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Morgan Properties Payroll Services Inc. v. Bowers

Superior Court of Delaware

May 31, 2017

MORGAN PROPERTIES PAYROLL SERVICES, INC., Employer-Appellant,
v.
TERESA BOWERS, Claimant-Appellee.

          Submitted: March 8, 2017

         On Appeal from the Industrial Accident Board AFFIRMED

          ORDER

          Hon. Andrea L. Rocanelli, Judge

         This is an appeal from the Industrial Accident Board ("Board"). Employer-Appellant Morgan Properties Payroll Services, Inc. ("Employer") appeals from the June 28, 2016 Board Decision granting Claimant-Appellee Teresa Bowers' Petition to Determine Additional Compensation in part. Upon consideration of Employer's appeal and Ms. Bowers' opposition thereto; the facts, arguments, and legal authorities set forth by the parties; statutory and decisional law; and the entire record in this case, the Court hereby finds as follows:

         1. On January 17, 2014, Teresa Bowers ("Claimant") was injured in a slip-and-fall accident while working as a property manager for Employer ("2014 Work Accident"). Employer accepted the injuries arising from the 2014 Work Accident as work-related and compensable. Claimant was placed on disability and began receiving workers' compensation benefits.

         2. Prior to the 2014 Work Accident, Claimant underwent an unrelated spinal fusion surgery to repair a fracture at the C5-6 and C6-7 level of Claimant's spine ("Claimant's Previous Surgery"). Claimant's Previous Surgery arose from a 2005 rear-end motor vehicle collision and required the installation of screws and a bone graft in Claimant's spine.

         3. On August 27, 2015, Claimant filed a Petition to Determine Additional Compensation ("Petition") with the Board, seeking approval for a posterior cervical fusion surgery at the C6-7 level of Claimant's spine ("Repair Surgery"). The parties do not dispute that the Repair Surgery was medically necessary to repair a fracture at C6-7 caused by the deterioration of a bone graft installed during Claimant's Previous Surgery. However, Employer opposed Claimant's Petition on the grounds that the Repair Surgery was unrelated to Claimant's 2014 Work Accident.

         4. On March 17, 2016, Dr. Bruce Rudin performed the Repair Surgery on Claimant. Claimant requested Employer to compensate Claimant for medical expenses arising from the Repair Surgery thereafter. Employer contested Claimant's request for compensation.

         5. On April 15, 2016, the Board conducted a hearing on the merits of Claimant's Petition and considered the causal relationship between the Repair Surgery and the 2014 Work Accident.[1] During the hearing on Claimant's Petition, the Board considered the testimony of (i) Claimant's expert Dr. Bruce Rudin, a certified orthopedic surgeon who performed the Repair Surgery; (ii) Claimant's expert Dr. Peter Bandera, a certified physician who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation; (iii) Claimant; and (iv) Employer's expert Dr. Alan Fink, a certified neurologist who examined Claimant on Employer's behalf.

         6. By Decision dated June 28, 2016, the Board granted Claimant's Petition in part ("Board Decision").[2] The Board concluded that Claimant met her burden to establish the relationship between the Repair Surgery and the 2014 Work Accident.[3] Accordingly, the Board awarded compensation to Claimant for medical expenses pursuant to the applicable statutory fee schedule.[4]

         7. On July 15, 2016, Employer filed an appeal from the Board Decision in Superior Court. Employer asserts that the Board's conclusion regarding the relationship of the Repair Surgery to the 2014 Work Accident is unsupported by substantial evidence. On March 7, 2017, the appeal was assigned to this judicial officer for decision.

         8. The Court has statutorily conferred jurisdiction over appeals from administrative agencies, including appeals from the Board.[5] On appeal from a Board decision, the Court's role is limited to determining whether the Board's conclusions are supported by substantial evidence and free from legal error.[6]Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."[7] The Court reviews the Board's legal determinations de novo.[8] "Absent errors of law, however, the standard of appellate review of the IAB's decision is abuse of discretion."[9]

         9. Employer appeals from a factual determination. When factual conclusions are at issue on appeal from a Board decision, the Court must "take due account of the experience and specialized competence of the agency and of the purpose of the basic law under which the agency has acted."[10] The Court "does not sit as a trier of fact with authority to weigh the evidence, determine questions of credibility, and make its own factual findings and conclusions."[11] "[T]he sole function of the Superior Court, as is the function of [the Delaware Supreme Court] on appeal, is to determine whether or not there was substantial evidence to support the finding of the Board, and, if it finds such in the record, to affirm the findings of the Board."[12]

         10. For the reasons set forth below, this Court finds that the Board's determination that the Repair Surgery is related to the 2014 Work Accident is supported by substantial evidence on the record.

         11. The Board's conclusion that the 2014 Work Accident caused the Repair Surgery by aggravating Claimant's pre-existing injuries and accelerating the degeneration of Claimant's spine is supported by the testimony of Claimant's expert Dr. Rudin. Dr. Rudin testified that Claimant's medical records indicated that Claimant had recovered from Claimant's Previous Surgery and was working full-time without limitation prior to the 2014 Work Accident.[13] Dr. Rudin testified that Claimant did not require additional surgery at C6-7 until the 2014 Work Accident exacerbated Claimant's symptoms.[14] Dr. Rudin stated that:

[Claimant] was basically normal, had a significant fall, had multiple injuries, and I think it temporally relates to her complaints of neck pain that she's had ever since her fall. I mean, since really the day of her fall she started complaining and she's never really stopped complaining to that date, so . . . the [medical records] support that she injured herself in early January of 2014. Certainly no ...

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