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Last week I wrote about how employers should not handle reopener claims, namely trying them on reports without expert testimony. The case of Kalucki v. United Parcel Service, A-3486-15T3 (App. Div. August 15, 2017) demonstrates the winning strategy for employers to adopt in reopener claims.
The case involved an injury that took place many years ago to petitioner, who was a clerical worker for UPS. The most recent reopener award took place on June 24, 2009. Petitioner received two separate awards of disability. In one claim he received an award of 40% permanent partial disability for the left shoulder and neck subject to a credit of 37.5% for a prior compensation award. In the other claim petitioner received 17.5% of partial total for bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome subject to a credit of 15% for a prior carpal tunnel award. The petitioner then reopened both awards seeking an increase in both cases.
Petitioner testified at trial that his left shoulder and neck were more restricted, and it was painful to move his neck from side to side. He said he had problems laying on his left side. He experienced shoulder aches and numbness. He also said that he lost grip strength in his left hand.
Both parties brought in experts to testify. Petitioner’s expert had examined him four times in the past. This expert was not a board certified orthopedic physician. The expert found tenderness and spasm in the left shoulder, limited range of motion, and tenderness in the wrists. The expert increased his estimate by 25% of the right hand, 25% of the left hand, and 30% in the neck. The overall disability estimates, when combined, exceeded 100%.
Respondent produced a board certified orthopedic physician who had examined petitioner once before in 2007. Respondent’s physician actually ordered an x-ray of the shoulder and found no objective findings of any significant pathology in the shoulder or changes in the neck. In fact, the orthopedist said that petitioner’s range of motion had improved from the time of the last exam. Overall petitioner had no increased disability with respect to the shoulder, neck or bilateral carpal tunnel. The expert did concede negative grip strength in the right hand, but he found no atrophy and no decreased sensation.
The Judge of Compensation ruled that there was no objective evidence of increased disability and dismissed the reopeners on the neck, shoulder and hands. He noted that the only evidence petitioner produced was subjective complaints. That did not meet the standard of Perez v. Pantasote, 95 N.J. 105 (1984). Significantly, the Judge observed that petitioner had not seen a doctor or received any treatment since the time of the last award. Further, petitioner was able to continue to perform his full-duty job without the need of any accommodations. Finally, the Judge stated that respondent’s expert was more qualified than petitioner’s expert. The Judge was critical of the petitioner’s expert: “The Court finds that claimant’s expert’s finding of an over 100 percent disability when combined, does not ring true based on petitioner’s continued full-duty employment.”
Petitioner appealed the dismissal of the reopeners and argued that the Judge should not have given greater weight to respondent’s doctor based on credentials. The Appellate Division disagreed and ruled that it was entirely appropriate for the Judge of Compensation to consider the added credentials of the respondent’s doctor, based on his Board Certification, as a factor in credibility of the experts. The Appellate Division also commented that much of petitioner’s testimony at trial on this reopener was exactly the same as what he testified to at the time of the prior award. The Appellate Division said, “As just one example, claimant’s expert testified that petitioner’s range of motion in his neck on examination in 2011 was limited by twenty degrees, as compared with a higher limitation of twenty-five percent revealed on examination in 2007.” Finally, the Court commented that petitioner continued to work full-time and never even saw a physician for treatment since the time of the prior award, taking only over-the-counter medications since then.
For these reasons the Appellate Division affirmed the Judge of Compensation’s dismissal of these claims. The case illustrates the proper way to handle a reopener claim. Respondent did everything right here, retaining a board certified orthopedic physician, comparing the complaints with those at the time of the prior settlement, and emphasizing the lack of objective evidence produced by petitioner. This case provides a textbook case on how reopener claims can be won by employers when handled wisely.
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers’ Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e‑mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.