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Williams v. Zone

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

December 16, 2013

ALAN J. WILLIAMS, Claimant-Appellant,
v.
AUTO ZONE, Employer-Appellee.

Submitted: October 28, 2013

Alan J. Williams, pro se.

Nathan V. Gin, Esquire, Elzufon Austin Tarlov & Mondell, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Employer-Appellee Auto Zone.

OPINION AND ORDER

WALLACE, J.

I. INTRODUCTION

Alan J. Williams[1] has appealed the March 27, 2013 decision of the Industrial Accident Board (the "Board").[2] The Board denied Mr. Williams' Petition to Determine Compensation Due (the "Petition") through which he sought compensation for a knee injury that he allegedly sustained in February 2012 during the course and in the scope of his employment with Auto Zone. The Board found that Mr. Williams had failed to meet his burden of proving that he sustained a work injury in February 2012.[3]Williams contends that the Board's decision was not supported by substantial evidence.

Because the Board relied on adequate evidence, committed no legal error, and did not abuse its discretion, its decision to deny Mr. Williams' petition for compensation is hereby AFFIRMED.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A. Mr. Williams' Auto Zone Employment

Mr. Williams began his employment with Auto Zone[4] in April 2009. For the next three years, he held several positions in several different Auto Zone stores: part-time sales manager, parts sales manager and store manager. Mr. Williams was store manager of the Market Street-Wilmington Auto Zone when he allegedly injured his knee in February 2012.

Mr. Williams never reported the claimed injury to any Auto Zone representative until the day he was fired. That was April 20, 2012 when, after a months-long, loss-prevention investigation, [5] Mr. Williams was terminated with an immediate effective date. Auto Zone District Manager Wayne Epps met with Mr. Williams that day, notified Mr. Williams that he was terminated, and was then told by Mr. Williams that he had injured his left knee at work. Mr. Epps referred Mr. Williams to the company's Human Resources Department regarding his termination and took no action regarding Mr. Williams' newly reported work accident claim.

B. Mr. Williams' Post-termination Accident Claim

Mr. Williams testified that he spoke to an Auto Zone Human Resources representative three days after his termination. That Auto Zone representative filed a claim with the company's workers' compensation carrier in June 2012.[6] Mr. Williams filed his initial Petition to Determine Compensation Due with the Board on August 15, 2012. He sought compensation for a left knee injury that he said he sustained in February 2012 while working at the Market Street-Wilmington Auto Zone store. Through the Petition and subsequent filings, Mr. Williams sought acknowledgment of work-related left and right[7] knee injuries, payment of related medical expenses, and payment of total disability benefits.

C. Mr. Williams' Post-termination Medical Treatment[8]

The injury to his left knee occurred sometime in February 2012, Mr. Williams claims, when he was pulling a hand pallet loaded with motor oil from the back of his assigned store to the front. According to Mr. Williams, he felt something pop in his knee so he stopped pulling the pallet and walked off the pain. He continued to work that day and sought no subsequent medical treatment for what he said was a nagging injury that he figured he would just endure until it healed on its own.

On June 5, 2012 – approximately four months after the alleged injury, and a month and a half after his termination – Mr. Williams visited board certified orthopedic surgeon Dr. Douglas Palma complaining of left knee pain. After a subsequent visit and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study, Dr. Palma diagnosed Mr. Williams with a medial meniscal tear in his left knee. Dr. Palma recommended surgery to repair the tear and performed that arthroscopic procedure in September 2012.

A month later, Mr. Williams complained of right knee pain. After another MRI, Dr. Palma determined that Mr. Williams had the same sort of tear in the meniscus of his right knee. The doctor attributed this to overcompensation after the left knee surgery. The right knee also required a surgical repair, and that was done in late November 2012. Thereafter, Mr. Williams attended one month of physical therapy. He was released by Dr. Palma from medical care in January 2013. Dr. Palma instructed Mr. Williams that he could return to work and that he had no restrictions on his work activity.

Neither party questions whether Mr. Williams had the meniscal tears described above or whether his surgical procedures and physical therapy were appropriate treatment for such. The question before the Board was whether those injuries were compensable work injuries.

D. The Board Hearing

The evidence presented to the Board consisted of the testimony of Mr. Williams, the testimony of Auto Zone District Manager Epps and the deposition testimony of two orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Palma, Mr. Williams' treating physician, and Dr. Elliot H. Leitman, who testified for Auto Zone.

i. Mr. Williams' Testimony

Mr. Williams acknowledged that in 1980, well prior to his employment with Auto Zone, he did suffer a left knee injury that required surgical repair. He testified that one day in February 2012[9] he was pulling a pallet jack loaded with a pallet of motor oil through the Market Street-Wilmington store. The pallet, he said, stood taller than him and weighed about four thousand pounds. Mr. Williams stated that as he pulled this pallet he felt a pop in his left knee. This pain, he said, was far different than any previous knee pain he had ever experienced. Mr. Williams said he stopped for a moment, walked off the initial pain, and then pulled the pallet to its final destination. He completed his work day. In the ensuing weeks and months, according to Mr. Williams, he continued to experience left knee pain but figured with self-treatment and decreased work hours, it would eventually subside itself.

Notably, Mr. Williams never reported this alleged occurrence or its purported aftereffects to any Auto Zone representative[10] but was "on the verge of reporting it" when he was terminated. Mr. Williams also acknowledged that he sought no medical treatment for the claimed knee injury until after he was terminated.

ii. Dr. Palma's Testimony Regarding Work Relatedness

Dr. Palma testified that he first started treating Mr. Williams for his left knee pain on June 5, 2012. Mr. Williams informed his doctor of his 1980 knee surgery. When it came to explaining his present complaint, however, Mr. Williams said only that "he potentially hurt it [his left knee] at work in February."[11] But he could provide no mechanism of injury to his left knee.[12] Nor could he recall for Dr. Palma any obvious trauma to the knee.[13] And in June 2012, Mr. Williams had no complaints about his right knee.

iii. Dr. Leitman's Testimony

Dr. Leitman, an orthopedic surgeon, testified on Auto Zone's behalf. Dr. Leitman reviewed the pertinent medical records and he examined Mr. Williams on October 26, 2012. Mr. Williams told Dr. Leitman "I believe it was injured pulling a pallet jack. I think it popped."[14] When Dr. Leitman asked Mr. Williams specifically whether there was any particular work accident, Mr. Williams could not recall one.[15]

Dr. Leitman's opinion was that Mr. Williams' left knee problem was not an injury causally related to his work, but was degenerative arthritis secondary to his 1980 knee surgery.[16] As for the tear to the meniscus, Dr. Leitman did allow that such a tear "can occur for many reasons. It could be from injury. It could be from every day wear and tear. It could be from degeneration from aging."[17] But as Dr. Leitman further explained here "[t]he tear of the meniscus, horizontal tear, is typically a degenerative-type tear"[18] and that "virtually every individual who has a degenerative arthritic knee is going to have some degree of meniscal tearing."[19] Dr. Leitman found the same to be true for the right knee pain of which Mr. Williams' later complained.[20]

E. The Board's Decision

By its decision dated March 27, 2013, the Board denied Mr. Williams' Petition, finding he was not entitled to receive disability benefits.[21] In doing so, the Board explicitly accepted Dr. Leitman's opinion that Mr. Williams' left knee pain was due to arthritis and the meniscal tear was the result of his degenerative arthritic condition.[22] The Board further found: (1) any opinion by Dr. Palma regarding work causation unreliable; and (2) Mr. Williams' assertion that he hurt his left knee during the course and scope of his employment on an unidentified date in February not credible.[23] And so, based on the evidence presented, "the Board f[ound] that [Mr. Williams] failed to meet his burden of proof that he sustained a work injury to his left knee in February[] 2012." [24]

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Upon its limited appellate review, this Court must determine, "whether substantial evidence supports the [Board's] findings below."[25] "Substantial evidence" is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."[26] In making its determination, the Court reviews the record below in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, here Auto Zone.[27] The Court does not "weigh the evidence, determine questions of credibility or make [its] own factual findings."[28] Rather, the Court must show deference toward the Board's fact-finding and its application of those facts to the appropriate legal standards.[29] The Court may only overturn the Board's decision where, "there is no satisfactory proof in support of a factual finding."[30]

When an appellant alleges that Board made errors of law, those are reviewed de novo.[31] If the Court finds no error of law, the Board's decision is reviewed for an abuse of discretion.[32] "The Board has abused its discretion only when its decision has exceeded the bounds of reason in view of the circumstances."[33]

IV. THE APPELLANT'S CONTENTIONS

On appeal, Mr. Williams argues that the Board "used the wrong standard of evidence" and erroneously accepted Dr. Leitman's testimony when it found that his knee condition did not constitute a work-related and, therefore compensable injury. He also alleges that he was deprived of the right to call witnesses at his hearing.

In response, Auto Zone contends that the Board's decision is supported by "substantial evidence" and free of legal error.

V. DISCUSSION

To be compensable, an injury must arise out of or be in the course of employment.[34] In this workmen's compensation action, Mr. Williams, as claimant, had the burden of establishing a work-related injury.[35] He had to prove that the injury happened at a fixed time and place and was attributable to a clearly traceable incident of employment.[36] And he had to do so by a preponderance of the evidence.[37] The Board found he did not.

The Court, in its "limited role" upon review of the Board's decision, "is to determine whether the decision is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence."[38] Absent an abuse of discretion, the Court will not substitute its own judgment for the judgment of the Board.[39] Where, as here, the parties present conflicting evidence to the Board, "[i]t is exclusively the board's role to resolve conflicts in the testimony and to weigh the credibility of each witness."[40]

The Board heard from Dr. Leitman and Dr. Palma via deposition testimony. The Board accepted Dr. Leitman's opinion that the medical evidence "revealed arthritis and that the meniscal tear was the result of [Mr. Williams'] degenerative/arthritic condition."[41] In its opinion, the Board clearly stated it found Dr. Palma's opinions "regarding causal relation are not reliable in light of the [ ] ambiguities" in Mr. Williams' accounts of his knee symptoms.[42] The Board is "entitled to accept the testimony of one medical expert over the views of another."[43] Although Mr. Williams would urge otherwise, on appeal this Court "'is not the trier of fact and does not have authority to weigh the evidence, determine the credibility of witnesses, or make independent factual findings. Determinations of credibility are reserved exclusively to the Board.'"[44] "Only when there is no satisfactory proof in support of a factual finding of the Board may the Superior Court . . . overturn it."[45] Here Dr. Leitman's medical testimony is sufficient competent evidence to support the Board's finding.[46]

Lastly, given the liberal standard for construing pro se pleadings, [47]the Court interprets Mr. Williams' complaint that the Board conducted his hearing even after he suggested that his necessary witnesses were not present as a claim that the Board abused its discretion. The record supports no such claim.

By the time of Dr. Leitman's deposition, two different attorneys had withdrawn from representing Mr. Williams. At the deposition, Mr. Williams was unequivocal in his desire to move forward and to proceed pro se.[48] This resolve did not wane at the hearing when Mr. Williams was offered numerous opportunities to continue the matter to obtain new counsel, to better prepare his own presentation, and to again attempt to summon his witnesses.[49] "An abuse of discretion arises only where the Board's decision has exceeded the bounds of reason in view of the circumstances."[50] In view of the circumstances presented in the record below, the Board's decision to conduct the hearing after fully apprising Mr. Williams of the risk to him of doing so, and after offering multiple opportunities to continue the matter, was no abuse of discretion.

VI. CONCLUSION

For the forgoing reasons, the decision of the Industrial Accident Board denying Alan J. Williams' Petition to Determine Compensation Due is hereby AFFIRMED.

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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