Hartzell v. State of Minnesota, Department of Trial Courts

Hartzell v. State of Minnesota, Department of Trial CourtsNo. WC17-6037. (WCCA August 4, 2017). 

The employee attempts to vacate an Award on Stipulation based upon substantial change in medical condition.  The employee was a court reporter for Ramsey County District Court, and was struck by a motor vehicle in 1990 while walking across the street from the Courthouse to Ramsey County Hospital for a hearing.  She had right hip, right leg, low back, and psychological injuries.  The employee also had a past history of neck, shoulder, low back, left hip, and left leg symptoms from a previous non-work-related motor vehicle accident.  She did not initially miss time from work after the 1990 work-related injury.

In 1991 and 1992, she began having treatment for her hips, and also had multiple somatic complaints.  The employee discussed with her treating doctor the potential for an SI fusion surgery.  In 1994 she brought a Claim Petition claiming left hip, low back, and left knee injuries resulting from a 1990 accident.  In 1995 the employee entered into a full, final, and complete settlement, leaving only medical expenses open to her left knee and left hip, in exchange for a $7,000 lump sum payment.

The employee had a subsequent motor vehicle accident in 1997, a snowmobile accident in 1998, and another motor vehicle accident in 1998.  In 1999 she had a two-level cervical fusion, and claimed psychological stressors and sleep issues.  In 2008 she had a one-level laminectomy at the L4-5 level and an SI joint fusion on the left.  She subsequently had a cervical disc replacement surgery in 2010, and a left hip replacement surgery in 2009.

The employee had petitioned to vacate the 1995 Stipulation first in 1997, and that petition was denied for failure to show good cause.  Specifically, a WCCA 1997 indicated the employee failed to show a change in diagnosis, a change in her ability to work, or additional permanency.  The 1997 Court noted that before the 1995 Stipulation the SI joint fusion had been discussed by the employee multiple times with her treating doctor.

The employee filed a second Petition to Vacate the 1995 Stipulation in February 2017.  In evaluating the 2017 Petition to Vacate, the Court noted the statutory authority to set aside an Award “for cause” required either (1) a mutual mistake of fact, (2) newly discovered evidence, (3) fraud, or (4) substantial change in medical condition.  The employee argued that PTD was clearly not anticipated and could not reasonably have been anticipated at the time of the Award.  The employee’s Petition was based on an alleged “substantial change in medical condition.”

The Court considered the Fodness factors of change in medical condition, a change in diagnosis, a change in the employee’s ability to work, additional permanent partial disability, necessity for more costly and extensive medical care than originally anticipated, and a causal relationship between the work-related injury and the worsened condition, and the contemplation of the parties at the time of the settlement.

In its analysis, the Hartzell Court concluded that the employee failed to meet her burden of proof that her change of condition was not anticipated, and could not reasonably have been anticipated.  They noted that at the time of the settlement in 1995, her left hip condition had already been diagnosed, and that she experienced a worsening of those symptoms rather than a change in diagnosis.  The Court further noted her intervening injuries, that her inability to work did not express a causal connection between the left hip and left knee injury from 1990 and her subsequent inability to work.

The Court noted that the employee was not claiming permanent and total disability prior to the 1995 Stipulation, but the closeout language specifically referenced closing permanent and total disability, showing that that benefit was contemplated at the time of that settlement.

Finally, the employee argued that the $7,000 settlement was inadequate and disproportionate in light of her total status.  The WCCA concluded that there was not evidence the employee could work as a court reporter, or that an inability to work was causally related to the left hip and left knee injuries of 1990.