working hours” and “clear and convincing evidence.”  These two aspects of the statute may prove problematic for both the claimant and Respondents in court.  First, it is Respondents’ burden to demonstrate that the claimant was intoxicated during working hours.  Most commonly, drug testing aids the Employer in confirming this first aspect of the statute.  Whether it is alcohol, marijuana, or otherwise, the drug test administered shortly after the alleged injury can help aid the Employer in determining the level of intoxication that is present.  Next comes the shifting burden to the claimant to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that he/she was not intoxicated at the time of the incident.  This is the highest burden to prove in workers’ compensation claims and usually comes with little success on the claimant’s part at hearing.  Similar to the other acts reducing compensation, up to 50% can be taken against indemnity benefits for the life of the claim.

 

Keeping these defenses in mind will help reduce exposure for Respondents in an effective way.  Should the defenses be challenged, it is important to remember that each one involves specific findings of fact that must be made by an ALJ at hearing.  Should you have any questions regarding each of the defenses, please contact any of the attorneys at Lee & Brown for guidance prior to filing the initial admission on the claim.

 

DIMEs ARE NOT WORTH A DIME and/or ICAO’S DESCENT (VIA DISSENT) INTO MADNESS

BACKGROUND

On February 26, 2018 Industrial Claim Appeals Office (ICAO) issued an opinion captioned Yeutter v. CBW Automation, Inc. Dimes not worth a Dimeand Pinnacol Assurance, W.C. No. 4-895-940. The decision sparked great interest in the workers’ compensation community and was a primary topic of discussion at the recent Spring Update CLE as well as the latest Case Law Update. The decision raises questions over how causation over different components of an injury can/should be litigated during the progression of a claim.

 

FACTS

Claimant worked as an engineer performing robotic programming tasks. He was hurt on August 24, 2012 when he was struck in the face by a carbon fiber pole. His injuries included a skull fracture, nerve damage, a broken arm, broken orbital skull sockets and a torn rotator cuff. In November 2013 Claimant began complaining to his treaters that he was experiencing fatigue and sleep disturbance. Claimant underwent a sleep study showing that he had narcolepsy. Claimant was prescribed Adderall, which he began taking in larger and larger doses to stay employed. Claimant had to reduce his Adderall use, but was unable to perform his job and ultimately stopped working in February 2015.
Claimant was placed at MMI effective August 26, 2015. Claimant was diagnosed as suffering from a traumatic brain injury that induced narcolepsy. Claimant received 67% whole person rating. Respondents requested a DIME. The DIME deferred to the treating doctor over whether Claimant’s injuries included post-traumatic narcolepsy and gave Claimant a 39% whole person rating. Respondents filed a FAL on March 2, 2016 based on the DIME.

 

Claimant claimed permanent total disability (PTD). The employer’s long-term disability program generated expert reports that concluded Claimant was not so disabled from his injury as to be unable to work. Respondents also obtained evaluations from various experts that concluded Claimant’s condition should not keep him from work. These evaluations included a neuropsychological evaluation the concluded it was not possible to state that the traumatic brain injury caused narcolepsy. The ALJ ultimately determined that medical evidence was too speculative for a causal connection to be established between Claimant’s injury and the narcolepsy.

 

RULING

The ALJ found that, even assuming Claimant’s employability was limited by narcolepsy, he remained employable. The ALJ determined that Claimant failed to prove entitlement to maintenance medical benefits, citing to an IME doctor’s opinion the Claimant’s need for narcolepsy medication was not related to the injury.

 

HOLDING

Claimant appealed arguing, in part, that the DIME’s findings were binding on the parties. The ICAO affirmed the ALJ, basically citing to the ALJ’s ability to resolve evidence and upholding an ALJs factual findings, so long as they are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Addressing Claimant’s argument over the binding effect of the DIME opinion regarding causation of the narcolepsy, the ICAO cited to the clear and convincing evidence burden given to the DIME over MMI and impairment, but that the DIME’s opinions on other issues are just another medical opinion. About half of the majority ICAO’s opinion is directed at arguments raised in a dissent.

 

THE DISSENT

The dissent disagrees with the decision in that it allows the ALJ to conclude Claimant’s narcolepsy is not a part of the original injury. The dissent disagrees with this because it allows the Respondents to simultaneously stipulate that the narcolepsy was part of the work injury for permanent disability purposes while contending that it is not part of the work injury for maintenance medical benefits and PTD benefits. The dissent relies heavily on Leprino Foods, Co. v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office, 134 P.3d 475 (Colo. App. 2005). In that case, Claimant had an elbow injury with a possible shoulder component. A DIME took place and found Claimant was not at MMI due to the shoulder. Respondents did not challenge the DIME and it was determined that Claimant’s entitlement to TTD received a clear and convincing evidence burden based on the DIME’s determination Claimant was not at MMI due to his shoulder. The dissent basically takes the position that it is unfair for Respondents to accept Claimant’s narcolepsy as a source of impairment producing an admission of liability in accordance with the DIME, but allow Respondents to challenge this condition as not work-related in a PTD and maintenance medical hearing.

 

IMPLICATIONS

Use of Yeutter: The Yeutter case is likely being appealed further. The case raises several issues. First, the case currently exists just as an ICAO decision, so it does not have precedential value in front of ALJs. In the event that the Court of Appeals thinks a decision it comes to in Yeutter clarifies how a DIME’s opinion can be applied, it may be selected for publication, which would provide for precedential value. A rare dissent at ICAO may lead to a published decision from the Colorado Court of Appeals.

DIMEs: DIMEs only receive a clear and convincing evidence burden over the numbers, meaning MMI and impairment. The issues of MMI and impairment are tied directly to Claimant’s physical condition, including whatever body parts may have been injured. In this case it appears undisputed that Claimant had narcolepsy and that the narcolepsy was disabling. Further, the DIME deferred to the treating physician over whether narcolepsy was related to the work injury. The treating physician’s opinion was that the narcolepsy was work injury related. A primary dispute at the PTD hearing was whether Claimant’s narcolepsy was related to the injury. It should be noted that the ALJ insulated his opinion, at least as to PTD, by finding that, even if narcolepsy was related to the work injury and disabling, Claimant was still able to earn wages. Regardless, the issue remains over how to untangle the DIME numbers from the physical condition of Claimant and what untangling these things means in a claim.

Incentives: Respondents may have different incentives to contest a body part as not related to the work injury through the progression of the claim. For instance, respondents may elect to pay medical benefits for conditions that may not be part of the work injury. It simply may not be worth challenging treatment for a condition when balancing that issue against the cost of care. In Yeutter, Respondents accepted an impairment rating in the context of a clear and convincing evidence burden over that number. The incentive to challenge the narcolepsy was significantly higher in the context of a PTD, thus the challenge to the narcolepsy.

 

BOTTOM LINE

If further appealed, the Yeutter case may flesh-out some logical inconsistencies. There is a fundamental fairness in not having Claimant go into every hearing prepared to litigate compensability of body parts that have previously been accepted as a part of the work injury in terms of treatment and even impairment. Further, Respondents should make a decision whether or not to challenge a body part as related to the work injury at some determinable point in a claim, knowing that determination will become a part of the claim moving forward. A DIME opinion over relatedness of a body part, whether a component of MMI or impairment, may be that determinable point for that decision. In the alternative, this could be the subject of a legislative fix.

The Workers’ Compensation System as a Prescription for Addiction

The workers’ compensation (WC) system provides the perfect prescription for opioid addiction. There are three types of injured workers that fall into this lair: active addicts, recovered addicts who relapse after taking medications following a work injury, and the neophyte who becomes addicted following their work injury. Thus, the system, although well-intentioned, creates and perpetuates dependency and addiction.

 

A WC claim can provide a lifetime funding source for medication and temporary and permanent disability benefits. One of the most frequent claims is a back claim. Pain cannot be objectively measured. The injured worker complains of pain that is aggravated by work. His physician prescribes opioids and restricts him from working. He is paid for his lost wages. The system for rating permanent impairment automatically qualifies him for an impairment rating after six months of medically documented pain, which then translates to an award of permanent disability benefits often worth as much as –one to two years’ of income.

It is well known that workers with opioid abuse have higher claim costs.

 

While estimates vary, it is believed that the top 5 percent of opioid users likely account for more than half of total opioid use.

When those individuals find their way into the WC system, insignificant injuries turn into nightmare claims. These often involve multiple medical procedures, permanent total disability, and sometimes drug overdose and death. These are difficult and expensive to settle due the thresholds established by Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services requiring that a Medicare Set-Aside fund be established as part of a settlement to ensure Medicare does not have to pay for any medical treatment that it deems to be the responsibility of WC. The lifetime projected cost of the opioid medication alone can often cost half a million dollars.

 

In the late 1990s, it was thought that doctors were undertreating pain and that opioid analgesics could safely ease the suffering. Following the increase in opioid prescriptions, deaths began to escalate. In response, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released new guidelines concerning prescribing opioids for chronic pain in March 2016. According to the CDC, from 1999 through 2014, more than 165,000 people died from opioid-related deaths in the U.S.

 

In 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid medications. That is one prescription for every adult in the U.S.

 

The guidelines have caused some backlash from physicians and patients who believe the government is interfering with the patient-physician relationship. However, there is a fundamental agreement that more oversight and education is needed at all levels.

 

Long-term opioid use can be counterproductive in workers’ compensation and can be a contributing factor in an injured worker not returning to the workplace. The use of opioids for acute pain and cancer pain is accepted, where symptom relief rather than functional outcome is the goal. However, the use of opioids for chronic pain is controversial; it could be contraindicated and may “do harm.” Opioids cause known side effects of hyperalgesia, constipation, hypogonadism, dizziness, drowsiness, overdose potential, etc. The CDC guidelines[1] note that opioid use disorder “is manifested by specific criteria such as an unsuccessful effort to cut down or control use resulting in social problems and a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.”

 

The Colorado Division of Workers’ Compensation (CDOW) issued amended medical treatment guidelines (MTG) for Chronic Pain Disorder and for Chronic Regional Pain effective November 30, 2017. CDOWC relies heavily on the CDC guidelines. The guidelines, though not binding on any physician, are peer-reviewed by both experts in the field and industry stakeholders.

 

The MTG suggest that chronic use of opioids is not recommended if the patient has an active or previous history of substance abuse or for workers in safety-sensitive positions. Opioids for chronic pain should not be prescribed unless there was a failure of pain management alternatives by a motivated patient including active and cognitive behavioral therapies. A full physical and psychological assessment must be performed. The physician must consider risk factors, including history of severe post-operative pain, opioid tolerance, chronic pain, sleep apnea, being off work for over six months, depression, anxiety, psychiatric disease or disorder, history of substance use disorder, complaint of all-over body pain, opioid sensitivities, and history of intrathecal pump use or spinal cord stimulator.

 

When opioids are prescribed, the physician should continue prescriptions only if “meaningful improvement” in pain and function outweighs the risk of continued use. The guidelines recommend that the patients demonstrate a 30 percent improvement in pain scores and function to justify continued opioid use. In other words, opioids must be used as a method to improve function rather than just sustain the status quo condition. The physician should actively review patient history of controlled substances, document improved function, consult the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, and conduct random drug screenings.

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[1] The CDC guidelines can be found at www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm655051e1.htm.


This article was originally published with Best Lawyers® “Legal Insights” on www.BestLawyers.com.”

 

Settlement Procedures in Workers’ Compensation

Member Joseph Gren co-authored an article for the Colorado Lawyer, July 2017 edition. The article, Settlement Procedures in Workers’ Compensation, is an in-depth explanation of the unique procedural requirements governing settlement of Colorado Workers’ Compensation Claims.

The Colorado Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act) has permitted settlement of workers’ compensation claims since at least 1919. As in civil cases, the Act and accompanying Division of Workers’ Compensation (DOWC or Division) rules permit both represented and pro se parties to settle workers’ compensation claims, though there are procedural safeguards unique to the workers’ compensation system. Similar to legal matters outside of the workers’ compensation context, settlement is often an attractive resolution for parties, as settlement can expedite finality and reduce overall risk and exposure. Legal authority for settlement of workers’ compensation claims lies in statute, case law, and the Workers’ Compensation Rules of Procedure (WCRP). DOWC recently amended and renumbered the procedural rules related to settlement effective April 15, 2016, and September 14, 2016.

This article provides a practical overview of the settlement procedure for Colorado workers’ compensation claims and highlights recent changes to administrative rules.

Click this link, or the link in the article name, to read the full article. A new tab will open with the PDF.

LEGISLATIVE UPDATE — FIRST RESPONDERS’ COVERAGE FOR PTSD

2017 saw more legislative action related to workers’ compensation than Colorado has seen for the past few years.  Three bills were introduced in the Colorado Legislature and all three passed.  One of the newly enacted bills, HB 17-1229, was enacted on June 5, 2017, with an effective date of July 1, 2018 (subject to exception)[1].  It amends section 8-41-301, C.R.S., relating to the conditions of recovery for claims of mental impairment.  Under the current law, an employee can file a “mental only” (i.e., there is no associated physical injury) claim only as a result of employment-related situations consisting of a “psychologically traumatic event that is generally outside of a worker’s usual experience and would evoke significant symptoms of distress in a worker in similar circumstances”.   The claimed mental impairment must be proven by the testimony of a licensed physician or psychologist.  Strict judicial interpretation of this statutory language resulted in the de facto disqualification of police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders from the receipt of mental impairment benefits for PTSD claims because violent and bloody incidents, including the deaths of others, were deemed to be within their “usual” work experience.   While it is true some of these professionals do encounter repeat exposure to horrific events as part of their typical work experience without impact, others struggle to secure the coverage and psychiatric care they need to help them deal with gruesome work situations, which might be “expected” in their occupation, but are still somewhat atypical.  Section 8-41-301, C.R.S., as amended, allows workers to claim workers’ compensation coverage for PTSD in a limited set of circumstances, based on repeated exposure to violent incidents.  It also retains the statute’s existing requirement that, outside the few exceptions that apply primarily to peace officers and first responders, mental impairment coverage is implicated only when an incident is outside a worker’s usual experience.  As before, a mental impairment shall not be considered to arise out of and in the course of employment if it results from a disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, lay off, demotion, promotion, termination, retirement, or similar action taken in good faith by the employer. To qualify for mental impairment benefits under the amended statute, the worker must be diagnosed with PTSD by a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist following exposure to one or more of the following events:

 

  • The worker is the subject of an attempt by another person to cause the worker serious bodily injury or death through the use of deadly force, and the worker reasonably believes the worker is the subject of the attempt;
  • The worker visually witnesses a death, or the immediate aftermath of the death, of one or more people as a result of a violent event; or
  • The worker repeatedly visually witnesses the serious bodily injury, or the immediate aftermath of the serious bodily injury, of one or more people as the result of the intentional act of another person or an accident.

 

These changes to the mental impairment statute achieve a balance that is fair to first responders, while maintaining appropriate limitations on coverage for others in nonviolent occupations, and protecting the interests of employers and insurers.  The act applies to injuries sustained on or after its effective date, July 1, 2018.

If you have questions about the recently enacted workers’ compensation legislation, or any questions about workers’ compensation, please contact Lee + Kinder LLC.

 

[1] This act takes effect July 1, 2018; except that, if a referendum petition is filed pursuant to the applicable state constitutional provision, then the act will not take effect unless approved by the people at the November 2018 general election.

OBAMA-ERA FAIR LABOR STANDARDS ACT OVERTIME RULE DEFEATED

Last year, the Department of Labor instituted a new overtime rule under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which required employers to pay a little more than $47,000 annually to qualify under the white-collar exemptions.  This rule had previously been in limbo given that a Texas Federal District Court judge prevented its enforcement last Thanksgiving.  The same judge has now recently struck down the rule permanently.  Accordingly, short of a successful appeal, employers can now feel safe that the new rule will not be implemented.

 

The FLSA requires that employers pay non-exempt employees overtime for any hours worked beyond 40 hours in a week. An employee must satisfy three conditions to be considered exempt from overtime requirements:

 

  1. the employee must be paid a fixed salary;
  2. the salary must meet a minimum threshold; and
  3. the position must meet certain duties requirements applicable to executive, administrative, or professional positions.

 

Under the Obama administration, the DOL more than doubled the minimum salary requirement, taking it from $455 per week to $915 per week. Additionally, the threshold would have been scheduled to increase again in the year 2020 under an automatic 3-year increase the rule sought to implement.

 

Overview of the Recent Decision

The judge determined that the Department of Labor exceeded its authority in promulgating a new rule, with a salary requirement so high to essentially eliminate the requirement that exempt employees perform executive, administrative, or professional duties.  The judge was clear that the Department of Labor still retains the ability to issue a salary threshold test but the Department went too far.  There is no incite from the decision as to what would be a proper threshold.  The effect of this decision is that the Department’s authority to implement a salary test is now limited.

 

Takeaway for Employers

A sigh of relief can now be taken by all employers who did not want to see the exemption salary requirements increased.  Accordingly, employers do not have to raise salaries of exempt employees to meet the rule’s new threshold or change previously exempt employees to non-exempt status where salaries fell below the threshold.  If an employer has already adjusted its compensation scheme to comply with the new rule, it can consider whether reversing course will impact the workforce.

 

Please contact Lee + Kinder LLC with any questions!

SETTLEMENTS POST ENGLAND

The Colorado Supreme Court issued an opinion on May 30, 2017 in England v. Amerigas Propane, 395 P.3d 766 (Colo. 2017).  This case involved settlement of workers’ compensation matters and may even affect settlement of liability matters in a personal injury case.  The case has significant ramifications for employers and carriers moving forward.

 

BACKGROUND

Mr. England was a truck driver for the employer. He injured his shoulder at work in December 2012 and filed a workers’ compensation claim.  He had two surgeries in the first half of 2013 to address the shoulder injury.  Respondents conducted an IME in July 2013 and the physician offered an opinion that the claimant was approaching MMI and would likely reach MMI in about two months.  Claimant agreed to settle his workers’ compensation case in September 2013, despite still having some pain, for $35,000.  The current standard settlement form from the Division was used to settle the claim pursuant to W.C.R.P. 9-9(A). The form contains standard language that cannot be altered per the Rule. Paragraph 4 incorporates the statutory right to reopen for a mutual mistake of material fact under Section 8-43-204(1), C.R.S., and paragraph 6 contains claimant’s waiver of any “unknown injuries.”  Mr. England attempted to reopen his settlement, after it was approved in October 2013, when diagnostic testing revealed a scapular fracture.  It was undisputed that the parties did not know a fracture existed at the time of settlement and there was no evidence that the fracture definitively existed at the time of settlement.  Instead, there was testimony that the fracture could have existed at the time of settlement or could have developed later.  Mr. England’s basis for trying to reopen the settlement was that the scapular fracture was a mutual mistake of material fact and he would not have settled had he known it existed.

At hearing, the ALJ found that the scapular fracture existed at the time of settlement, but reopened the claim on the mutual mistake of fact that the parties believed claimant was approaching MMI when the case was settled.  She further found that, had claimant known that he had a scapular fracture, he would not have settled.  The ALJ’s Order was affirmed at the ICAO level and was appealed further to the Colorado Court of Appeals.  The Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the ICAO and the ALJ’s decisions, finding that the scapular fracture fell into the category of unknown injuries that claimant waived in paragraph 6 of the settlement agreement; ignoring that the mutual mistake relied upon by the ALJ to reopen was that claimant was approaching MMI.

The Colorado Supreme Court took the case and reversed the Colorado Court of Appeals.  The Supreme Court held that the paragraph 6 waiver does not apply to conditions unknown, but existing at the time of settlement.  In this instance, the Supreme Court held that the mutual mistake of fact between the parties was the existence of claimant’s scapular fracture.

 

ANALYSIS

The Colorado Supreme Court has effectively taken two categories of facts existing at the time of settlement, known and unknown, and carved-out a third type of fact that can serve as a basis to reopen settlement, “unknown, but existing facts.”   The logic of this is confusing.  For a fact to be mutually mistaken between the parties, it requires the fact to be known, rather than unknown.  Notwithstanding this logical conundrum, the question remains how to proceed with settlements moving forward.

 

AFTER ENGLAND

The Division settlement form allows for additions in paragraph 9.  9(A) can contain settlement language that is both specific to the settlement agreement and involves an issue that falls within the Workers’ Compensation Act.  Paragraph 9(B) can reference exhibits attached to the settlement agreement related to the workers’ compensation claim, such as Medicare set-aside arrangements.  Paragraph 9(C) can reference other attached written agreements that include matters outside of the Workers’ Compensation Act, such as employment releases, or bad-faith waivers.  Material referenced in paragraphs 9(B) and 9(C) are outside of the enforcement parameters of a Division or Office of Administrative Courts.

Recent attempts have been made to build-around the England decision by including language in paragraph 9(A), and having claimant expressly waive any ability to reopen a claim based on an unknown condition resulting from the work injury.  In some instances, this has been met with objection and a motion to strike this language under 9(A).  At least one pre-hearing conference order has been issued striking this type of language as contrary to the England holding that the paragraph 6 waiver cannot limit the right to reopen under paragraph 4.

Other recent attempts have been made to protect against the effects of the England decision by including terms requiring repayment by claimant of any settlement amounts if the claim is reopened based on a mutually mistaken existing, but unknown, condition.  This has also been met with resistance but Lee + Kinder LLC is unaware of any prehearing conference order striking this type of language.

 

BOTTOM LINE

The England decision certainly disrupts settlements of workers’ compensation claims.  It calls into question the one reason to settle the case, which is finality.  While there is potential for a legislative fix to this problem, settlements need to be negotiated and properly documented until this type of fix can be accomplished.  The England decision can still be built-around.  Agreements under paragraph 9(A) waving the right to reopen based on an unknown, but existing, condition may not work in that location; however, as a separate agreement exhibited under 9(B) and/or 9(C), they should be independently enforceable outside of the workers’ compensation system.  Further, repayment of settlement money in the event of a reopening should be enforceable under 9(A) in the workers’ compensation system or independently under 9(B) and 9(C).  If repayment is not made, whether as a lump or in some other arrangement, there’s also the possibility for stipulated judgment to enter to allow collection of settlement proceeds through civil procedure rules.

Settlements are contracts and there is a freedom of contract issue raised by England.  The Division has limited enforcement capacity and is holding itself by the England decision; however, the parties can agree to terms that can be enforced as contracts, attached as exhibits under 9(B) and 9(C).  Lee + Kinder LLC is using specific language on all settlements that the Firm believes is an enforceable contractual agreement.  If you have questions regarding settlements, Lee + Kinder LLC is happy to answer those questions.

Legal Connection Firm Newsletter – July 2017

Thank you for taking the time to read our Firm newsletter. Our newsletter provides a monthly update on recent developments within our Firm, as well as in the insurance defense community.

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In the News

Member Joseph Gren attended the WBENC National Conference in Las Vegas last month. The WBENC conference was attended by hundreds of corporations who support diversity initiatives in hiring minority owned, women owned, and veteran owned businesses. Many of Lee + Kinder’s clients were among those corporations. Attending the WBENC conference was a powerful experience, affirming the commitment of so many corporations to support businesses like Lee + Kinder, LLC, and other minority and women owned enterprises.

 


Member Joseph Gren and Associate Jenna Zerlynick authored an article for the Colorado Lawyer, July 2017 edition. The article, Settlement Procedures in Workers’ Compensation, is an in-depth explanation of the unique procedural requirements governing settlement of Colorado Workers’ Compensation Claims. Click the link in the article name to read the full article.

 

 


Proposed Rule 16 and 18 Changes for 2018: Utilization Standards and Medical Fee Schedule

Changes are coming for the Workers’ Compensation Rules of Procedure, Rules 16 and 18. The changes to these very important rules will be implemented January 1, 2018. Rule 16 addresses Utilization Standards such as procedures and time frames for prior authorization. Rule 18 addresses the Medical Fee Schedule. The proposed rule changes are currently available on the Division of Workers’ Compensation website for review. A public hearing is scheduled for August 1, 2017 at 9:30 am at the Division of Workers’ Compensation to address the proposed changes. Lee + Kinder will provide updates regarding these important changes as the process moves forward.

Here are some of the key proposals:

  • Rule 16-11(A) – Contest of prior authorization & Rule 16-12 – Contesting payment for non-medical reasons: The medical review, IME report, or report from an ATP that addresses the relatedness of the requested treatment to the admitted claim may precede a prior authorization request.
  • Rule 16-11(E) – IMEs for contesting prior authorization: In order to contest prior authorization with an IME, the IME appointment must occur within 30 days or upon first available appointment of the prior authorization request, but not later than 60 days after the request. The IME report must be issued within 20 days of the IME, and the insurer must respond to the prior authorization request within 5 business days of the receipt of the IME report. If the injured worker does not attend or reschedules the IME, the payer may deny prior authorization requests pending completion of the IME.
  • Rule 16-9 – Notification submissions: These submissions must still be admitted or denied within 5 business days, but the payer may limit the initial approval to the number of treatments/duration listed in the relevant Medical Treatment Guidelines (MTGs). If subsequent medical records document functional progress, then the payer shall pay for the additional number of treatments/treatment duration listed in the relevant MTGs. If the payer proposes to discontinue treatment before the maximum number of treatments/treatment duration has been reached due to lack of functional progress, payer shall support that decision with a medical review compliant with section 16-11(B).
  • The use and definition of telemedicine is expanded.
  • The fee schedule reimbursement for out-of-state providers may be negotiated in excess of the fee scheduled when necessary to obtain reasonable and necessary care.

 


Victory Lap

Joshua Brown AttorneyMember Joshua D. Brown and Associate Kristi Robarge successfully defended an appeal to the Industrial Claim Appeals Office (ICAO) in Alan Dillingham v. SkyWest Airlines, Inc., W.C. No. 5-014-315-01. Claimant sought review of the ALJ’s Order denying compensability and dismissing Claimant’s request for medical benefits. The ALJ determined that Claimant suffered from a substantial pre-existing condition which caused severe degenerative arthritis that was not exacerbated or accelerated by his work activities. The ALJ also determined that Claimant’s need for a total knee arthroplasty was not related to his work activities. Claimant argued that the ALJ erred in finding that he did not suffer an aggravation of his pre-existing condition or, in the alternative, that he suffered a cumulative trauma injury because of the conflicting evidence supporting Claimant’s position. Respondents argued that the ALJ’s factual findings were supported by substantial evidence, given Claimant’s long history of a pre-existing condition, and Respondents’ medical expert’s testimony. ICAO affirmed the Order, finding that there was substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s determinations.
Fran McCracken AttorneyOf Counsel M. Frances McCracken successfully contested a claim that Claimant’s hearing loss was causally related to his work injury and required in-the-canal hearing aids in Martinez v. Walmart Stores, W.C. 5-019-127-01. Claimant did not report any hearing loss until five months post-accident and he initially reported the hearing loss as being chronic. Claimant’s ATP did not have any prior medical records relating to Claimant’s treatment for renal failure or biliary cancer and chemotherapy treatment, both of which are known causes of hearing loss. The ALJ credited Respondents’ medical expert and determined that Claimant’s hearing loss, dizziness, and disequilibrium were not related to the work injury. Claimant’s claim for in-the-canal hearing aids was denied and dismissed along with Claimant’s claim for narcotic pain medications and anti-nausea medications.

 

Of Counsel M. Frances McCracken was successful in a second win by overcoming the DIME’s opinion that Claimant sustained a 27% whole person impairment and defended against Claimant’s claim for additional medical benefits in Jaramillo v. Family Dollar Stores of Colorado, Inc., W.C. 5-000-936-02. Claimant initially suffered an abdominal strain which questionably transitioned to SI joint pain. When placed at MMI, Claimant had full range of motion of her lumbar spine. However, the DIME provided Claimant with a 5% Table 53 impairment rating and a 23% whole person impairment based on loss of range of motion of the lumbar spine. Respondents’ medical expert credibly opined that it was not medically probable that Claimant suffered a discrete injury to her SI joint without immediate pain in that region. Respondents’ medical expert also credibly testified that the DIME physician clearly erred in assigning Claimant’s impairment rating for loss of lumbar range of motion, given the discrepancies in her measurements. The ALJ concluded that Respondents had overcome the DIME opinion by clear and convincing evidence.

Jessica Melson Denver AttorneyAssociate Jessica Melson successfully defended Claimant’s attempt to overcome the DIME and request for home health care in Schaffer v. Patterson-UTI Drilling Company, LLC, W.C. No. 4-946-584. In this case, a DIME found Claimant at MMI with specific disorder impairments to his cervical and lumbar spine. However, the DIME physician excluded range of motion impairment because she determined there was no objective basis for his limited motion. Claimant sought to overcome the DIME. Claimant alleged he was not at MMI because he required psychological evaluation and treatment. He also alleged that the DIME erred in excluding the range of motion measurements because it was not within the DIME physician’s discretion to exclude valid range of motion measurements. Claimant also sought home health care as recommended by the ATP. The ALJ credited the testimony of Respondents’ medical expert that it was within the DIME physician’s discretion to not utilize the range of motion measurements if she did not find that it was Claimant’s true functional range of motion. The ALJ found that Claimant failed to overcome the DIME regarding MMI and impairment. The ALJ also found that Claimant failed to demonstrate the request for home health care was related to the claim, as he was already receiving home health care before the request and Respondents’ medical expert testified it was not reasonable, necessary, and/or related.

 


 

Fran McCracken Legal Analysis

Fran McCracken Attorney Of CounselA FIRST! FDA REQUESTS WITHDRAWAL OF OPANA® ER FROM THE MARKET;
MANUFACTURER ACQUIESCES
Amid the nation’s ongoing and “unprecedented opioid epidemic” (per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), on June 8, 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requested Endo Pharmaceuticals to voluntarily remove its opioid pain medication, reformulated Opana ER (oxymorphone hydrochloride), from the market. The request was based on concerns that the benefits of the drug no longer outweigh its risks related to abuse. This is the first time the FDA has taken steps to remove a currently marketed opioid pain medication due to the public health consequence of abuse.
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Cases You Should Know

How we can be sure this settlement is full AND final?: A recent Colorado Supreme Court ruling provided a significant opinion regarding workers’ compensation settlement agreements. In Victor England v. Amerigas Propane, 395 P.3d 766 (Colo. 2017), the Court found that Claimant’s undiagnosed scapular fracture, at the time he entered into a settlement agreement, constituted a mutual mistake of material fact and allowed Claimant to reopen his claim despite the settlement. Specifically, the issue addressed whether those documents waive an injured worker’s statutorily protected right to reopen a settlement based on mutual mistake of material fact. Respondents were successful on appeal to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which found that the settlement agreements’ waiver provision prohibited reopening of the settlement agreement on grounds of mutual mistake after the injured worker discovered he had an unknown scapula fracture. The injured worker petitioned to have the Colorado Supreme Court review the decision.

The Colorado Supreme Court issued their Order on May 30, 2017. In their decision, the Supreme Court concluded that specifically paragraph six of the settlement agreement form cannot waive or limit an employee’s statutory right to reopen the claim on the grounds of mutual mistake of material fact. The Supreme Court stated that they interpreted paragraph six to be consistent with the settlement statutory provision, C.R.S.§8-43-204(1), and concluded that paragraph six applies only to those “unknown injuries” which develop after a settlement agreement is approved. They concluded that in this case, there was a mutual mistake of material fact and that therefore under paragraph four of the settlement agreement, the injured worker has the right to reopen the claim. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Colorado Court of Appeals and remanded for further proceedings consistent with their opinion.

Moral of the story: This impact of this case on the DOWC form settlement documents and settlements overall is still uncertain. In light of this decision, our Firm has added further language in settlement documents to paragraph 9(a), which allows addendums, to attempt to limit Respondents’ exposure from a claim being reopened under facts similar to the England case. At this time, the language we have implemented to the settlement documents is being accepted and approved, but this issue will likely undergo further scrutiny by the DOWC.

Workers unite! But beware of the Mutual Benefit Doctrine: In Pueblo County v. ICAO, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that union activity cases in Colorado should be analyzed under the Mutual Benefit Doctrine to determine compensability. (May 18, 2017, Colo. Ct. App.). Claimant was injured as a result of a slip and fall following a union meeting after work. The slip and fall occurred in the employer’s parking lot. The Court of Appeals concluded that the union meeting was to facilitate ongoing negotiations concerning a new collective bargaining agreement, which was of mutual benefit to the employer and employee. As such, the Court opined that the Mutual Benefit Doctrine applied. The Mutual Benefit Doctrine states that an injury suffered by an employee while performing a function that is of mutual benefit to the employer and the employee is usually compensable when some advantage to the employer results from the employee’s conduct. The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling and found the claim compensable.

Moral of the Story: Injuries occurring while the employee is engaged in union activities in Colorado will be analyzed under the Mutual Benefit Doctrine to determine compensability. If there is a mutual benefit to employee and employer, the claim will likely be deemed compensable.

A spoonful of medical evidence helps apportionment go down: In Richard Hutchison v. ICAO, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the ALJ and ICAO’s Orders which determined that only one-third of Claimant’s injury was work related. (June 1, 2017, Colo. Ct. App.) Claimant was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in his bilateral knees. At the initial hearing, there were conflicting medical opinions as to whether the arthritis was caused by Claimant’s employment, but the ALJ found that Claimant’s bilateral knee pain was not directly and proximately caused by Claimant’s work. The ALJ adopted the apportionment recommendations of Respondents’ medical expert and attributed one-third of the cause of Claimant’s bilateral arthritis to work-related factors. The ICAO concluded that the ALJ’s Order properly apportioned the injury and was supported by substantial evidence. The Court of Appeals found that both physicians opined that Claimant had an underlying condition prior to the work injury. Furthermore, the Court held that the opinions of Respondents’ medical expert were concrete and not speculative. As such, the Court of Appeals concluded that substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s apportionment findings and held the Panel did not err when it declined to set aside the Order.

Moral of the story: An ALJ’s opinions are not disturbed if supported by medical evidence. In this case, the ALJ’s ruling on apportionment was upheld because it was supported by the medical evidence and expert testimony.

Credibility is in the eye of the beholder – abuse of discretion v. substantial evidence: In Work v. CBC Companies, Inc., W.C. No. 5-002-879-01 (May 15, 2017), Respondents sought review of the ALJ’s Order that determined Claimant’s cervical spine condition was causally related to the industrial incident and held Respondents liable for the costs of the recommended cervical spine surgery. Respondents argued that the ALJ erred in discrediting a medical expert because the expert was unwilling to characterize the recommendations for speculative surgery as medical malpractice. Respondents also argued that the ALJ erred in discrediting another medical expert for using the term “deny” in his report. Respondents contended that the ALJ’s credibility determinations were an abuse of discretion and were not supported by the record. ICAO explained that an appellate review of an ALJ’s credibility determinations was based upon a substantial evidence standard and not an abuse of discretion standard. ICAO noted that an ALJ is not required to articulate the basis for his credibility determinations but in this case he did so. ICAO also noted that it is “bound by the ALJs credibility determinations except in extreme circumstances where the evidence credited is so overwhelmingly rebutted by hard, certain evidence that it would be error as a matter of law to believe such testimony.” ICAO was mindful of Respondents’ complaints but found that the credibility determinations were supported by substantial evidence, and the ALJ’s Order was affirmed.

Moral of the Story: An ALJ’s credibility determination will be upheld as long as there is substantial evidence in the record to support a determination.

A FIRST! FDA REQUESTS WITHDRAWAL OF OPANA® ER FROM THE MARKET; MANUFACTURER ACQUIESCES

Amid the nation’s ongoing and “unprecedented opioid epidemic”, (per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), on June 8, 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requested Endo Pharmaceuticals to voluntarily remove its opioid pain medication, reformulated Opana ER (oxymorphone hydrochloride), from the market. The request was based on concerns that the benefits of the drug no longer outweigh its risks related to abuse. This is the first time the FDA has taken steps to remove a currently marketed opioid pain medication due to the public health consequence of abuse.

Opana ER is an opioid first approved in 2006 for the treatment of moderate to severe pain when a continuous, around-the-clock opioid analgesic is deemed necessary. In 2012, Opana ER was reformulated to deter snorting and injecting. While the new product met the FDA’s standards for approval, based on new information about the risks associated with the reformulated product, the agency is now taking steps to remove Opana ER from the market.

Janet Woodcock, M.D., Director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, indicated, “The abuse and manipulation of reformulated Opana ER by injection has resulted in serious disease outbreak. When we determined the product had dangerous unintended consequences, we made a decision to request its withdrawal from the market. This action will protect the public from further potential misuse and abuse of this product.”

The FDA requested the manufacturer, Endo International, voluntarily remove reformulated Opana ER from the market. In another first, Endo has announced its plan to voluntarily comply with the FDA’s request. In a July 6, 2017 press release, Endo announced plans to work with the FDA to coordinate the orderly removal of the pain medication, “in a manner that looks to minimize treatment disruption and allows patients sufficient time to seek guidance from the health care professionals.”

The FDA has indicated it will continue to examine the risk-benefit profile of all approved opioid analgesic products and take further actions as appropriate as part of its response to the opioid public health crisis. For further information, read the FDA News Release.

 

What can you do to help manage the chronic prescription of opioids or narcotics on your claims?

• Obtain an independent medical evaluation if:
1. Opioids are prescribed for complaints of pain and there are inconsistencies in the diagnosis and objective findings;
2. There is no reported reduction in pain levels with ongoing prescription of opioids or narcotics;
3. There is no demonstrable improvement in function, including return to work, with ongoing prescription of opioids or narcotics;
4. Abuse, addiction, or deviation is suspected.

 

• Colorado’s Medical Treatment Guidelines address the appropriate use of Narcotics/Opioids in workers’ compensation claims including the following recommendations:
1. Screening for potential alcohol and drug abuse problems, as well as co-morbid psychiatric conditions, to identify those claimants who may be prone to dependence or abuse;
2. Long-term narcotics or opioids should only be offered after other therapies have failed to improve function;
3. Narcotics or opioids should result in demonstrable improvements in function, not just reported pain relief;
4. Random urine drug screens are required by the Guidelines for the chronic prescription of opioids or narcotics;
5. A narcotic pain contract, and compliance therewith, is required by the Guidelines for long term prescription of opioids or narcotics;
6. Periodic re-evaluation of function and side-effects is required for ongoing narcotic or opioid prescriptions;
7. Tapering and discontinuance of opioid or narcotic prescriptions are required when patient goals are not being met.

 

• Medical Utilization Review:
Provides a statutory, tiered, neutral medical review of the reasonableness and necessity of an authorized treating provider’s care, including the prescription of narcotic and opioid medications.
If you have any questions about challenging the ongoing prescription of narcotics or opioid pain medications, or any claim-related medical treatment, please contact any of the attorneys at LEE + KINDER, LLC. We are always glad to discuss the facts of your case and work towards the most efficient way to end unreasonable, unnecessary, and/or unrelated medical treatment.

To File or Not to File? That is the Question

An incident takes place within the course and scope of claimant’s employment.  Claimant is confirmed to have sustained an injury but does not miss any time from work.  No permanent impairment is anticipated.  What the adjuster has is characterized as what most of us refer to as a “med-only claim.”   Throughout the course of the claim, claimant receives conservative treatment without any recommendation for surgery.  The claimant is eventually placed at MMI with no impairment.  There is no reason to challenge the claim as you believe the injury is legitimate.  You’re home free!   All you have to do is file the Final Admission of Liability (FAL), wait the statutory 30-day period, and when claimant fails to object, you can close your claim and move on to the next one.  Right?  Not exactly.

 

Most workers’ compensation claims are med-only claims.  In fact, more than two-thirds of claims in Colorado are med-only claims that are never reported to the Division.  When most carriers file a FAL due to claimant reaching MMI on a med-only claim, they do so because they are seeking finality.  Perhaps the employer wants to admit in good faith and make sure that it is noted with the Division that the claimant was taken care of and that there is no challenge to the claim.  Perhaps the carrier requires that a FAL be filed on all admitted claims when a claimant reaches MMI.  Oftentimes, a FAL is filed on a med-only claim to avoid confusion later should something happen.  Whatever the reasoning may be, the adjuster may want to think twice about filing the Final Admission of Liability on a med-only claim due to a recent Industrial Claims Appeals Office opinion and a prior Court of Appeals decision.

 

In Kazazian v. Vail Resorts, W.C. No. 4-915-969 (April 24, 2017), the Industrial Claims Appeals Office reversed the findings of an ALJ that found a med-only claim was closed because the Claimant failed to object to the FAL.  The facts of the claim were simple:  Claimant sustained an injury when she slipped and fell at work and sustained a concussion, she didn’t miss any time from work while treatment took place, and she was eventually placed at MMI without impairment by the authorized treating physician.  The Employer filed a FAL based on the authorized treating physicians’ findings and the Claimant didn’t object within the statutory 30-day requirement.  A significant time later, Claimant began to experience hearing loss. She went to an audiologist for treatment.  The Claimant suspected that her hearing loss was due to the work-related event from a couple of years prior.  The Claimant contacted the adjuster and asked that certain medical apparatuses prescribed by the audiologist be covered under the workers’ compensation claim.  The adjuster refused, citing the FAL and noting that the claimant did not timely object.  The claim was presumed closed.

 

At the hearing, the ALJ agreed with Respondents that the Claimant failed to timely object to the Final Admission and request a DIME.  However, on appeal, the Panel reversed the decision and noted that a FAL that does not admit for indemnity benefits cannot serve to “close” a claim since there was nothing triggering any statutory provisions in the Act for which reopening due to a worsening of condition or requesting a DIME can be sought.  Simply put, a Final Admission of Liability on a med-only claim raises no implications of closure.  You cannot close something that was not significant to begin with.  Citing from a Court of Appeals prior decision, “the statutory consequences of a finding of “maximum medical improvement” can apply only to injuries as to which disability indemnity is payable.”  Given this caveat in the law, the ultimate question is how does an employer or insurance carrier seek closure on a med-only claim?   The answer may be simpler than first thought.

 

By its very nature, a med-only claim is usually not an impactful claim of such severity to require reporting.  In fact, the Act carves out an exception to med-only claims making it easy for employers and carriers to deal with them without being bogged down in paperwork.  Section 8-43-101(1) states, “Every employer shall keep a record of all injuries that result in fatality to, or permanent physical impairment of, or lost time from work for the injured employee in excess of three shifts or calendar days and the contraction by an employee of an occupational disease that has been listed by the director by rule.  Within ten days after notice or knowledge that an employee has contracted such an occupational disease, or the occurrence of a permanently physically impairing injury, or lost-time injury to an employee, or immediately in the case of a fatality, the employer shall, upon forms prescribed by the division for that purpose, report said occupational disease, permanently physically impairing injury, lost-time injury, or fatality to the division. The report shall contain such information as shall be required by the director.”

 

The key portion of the statute deals with lost time and permanent impairment.  If neither of the requirements is met, nothing has to be reported.   If one of the criteria is met, the Act requires that the insurance carrier take a position on the claim within 20 days.  You may even receive a letter from the Division with big bold letters emblazoned on it indicating the insurance carrier has 20 days to file either a Notice of Contest or a General Admission or else Respondents could be sanctioned in the form of monetary penalties.   When the claimant reaches MMI in a med-only claim, most carriers file a FAL; however, it may be good practice to not file anything UNLESS you receive the letter in question from the Division.   Most med-only claims are closed within a few weeks or months.   When a claimant comes back months, or sometimes years later, to seek additional treatment, how does one know if the problem that is allegedly occurring is due to the original event?  A significant amount of time may have passed.  Claimant may be working for another Employer.  Should the adjuster just voluntarily admit and pay benefits?  Typically, the answer is no.

 

Given the caveat in the law that is becoming commonplace among the courts, it is recommended not to file anything in response to a treating physicians’ placement of a claimant at MMI.  This is because the carrier can always challenge the claim on causation grounds later down the road should the claimant return and want to seek additional treatment or claim that indemnity is owed.  Recall that payment of medical benefits is neither an admission nor a denial under the Act.  Even if the Respondents pay for treatment and characterize a claim as a med-only claim for purposes of payment, if no pleadings are ever filed with the Division, Respondents retain the right to file a Notice of Contest should a claimant return in the future seeking additional benefits.  At that time, Respondents can further investigate the causation of the claimant’s ongoing complaints either through a medical records review, IME, or other means such as surveillance.  Oftentimes, the mere passage of time and questioning of the claimant will give rise to answers which would allow the adjuster to deny the claim outright, even though at first the claim was payable in good faith.  The overall thought is that it is much easier to challenge causation and be cautious with a Notice of Contest for further investigation than it is to go back in time and withdraw a previously filed admission, regardless of the type of admission that it is.

 

If you have any questions regarding what next steps to take when dealing with med-only claims, please contact us.   If you get a phone call from a claimant wanting more benefits from a claim you thought was closed, please contact any of the attorneys at our firm.  We will be more than happy to chat about the facts of the particular case and devise the best strategy which will hopefully avoid the reopening of a “closed” claim.

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