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2001 MTWCC 37
WCC No. 2000-0077
Summary of Case: Claimant, a registered nurse, suffers from an occupational disease involving both of her shoulders and cannot return to her time-of-injury job. However, she was determined to be at maximum medical improvement and released to work for a job identified by a vocational consultant as appropriate for her. Nonetheless, she claims she cannot return to work and is entitled to temporary total disability benefits.
Held: Claimant is no longer entitled to temporary total disability benefits since she has reached MMI. 39-71-701 (1997). The insurer complied with the notice requirements of section 39-7-609 (1997-1999) and, even though not applicable, with the Coles requirements. No determination is made as to whether claimant is permanently totally or permanently partially disabled since those issues were not raised. Attorney fees are denied since claimant did not prevail and the insurer's termination of benefits was reasonable.
¶1 The trial in this matter was held on February 21, 2001, in Helena, Montana. Petitioner, Marsha Daulton (claimant), was present and represented by Mr. John C. Doubek. Respondent, MHA Workers' Compensation Trust (MHA), was represented by Mr. G. Andrew Adamek.
¶2 Exhibits: Exhibits 1 through 13 were admitted without objection.
¶3 Witnesses and Depositions: The parties submitted the depositions of claimant, Margot Hart, and Kenneth V. Carpenter, M.D. for the Court's consideration. Claimant, Margot Hart, Larry Daulton, Janice Edgar, and Gerry Blackman were sworn and testified. A trial transcript was not prepared.
¶4 Issues Presented: As set forth in the Pretrial Order, the following issues are presented for decision:
¶5 Having considered the Pretrial Order, the testimony presented at trial, the demeanor and credibility of the witnesses, the depositions and exhibits, and the arguments of the parties, the Court makes the following:
¶6 Claimant is 47 years old. She was licensed as a Practical Nurse (LPN) in 1986 and thereafter worked as an LPN on the surgical floor at St. Peter's Hospital (St. Peter's) for approximately ten years. (Daulton Dep. at 8-9, 14.) In 1995 she was licensed as an RN and was thereafter hired in a RN position as a "float nurse" at St. Peter's. As a float nurse she worked in different areas of the hospital, however, she worked mostly in surgery. (Id. at 19-20, 22.)
¶7 During her employment at St. Peter's, claimant began experiencing right shoulder pain. The parties agree that as of September 10, 1997, claimant was suffering from an occupational disease (OD) of her right shoulder. (Uncontested Fact No. 1.) MHA, which insured St. Peter's at the time, accepted liability for her disease. (Uncontested Fact No. 2.)
¶8 Claimant was referred by St. Peter's to Dr. Allen Weinert, a physiatrist, for treatment. He initially saw her on September 22, 1997. At that time, her primary complaints were of constant pain in the right shoulder and intermittent numbness into the right arm. (Ex. 4 at 109.) Dr. Weinert diagnosed mild right rotator cuff tendinitis, right cervical and scapular region myofascial pain, and mild right thoracic outlet syndrome. (Id. at 111.) He prescribed physical therapy and approved claimant to work on the obstetrical floor at St. Peter's, however, he disapproved her working in surgery. (Id.)
¶9 Claimant continued to have shoulder pain and on October 30, 1997, she saw Dr. Carpenter, an orthopedic surgeon. (Daulton Dep. at 28; Carpenter Dep. at 5.) Her pain continued and on November 20, 1997, an MRI was done. It showed "impingement on the supraspinatus muscular tendon complex by the acromion process," and "a partial tear at the junction of the of the supraspinatus muscular rendon complex." (Ex. 5 at 124.) On January 7, 1998, Dr. Carpenter performed rotator cuff surgery on claimant's right shoulder. (Carpenter Dep. at 10; Ex. 5 at 125-26.)
¶10 Claimant returned to work at St. Peter's in March or April, 1998, in a part-time, non-nursing position. She was assigned to assist St. Peter's in developing a database of latex-free products. (Daulton Dep. at 29, 56.) She called manufacturers and distributors of latex-free products and entered data regarding the products into a computer. (Daulton Dep. at 29, 34.) She worked approximately two hours a day, four days a week. (Ex. 9 at 291.) Although claimant had minimal computer skills, she was able to do her assigned job. (Id.)
¶11 By the end of March, however, claimant was experiencing weakness when elevating her right arm. (Carpenter Dep. at 13; Ex. 1 at 8.) On April 22, 1998, Dr. Carpenter noted that her range of motion was decreasing. (Id.) Meanwhile, claimant's left arm began hurting.
¶12 Claimant quit working altogether on July 17, 1998, and has not worked since that time.
¶13 On July 27, 1998, Dr. Carpenter examined claimant's left shoulder. (Ex. 1 at 18.) X-rays showed a narrowing of the acromioclavicular (AC) joint, i.e. the shoulder joint. (Ex. 1 at 18.) Dr. Carpenter diagnosed a strain of the left rotator cuff with exacerbation of AC joint arthritis. (Id.)
¶14 On September 14, 1998, Dr. Carpenter noted that claimant was still having pain in both of her shoulders and suggested she continue physical therapy. (Ex. 1 at 20; Ex. 8 at 224.) He disapproved her return to work as a floor nurse and opined that she might never be able to return to that kind of work. (Carpenter Dep. at 17; Ex. 1 at 20.)
¶15 On January 19, 1999, claimant underwent a functional capacities evaluation (FCE). (Ex. 2 at 30-42.) Due to claimant's pain during the examination, the physical therapist was unable to assess her work capacity. (Ex. 2 at 31.)
¶16 On February 17, 1999, Dr. Carpenter found claimant to be at maximum medical improvement (MMI) with respect to her right shoulder and assigned her an 8% whole person impairment rating. (Carpenter Dep. at 19 and Dep. Ex. at 5.)
¶17 On April 14, 1999, Dr. Carpenter found claimant at MMI with respect to her left shoulder and rated her left shoulder impairment at 4% of the whole person. (Carpenter Dep. Ex. at 3.)
¶18 On May 9, 1999, Dr. Weinert examined claimant at the request of MHA. (Ex. 4 at 118.) It was his opinion that:
(Id. at 119.) He reviewed several job analyses submitted to him by Cheryl Holmes, a vocational consultant hired by the insurer. He disapproved jobs as a home health nurse and office nurse. (Ex. 4 at 120, 122; Ex. 8 at 279-286.) However, he approved her to work as a RN Diabetes Coordinator. (Ex. 4 at 121; Ex. 8 at 271-74.) He also conditionally approved her working as a nurse case manager, noting that she could work that job only if she did not have to reach or lift above the shoulder level. (Ex. 4 at 123; Ex. 8 at 275-78.)
¶19 Based upon Dr. Weinert's report, on May 25, 1999, MHA gave claimant 14 days' written notice terminating her temporary total disability benefits. (Ex. 10 at 306.) But, after correspondence with claimant's attorney, MHA reinstated her benefits.
¶20 Claimant continued to experience pain in both shoulders. Dr. Carpenter injected claimant's left shoulder with a steroid solution on June 28, 1999, but the treatment was ineffective. (Ex. 1 at 22.) He ordered another MRI. The MRI disclosed a partial intrasubstance tear of the supraspinatus tendon and degenerative changes of the AC joint. (Carpenter Dep. at 21.) Despite the MRI results, Dr. Carpenter did not recommend further surgery or other treatment. (Id.)
¶21 On November 9, 1999, Dr. Carpenter provided MHA's attorney with his assessment of claimant's condition and her ability to return to work:
(Ex. 1 at 3.)
¶22 Based on Dr. Carpenter's evaluation, on November 24, 1999, MHA gave claimant a 14-day written notice that her benefits were being terminated. (Ex. 10 at 311.) That letter stated in relevant part:
(Id.) The job descriptions referenced in the letter had previously been sent to claimant's attorney. (Id. at 310.) A copy of Dr. Carpenter's November 9, 1999 report was sent directly by Dr. Carpenter to claimant's attorney at the time it was made. (Ex. 1 at 3.) Dr. Weinert's report of May 7, 1999, indicating MMI and releasing claimant for the positions had been sent to claimant May 25, 1999. (Ex. 10 at 306.)
¶23 Claimant's benefits were terminated in accordance with the November 24, 1999 notice.
¶24 Claimant has continued treating with Dr. Carpenter, however, she is not receiving any ongoing treatment other than medications.
¶25 The only issues in this case are whether claimant is entitled to reinstatement of temporary total disability (TTD) benefits and, if so, to attorney fees and costs. I therefore limit my findings to the elements required for reinstatement of TTD benefits and the reasonableness of the insurer's conduct in refusing to reinstate the benefits.
¶26 As an initial matter, the evidence that claimant reached MMI prior to the cut-off of her TTD benefits is clear and unrebutted. Dr. Carpenter found her at MMI with respect to both of her shoulders prior to the termination of benefits. Even though claimant testified that her right shoulder condition has worsened since surgery (Daulton Dep. at 44), neither Dr. Carpenter nor Dr. Weinert has prescribed further treatment which might materially improve her condition, and she has presented no evidence that further treatment at this time would materially benefit her. I find that she had reached MMI at the time her TTD benefits were terminated and that she was still at MMI at the time of trial.
¶27 I further find that prior to the termination of TTD benefits the claimant was released to "return to work in some capacity." § 39-71-609(2), MCA (1997). Dr. Weinert gave unqualified approval to her return to work as a RN Diabetes Coordinator, a position identified by a vocational consultant as appropriate for claimant. Dr. Carpenter seconded Dr. Weinert's release. While claimant and her husband provided testimony that may support a finding that she might not be able to perform the job on account of pain, and Dr. Carpenter acknowledged that possibility (see ¶ 14), that testimony goes to the merits of a claim for permanent partial or permanent total disability, issues which are not before the Court.
¶28 The insurer did not act unreasonably in terminating the claimant's TTD benefits.
CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
¶29 The 1997 version of the Workers' Compensation Act applies since that was the law in effect on the date of claimant's alleged injury. Buckman v. Montana Deaconess Hospital, 224 Mont. 318, 321, 730 P.2d 380, 382 (1986).
¶30 Section 39-71-701, MCA (1997), governs claimant's temporary total disability benefits. It provides that such benefits cease upon the claimant's reaching a status of maximum medical healing or her release to return to work in the same position or a modified or alternative position at an equivalent or higher wages. The section provides in relevant part:
As applied to the present case, claimant's entitlement to TTD benefits ceased when she reached MMI.
¶31 However, the section must also be read together with section 39-71-609, MCA (1997), which governs termination of claimant's temporary total disability benefits. § 1-2-101, MCA ("Where there are several provisions or particulars, such a construction is, if possible, to be adopted as will give effect to all."); Gibson v. State Compensation Mut. Ins. Fund, 255 Mont. 393, 396, 842 P.2d 338, 340 (1992) ("When called upon to interpret several different provisions [of a statute] this Court will, if possible, construe the statutes so as to give effect to all of them.").
¶32 Section 39-71-609, MCA, provides:
In this case, the prerequisites for cutting off TTD benefits were met. Claimant had reached MMI when her benefits were terminated, thus under section 39-71-701, MCA, she was no longer entitled to TTD benefits. The requirements of section 39-71-609, MCA, were also satisfied. The 14-day notice required in subsection (1) was given. Moreover, under subsection (2), no notice was required because claimant had "been released to return to work in some capacity."
¶33 Claimant urges that her benefits were improperly cut-off because the insurer failed to comply with the Coles' requirements. Those requirements were initially adopted by this Court in Coles v. Seven Eleven Store, WCC No. 2000, aff'd (on unrelated grounds), 217 Mont. 343, 704 P.2d 1048 (1985), and ratified by the Supreme Court in Wood v. Consolidated Freightways, Ind., 248 Mont. 26, 30, 808 P.2d 502, 505 (1991). As set forth in Wood, an insurer must satisfy four criteria before terminating TTD benefits. The criteria are:
248 Mont. at 30, 808 P.2d at 505.
¶34 I have previously held that the Coles' requirements are inapplicable to cases arising after July 1, 1995, the date on which amendments to the statutory notice requirements set forth in section 39-71-609, MCA, took effect. (The requirements, however, were reimposed by the 2001 legislature, 2001 Mont. Laws, Ch. 174, §§ 1 and 2.) As I noted in Sears v. Travelers Insurance, 1998 MTWCC 12, and Edgar v. Legion Ins. Co., 2001 MTWCC 33, section 39-71-609(2), MCA, requires only that claimant be released to "work in some capacity." The term "work in some capacity" must be construed in accordance with its ordinary and generally understood meaning. "[S]tatutory language must be reasonably and logically interpreted and words given their usual and ordinary meaning". In re R.L.S., 293 Mont. 288, 291, 977 P.2d 967, 968 (1999). On its face, the term "in some capacity" is broad, indicating a release to any sort of work is sufficient. Had the legislature intended a more careful job analysis, then it could have set forth additional criteria. The Court is prohibited from inserting additional requirements. § 1-2-101, MCA; Russette v. Chippewa Cree Housing Authority, 265 Mont. 90, 93-94, 874 P.2d 1217, 1219 (1994). I therefore concluded that the Sears' criteria were inconsistent with the 1995 amendments and are inapplicable to post-July 1, 1995 cases.
¶35 Even if the Coles" requirements were applicable, they were satisfied.
¶36 The MMI determination of Dr. Carpenter satisfies the first requirement for "a physician's determination that the claimant is as far restored as the permanent character of his injuries will permit."
¶37 In his May 9, 1999 report, Dr. Weinert placed specific physical restrictions upon claimant; Dr. Carpenter agreed with Dr. Weinert's analysis in his own report of November 9, 1999. Thus, the second Coles' requirement for "physician's determination of the claimant's physical restrictions resulting from an industrial accident" is met.
¶38 Both Dr. Weinert and Dr. Carpenter approved claimant's return to work as a RN Diabetes Coordinator, a job which a vocational consultant identified based upon claimant's education and vocational background. Thus, the third requirement for "a physician's determination . . . that [s]he can return to work, with or without restrictions, on . . . another job for which [s]he is fitted by age, education, work experience, and physical condition" is met. While the claimant in this case disputes the ability to physically do the work and her ability to compete for the position, her arguments go to the merits of a claim for permanent partial or permanent total disability. I do not read Coles as requiring the insurer to prove, in this Court, and as a matter of fact, that the claimant is neither permanently partially nor permanently totally disabled in order to justify its termination of TTD benefits. Nor do I read Coles as permitting claimant to continue receiving TTD benefits unless the insurer affirmatively proves in Court that claimant is neither permanently totally nor permanently totally partially disabled. Such a requirements would shift the burden of proof regarding claimant's entitlement to permanent disability benefits to the insurer and nullify provisions for permanent disability benefits. Such requirements would mean that a claimant is entitled to TTD benefits forever unless the insurer affirmatively proves that the claimant is neither permanently disabled nor permanently partially disabled. Such requirements are contrary to the benefits scheme set out in the Workers' Compensation Act, as summarized in McDanold v. B.N. Transport, Inc., 208 Mont. 470, 475, 679 P.2d 1188, 1191 (1984):
The Coles' requirements were never intended as a substitute for proof of permanent partial or permanent total disability.
¶39 Finally, the last requirement of "notice to the claimant of receipt of the report attached to a copy of the report" is satisfied. Both Dr. Weinert's report and Dr. Carpenter's reports, as well as copies of the job descriptions, were sent to claimant or her attorney prior to the termination of her benefits.
¶40 Attorney fees in workers' compensation cases are recoverable under § 39-71-611, MCA (1997), only when an insurer unreasonably denies liability for a claim for compensation or terminates compensation benefits and the claim is later adjudged compensable by the Workers' Compensation Court or on appeal. The evidence shows that the insurer did not act unreasonably in terminating claimant's benefits. She is not entitled to attorney fees or costs.
¶41 Finally, I express no opinion concerning whether claimant is permanently partially or totally disabled since that issue was not raised in the case. I have therefore not addressed the vocational evidence or claimant's testimony that her pain precludes her from working.
¶42 Claimant is not entitled to further temporary total disability benefits as of the date of trial.
¶43 Claimant did not prevail, thus, she is not entitled to attorney fees or costs.
¶44 This JUDGMENT is certified as final for purposes of appeal pursuant to ARM 24.5.348.
¶45 Any party to this dispute may have 20 days in which to request a rehearing from these Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Judgment.
DATED in Helena, Montana, this 9th day of July, 2001.
c: Mr. John C. Doubek.
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