The Legal Buzz – Lee & Brown Newsletter and Case Law Update July 2018
In Heien v. DW Crossland, LLC, Member Joseph W. Gren successfully established that Claimant willfully failed to obey a reasonable safety rule adopted by the Employer, entitling Respondents to a reduction of non-medical benefits by 50%. On October 14, 2017, Claimant sustained an amputation injury to his right upper extremity after placing his arm inside a running commercial washing machine. Mr. Gren presented significant evidence that Claimant had been adequately trained in how to properly use the machine and was additionally aware of several safety warnings and the proper safety mechanisms available to stop the machine. Claimant testified that by placing his arm into the running washing machine, he was intentionally violating a safety rule. The ALJ found that Claimant’s activities demonstrated that he deliberately violated the Employer’s safety rule regarding proper operation of the washing machine. Therefore, the ALJ held Respondents were entitled to a 50% reduction in non-medical benefits.
In Corbishley v. Walmart Associates Incorporated, Member John Abraham, successfully overcame the DIME physician’s opinion that Claimant was not at MMI for her left wrist/thumb and left knee. Claimant sustained an admitted work-related injury to her left knee and bilateral hands when she slipped and fell on a grease spot in a parking lot on July 27, 2014. Claimant ultimately underwent a total knee replacement, a right thumb arthroplasty, a left thumb arthroplasty, and a left thumb revision arthroplasty. Mr. Abraham successfully demonstrated that Claimant’s left knee complaints and issues at the time of the DIME were not a result of the work-related injury but were due to non-claim related osteoarthritis of the left knee and the natural history and progression of the disease. The ALJ found that Claimant would have required a total left knee replacement regardless of whether she fell at work. Specifically, the ALJ credited Respondents’ medical experts over the opinions of Claimant’s expert and the DIME physician in finding that the July 2014 injury did not change, aggravate, or accelerate her significant pre-existing disease process. Regarding the left wrist/thumb injury, Mr. Abraham successfully demonstrated with objective evidence, along with the opinions of Respondents’ medical experts, that the need for further surgery was due to her underlying degenerative disease process, and was not aggravated or accelerated by her work injury. In addition, the ALJ denied maintenance medical benefits, as any need for continued treatment was due to Claimant’s underlying and pre-existing degenerative conditions.
In Carl Ross v. US Engineering, W.C. 5-044-829, Of Counsel Sheila Toborg and Associate Evan Thompson successfully defended against Claimant’s request for authorization of left shoulder surgery. Claimant suffered an admitted injury to his left shoulder in January 2017 and a Final Admission was filed in February 2018. Two surgeons opined that Claimant required surgical intervention to repair a torn rotator cuff. At hearing, Ms. Toborg elicited testimony from Respondents’ medical expert that Claimant suffered from end-stage rotator cuff pathology that resulted in massive tearing of the rotator cuff. Respondents’ medical expert also testified that the MRI scan performed 8 weeks after the incident did not demonstrate any evidence of an acute injury or acute acceleration. The ALJ found Respondents’ medical expert’s opinion credible that the work injury did not accelerate Claimant’s pre-existing left shoulder condition beyond its normal rate of progression and it was Claimant’s end-stage rotator cuff pathology which resulted in the need for further surgery, rather than the work-related injury. The ALJ found that Claimant failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the recommended left shoulder surgery was causally related to the January 2017 injury and Claimant’s request for left shoulder superior capsular reconstruction was denied.
Of Counsel M. Frances McCracken successfully challenged Claimant’s request for maintenance medical treatment in Grant v. Walmart Associates, Inc. As a result of the work injury, Claimant underwent a left hip arthroplasty and began to experience pain. Claimant sought continuation of pain and sleep medications to address his left hip pain. Ms. McCracken presented evidence from the testimony of two medical experts that opined narcotic pain and sleep medication were neither a reasonable or necessary medical benefit to maintain Claimant’s MMI status. Ms. McCracken successfully demonstrated that the prescribing physician had not maintained a record of Claimant’s functional history nor set forth functional goals. The ALJ noted Claimant did not sign a pain contract. The ALJ cited the testimony of Respondents’ experts and ordered Claimant be weaned off the opiate and sleep medication.
Of Counsel M. Frances McCracken also successfully established that Claimant was responsible for his termination in Rollins v. Beco, Inc. Claimant was employed with Employer as a commercial truck driver. On March 14, 2017, Claimant was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident when the semi-tractor he was driving traveled off the right side of Interstate 70, collided with a fence, and subsequently collided with a mountain. Claimant was taken to a local hospital and administered a urinalysis. The results were positive for amphetamines and MDMA. A subsequent search of the tractor-trailer by Claimant’s coworkers uncovered drug paraphernalia. Ms. McCracken presented evidence of the Employer’s “Drug, Alcohol, and Controlled Substances Policy,” that provided for immediate termination upon a resultant positive test revealing the presence of a controlled substance in an employee operating a company vehicle. The ALJ found that the evidence established, more likely than not, that Claimant’s termination was due to the results of a drug urine screen that he completed and due to the drug related paraphernalia found in the tractor-trailer after it was towed back to the Employer’s facility. The ALJ found Claimant responsible for his termination as there was ample evidence that he violated the Employer’s drug policy. Any lost wages after Claimant’s termination were not the result of the industrial injury.
Of Counsel M. Frances McCracken also successfully defended a full contest claim in Epperson v. Allied Universal. Claimant alleged that he slipped and fell while walking on a flat top roof on December 8, 2016. Claimant reported both legs twisted inwards and he fell back onto his lower back. Claimant’s reported injuries would ultimately include strain of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, strain of the bilateral shoulders and bilateral knees, and a closed head injury and possible loss of consciousness. Ms. McCracken successfully demonstrated through substantial medical records that Claimant had inconsistencies in both his hearing testimony and the information he provided to his physicians, including during an IME. Respondents’ medical expert noted Claimant had an inconsistent and normal physical examination, an inconsistent mechanism of injury, and non-physiological findings, together with symptom magnification. The ALJ did not find the Claimant credible as to how he allegedly fell, the alleged symptoms caused by the fall, or the alleged injuries caused by the fall. The ALJ held that Claimant did not suffer an injury that required medical treatment or caused any disability or medical impairment. The claim was denied and dismissed.
In Campbell v. Wrangler Well Service, Inc. and New Hampshire Insurance Company & Travelers Indemnity Company, Of Counsel William Sterck successfully established that carrier liability belonged with Travelers and not New Hampshire Insurance Company. The parties stipulated, and the ALJ found, that Respondent New Hampshire’s coverage ended on April 13, 2017 and Respondent Travelers insurance coverage began on the same day. The last injurious exposure for bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome was June 15, 2017, when Travelers was on the risk. Mr. Sterck presented evidence that Claimant’s condition progressed to include additional symptoms,ultimately leading Claimant to seek medical treatment after the change of coverage. The ALJ found that there was a substantial and permanent aggravation of the bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome after the coverage change to Travelers. Specifically, the ALJ credited the opinion of Respondent New Hampshire’s medical expert that attributed the last injurious exposure to Claimant’s work after April 13, 2017. The ALJ held that Respondent Travelers was solely and fully liable for all workers’ compensation benefits, including medical benefits.
Cases You Should Know
“All In” on Maintenance? Prove It: In Schroeder v. Thorn Emi North America, W.C. No. 3-840-625 (May 7, 2018), Claimant sought review of an Order by the ALJ which denied and dismissed all claims for post-MMI medical maintenance treatment. Respondents filed an admission for maintenance medical care and later obtained an IME opinion that no further medical treatment was causally related to the original industrial injury. Claimant subsequently filed an Application for Hearing, endorsing (among other issues) medical benefits to challenge denial of specific medical treatments. The ALJ found that Claimant had not sustained her burden of proof to establish a right to medical treatment after July 26, 2015, and denied all further care on the basis that Claimant had not proven that the disputed treatment was causally related to the injury. Upon review, ICAO affirmed but modified the ALJ’s Order to reflect that only the specific maintenance medical benefits sought by Claimant, from July 26, 2015 through the date of the ALJ’s Order, were denied. ICAO found that, while Claimant had the burden to prove entitlement to specific medical benefits after MMI (see Snyder v. ICAO, 942 P.2d 1337 (Colo. App. 1997)) Respondents would have the burden to prove that Claimant should not be entitled to all further post-MMI maintenance care. Where Respondents seek to modify an entire award of maintenance care, they bear the burden of proof. § 8-43-201(1), C.R.S.
Moral of the Story: When there is an admission for maintenance care, Claimant has the burden to prove entitlement to a specific treatment if Respondents have denied this treatment. However, if Respondents want to terminate the entire award of maintenance care (i.e. all further care), they bear the burden of proof to show that no further care is reasonable, necessary, or related to the original injury.
Treatment Turns on an ATP, not a DIME: In Torres v. City and County of Denver, W.C. No. 4-937-329 (May 15, 2018), Respondents sought to overcome a DIME and review of an ALJ’s Order directing Respondents to authorize a cervical surgery recommended by a DIME physician. The DIME had found that Claimant was not at MMI and that cervical surgery was reasonable, necessary, and related. However, no ATP, within the chain of referrals, had recommended cervical surgery. An ALJ lacks jurisdiction to order an ATP to provide a particular treatment prescribed by an unauthorized provider. See Short v. Property Management of Telluride, W.C. No. 3-100-726 (May 4, 1996). Under W.C.R.P. 11-2(G), a DIME physician is not an authorized provider. ICAO therefore found that the ALJ could not order Respondents to pay for a surgery recommended by a DIME, where no authorized provider had recommended the surgery. ICAO affirmed the ALJ’s Order overcoming the DIME, but modified the Order to reflect that the ALJ only had authority to hold Respondents liable for treatment recommended by an authorized provider.
Moral of the Story: The DIME is not an authorized provider and an ALJ does not have authority to direct Respondents to pay for treatment recommended only by the DIME where there is no support from an ATP within the chain of referrals.
Access to DIME = Procedural, Not Medical, Analysis: In Tynnae Fisher v. University of Colorado Health, W.C. No. 5-041-216-01 (June 12, 2018), Respondents sought review of the supplemental Order of the ALJ that authorized the Claimant to request a DIME. Claimant sustained an admitted injury to her cervicothoracic and lumbar regions. After receiving conservative medical treatment, Claimant was placed at MMI by her ATP. Respondents filed a FAL acknowledging that no temporary benefits were owed and admitted for 0% permanent impairment. Claimant disputed the FAL and requested a DIME review. Claimant’s request was stricken at a prehearing conference as the DIME request was deemed premature. Claimant scheduled a hearing to contest the Order of the PALJ. The ALJ reversed the ruling of the PALJ and resolved the Claimant was presently entitled to commence with a DIME review. Respondents appealed the Order, contending it was subject to review as it required Respondents to pay medical benefits associated with the DIME. Upon review, ICAO noted the DIME procedure is not for the purpose of medical treatment. Rather, it “serves as an evidentiary function in the process of litigating disputes.” Ince v. Southwest Memorial Hospital, W.C. No. 4-535-488 (April 19, 2004). The DIME is a function of the litigation process by which each side gathers and presents evidence in support of or in opposition to the claim. Any costs incurred by the respondents in facilitating a DIME review may not be characterized as a requirement to pay a medical benefit. ICAO held that the ALJ’s Order was procedural in nature. As such, the Order was not final and subject to review. Therefore, ICAO affirmed that the issue could not be considered at this time.
Moral of the Story: Any costs respondents incur facilitating the DIME process are part of the procedural litigation process and not medical treatment. The availability of the DIME process is a procedural determination made by the ALJ.
Rules Can’t Bend a Statute: In Vazquez Cruz v Lancelot Inc., W.C. No. 5-040-419 (ICAO May 17, 2018), Respondents sought review of an Order awarding Claimant $5,000.00 in disfigurement benefits. Claimant sustained an admitted work place facial burn injury. Claimant was placed at MMI and Respondents filed a FAL on April 13, 2018. On July 10, 2018, Claimant filed an Application for Hearing for disfigurement benefits. Respondents moved to strike the Application for Hearing pursuant to C.R.S. § 8-43-203 contending the Application was barred, as it was filed more than 30 days subsequent to the FAL. C.R.S. § 8-43-203 states that a case will be automatically closed as to the issues admitted in the FAL if Claimant does not, within 30 days, contest the FAL in writing. The Claimant contended that Rule 10 of the Office of Administrative Courts Procedural Rules for Workers’ Compensation Hearings allows for an extended period within which a Claimant may pursue an award for disfigurement. Rule 10 states that an Application for Hearing regarding disfigurement must be filed within 6 months from the date of injury or date of surgery. The ALJ agreed with Claimant’s counsel and found Rule 10 allowed a scar to be evaluated for an award of disfigurement benefits “at any time” subsequent to 6 months of rehabilitation, regardless of the 30-day limit. Respondents appealed the decision and argued Rule 10 does not serve to amend C.R.S. § 8-43-203, allowing an award of disfigurement benefits following the 30-day closure of the claim. The Panel found Respondents admitted for disfigurement at $0 and Claimant failed to dispute the disfigurement amount within 30 days. The Panel set aside the Order, stating that an administrative rule may not expand, enlarge, or modify an underlying statute.
Moral of the story: Final Admissions of Liability must admit for all benefits in order to close the claim following the 30-day deadline, pursuant to C.R.S. § 8-43-203.
The ALJ Tips the Scales of Evidence: In Hernandez v ABC Pro Painting, LLC, W.C. No. 5-027-576 (ICAO May 23, 2018), Claimant was working as a painter for the employer when he fell off a ladder injuring his low back. The parties went to an initial hearing on the issues of compensability, whether Claimant was an independent contractor, medical benefits, and penalties for failure to carry workers’ compensation insurance. The ALJ found Claimant was not an independent contractor, that he sustained a compensable injury, and that he was entitled to medical and temporary indemnity benefits. The ALJ also assessed penalties for violating C.R.S. § 8-43-408(1). Respondents appealed on the sole argument that the substantial evidence in the record supported the conclusion that Claimant was an independent contractor and not an employee. The Panel noted there is no precise number or combination of factors which are decisive in determining whether a Claimant is an employee or independent contractor. The Panel found the ALJ applied a totality of the circumstances test and found Claimant to be an employee. The panel opined that they had no authority to substitute their judgement for that of the ALJ concerning sufficiency and the probative weight of the evidence that was presented. The Panel affirmed the ALJ, finding his opinions were supported by substantial evidence.
Moral of the Story: It is very difficult to overcome the factual determination of an ALJ. The Industrial Claim Appeals Office will not reweigh the evidence to reach a result contrary to that of the ALJ.