State News : Iowa

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Benito Villafana v. Blackhawk Foundry and Travelers, No. 2-441 / 11-1781 (Iowa Court of Appeal)


The Claimant, Benito Villafana, was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States in 1976 after completing the sixth grade. Until 1988 he had worked as a farm laborer, but following that he went to work with the employer in the present case. The Claimant worked as a grinder for ten years until he suffered from a carpal tunnel injury related to his repetitive work. To accommodate the Clamiant’s permanent restrictions related to this injury, the employer moved the Claimant to the job of scale operator. This job required him to pick up castings, some of which weighed upwards of 100 lbs. When lifting these heavy castings, the employer instructed the Claimant to get the help of his supervisor or forklift operator.


The Claimant then sustained a shoulder injury in 1999. In relation to this injury, the Claimant was awarded a thirty five percent partial disability in 2004. In the present case, the Claimant alleged neck and hand pain beginning in 2006. The Claimant continued his employment until a plant wide lay off in 2009. At hearing, the Claimant admitted to his earlier carpal tunnel injury as well as ongoing neck problems before his alleged injury dates. In 1997, he reported neck pain in conjunction with finger pain. He also received treatment for neck pain in 1998. In 2002, he again complained to a physician that he was experiencing neck pain in conjunction with the pain from his shoulder injury, and in 2003 a neurosurgeon evaluated the Claimant for neck pain and ultimately recommended neck surgery.


The Claimant had alleged a first injury date of April 28, 2006 when he went to Dr. Pardubsky regarding his neck pain. Dr. Pardubsky believed the neck pain was related to Claimant’s prior shoulder injury. In a subsequent visit, Dr. Pardubsky told the Claimant there was nothing further he could offer. The Claimant also alleged a second injury date of January 2, 2007 when he was referred by the employer to Dr. Frederick. The Claimant complained of chronic right trapezium and cervical pain, as well as numbness and tingling in his right fourth and fifth fingers. Dr. Frederick noted the right trapezius pain and cervical pain were well documents since 1999. In a follow up visit, Dr. Frederick noted that the Claimant’s EMG was “positive for moderate to severe right carpal tunnel.” She believed the condition was work-related based on the history provided by the Claimant that he was performing “highly repetitive grasping tasks” in his job. Blackhawk did not offer further treatment for the Claimant’s carpal tunnel or other chronic problems related to the prior work injury, nor did the Claimant seek treatment for his ailments, aside from some chiropractic care.


At the employer’s request, Dr. Frederick revisited her opinion regarding the Claimant and ultimately concluded that she could not relate his recurrent right carpal tunnel to his job with the employer. She also noted that the Claimant did not suffer a new injury of 2006 and any pain was likely caused by an ongoing spondylosis that has never resolved since 1998.


One month before his hearing with the deputy commissioner, the Claimant visited neurosurgeon Robert Milas in June of 2009. Dr. Milas noted the Claimant was a poor historian but stated that the Claimant experienced a significant change in cervical pain as well as loss of strength in his right hand in 2007. He opined the 2007 injury was linked to his recurrent carpal tunnel syndrome and cervical radiculopathy, and that the injuries caused Villafana to be permanently impaired.


After hearing, the deputy concluded that the Claimant failed to show he suffered an injury in the course of his employment and denied his claim. The deputy was more persuaded by the opinions of Dr. Frederick as opposed to Dr. Milas. The deputy noted that:


While Dr. Milas may have superior qualifications as a specialist in neurosurgery than those of Dr. Frederick, the record does not indicate what prior medical records, if any, were reviewed by Dr. Milas before making his opinion. This is a critical flaw in claimant’s case given Benito’s past medical history involving not only cervical and right extremity pain, but facial numbness dating back four years prior to the claimed neck injury. Also, it is not clear if Dr. Milas had any understanding of what claimant’s job at Blackhawk involved.


On appeal, the Commissioner found the deputy’s findings were supported by the preponderance of the evidence. The decision was also affirmed by the district court. The Claimant then appealed to the Court of Appeals.


The Court began its review noting that the factual findings of the agency were reviewed for substantial evidence. The Court found that he arbitration decision detailed why the deputy found Dr. Frederick to be more convincing than Dr. Milas. Dr. Milas did not reveal whether he reviewed any medical records, the Claimant’s actual labor requirements for scale operators, or whether his injury was caused by the repetitive nature of his work. Conversely, the Court found Dr. Frederick documented her decision-making process, and although her ultimate conclusion contradicts her initial stance on the Claimant’s injury, the Court found she explained what subsequent information—an on-site job inspection—persuaded her to change her opinion. The deputy also credited Dr. Frederick’s review of the Claimant’s prior medical records, contrasted with Dr. Milas, who found the case factually confusing because the Claimant was a “poor historian.”


The Court stated that as the finder of fact, the agency determines the weight to give an expert opinion. Therefore the Court found that they would not give greater weight to the Claimant’s medical expert than what was afforded by the agency.


The Court then turned its attention to the finding that the Claimant had not suffered a permanent aggravation of his previous injury to his cervical spine. The Court found that the Claimant had not carried his burden to overturn the agency’s decision. The court state that “evidence is not insubstantial merely because we may draw different conclusions from it; the ultimate question is whether it supports the finding actually made, not whether the evidence would support a different finding.” The Court found that given the gravity of medical evidence on the issue of causation, and the fact-finder’s ability to accept or reject expert evidence in whole or in part, Dr. Frederick’s conclusion she “do[es] not feel there has been any new injury to his neck [and that] he has an ongoing cervical spondylosis from 1998 that has never resolved” supports the commissioner’s finding.


The decision of the district court was affirmed.

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