Anderson v. Frontier Communications

Anderson v. Frontier Communications, No. A11-0834 (Minn. Aug. 10, 2012). Reversed.

This case was a departure from the employee-friendly notice case law. The employee worked for a cable company from 1987 until 2007.  His work activities included lifting up to 70 pounds, bending and stooping on a regular basis, and pulling and digging out cable.   The employee stated that one of the most physical aspects of the job was bending over to place flags to mark cable locations at construction sites.  He testified that during an annual construction season, he would place between 7,000 and 10,000 flags.

In 1996, the employee sought medical treatment, stating that he had low back pain after shoveling dirt all day.  In 1998, he treated for low back pain he experienced after getting out of his work truck.  He testified that his low back pain progressed in 2004 and 2005, and that it was worse at the end of a work day and at the end of a work week.  However, he did not seek medical treatment because he thought he was just getting old.

In March 2007, he saw his doctor and reported that he was icing his back every night.  At that doctor visit, the employee reported back and right leg pain and said his leg hurt with anything he did.  There was no mention of his work activities.  In May 2007, the employee was referred to Dr. Pinto, who diagnosed degenerative disc disease.  The employee’s medical records showed that his job was discussed at his initial consultation.  The employee testified that, after talking to his surgeon in May 2007, he knew that his work activities were a cause of his low back problems or were aggravating his low back problems.  The employee continued to do his regular job until July 4, 2007.  On July 6, 2007, the employee underwent a two-level fusion with Dr. Pinto.  When he went off work for the surgery, he did not tell his employer that his back condition was work-related.  Mr. Anderson was not able to return to his job after surgery.  He applied for SSDI and consulted an attorney about the coordination of those benefits, and while visiting with that attorney, he learned what a Gillette injury was.  In April 2009, the employee’s attorney wrote to his treating physician and received a report from the doctor, stating that the employee’s work activities had aggravated his pre-existing low back condition.  In May 2009, the employee’s attorney gave Frontier written notice that the employee was claiming a work-related low back injury.

The compensation judge found that the employee had sustained a work-related Gillette injury, culminating on his last date of work, July 4, 2007.  The compensation judge found that the employee knew in April 2007 that his work aggravated his low back and found that the employee had not given timely notice of the work injury.  The compensation judge therefore denied the employee’s claim for benefits.

The Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals reversed the denial of benefits.  The W.C.C.A. noted that the employee’s family doctor attributed his back problems to degenerative changes and that the employee should not have been required to give notice where there was no medical evidence making that causal connection and where the existing medical evidence provided a different reason for his problems.

The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the W.C.C.A. and noted that the employee’s work was discussed at the initial surgical consultation. The Court also relied on the employee’s testimony that he was aware that bending over irritated his low back, which made him realize that after years of bending over, his discs had worn out.  The Court found that the information available to the employee – whether or not it was documented in the medical records – was that the wear and tear on his discs was the result of his work activities.  Therefore, there was sufficient evidence to support the finding that the employee should have realized that the work he did caused or aggravated his back problems.  Also, although his family doctor said that his back problem was degenerative in nature, the Court found that a degenerative condition is not inconsistent with a work-related injury.