Latasha Tolbert v. Ramsey County Care Ctr

Latasha Tolbert v. Ramsey County Care Ctr, No. WC23-6537 (WCCA, May 7, 2024)

The employee alleged that on January 5, 2017, she injured her cervical spine and left upper extremity when her arm was yanked while dressing a patient. That same day, she went to the emergency room with complaints of two months of left arm tingling. The history portion of this medical record did not mention the work incident. The next day, the employee was seen for a consultation at a spine center and did not recall trauma or injury to her neck or left shoulder, but one year prior, she had experienced left-sided neck pain and numbness, and tingling. The employee did have an MRI done, which showed a disc protrusion at C6-7. She did some minimal PT and then was allowed to return to full duty without restrictions on January 23, 2017.

Following the release to full duty work, she did not treat for similar symptoms for more than two years. Eventually in February of 2019, she presented to the emergency room complaining of recent left arm numbness and tingling. She reported that her symptoms had progressively worsened over the last three days and were similar to those she had suffered in 2017. A month later, she was evaluated by Dr. Bennett. The employee reported to Dr. Bennett that her left arm tingling began prior to January 2017, but that in January 2017, her symptoms worsened due to her work duties. Dr. Bennett assessed the employee with multi-level cervical stenosis and recommended a laminoplasty procedure. Soon after, the employee underwent surgeries.

The employer and insurer obtained an IME from Dr. Hood. Dr. Hood opined that the employee had degenerative cervical disc disease, multilevel protrusion, and foraminal stenosis caused by obesity and a history of large breasts which had required reduction surgery. A narrative report was issued by Dr. Bennett. Dr. Bennett opined that based upon the employee’s history that she struggled to assist a patient and heard a ‘pop’ in her neck, Dr. Bennett opined that the employee aggravated her preexisting cervical stenosis on January 5, 2017. Also, Dr. Wengler issued his report and opined the cervical spine and left upper extremity injuries occurred on January 5, 2017, the disc herniation injury having occurred as a result of the employee being yanked while assisting a patient. 

The employee filed a claim petition alleging injuries to her cervical spine and left upper extremity, suffered on January 5, 2017. An addendum to the claim petition asserted that Jolene Magee, Director of Nursing for the employer, had accompanied the employee to the emergency room on January 5, 2017. Jolene Magee was deposed and testified that she had no recollection of the employee being injured at the employer or speaking with the employee about an injury on January 5, 2017.  Also, Ms. Magee denied accompanying the employee to the emergency room.

A hearing on the employee’s claim petition was held.  The compensation judge heard testimony from the employee, as well as from Dr. Wengler, and from two employer witnesses.  Exhibits were, including the 2020 deposition transcript of Ms. Magee, over employee’s attorney objection. WCCA did note that the compensation judge did not admit into evidence the deposition transcript of Ms. Magee until the employee mentioned the conversation with Ms. Magee.

In the Findings and Order, the compensation judge denied the employee’s claims in their entirety, finding that the employee did not sustain a specific or Gillette injury to her cervical spine or left arm. The decision was appealed. On appeal, one of the employee’s arguments was that the compensation judge’s finding that employee’s testimony was not credible is based upon the admission of Ms. Magee’s deposition transcript into evidence. It was the argument of the employee that allowing Ms. Magee’s deposition transcript into evidence instead of requiring the employer to produce her for cross-examination at hearing or to provide proof of Ms. Magee’s actual and present unavailability to appear at hearing – should warrant WCCA to reverse the compensation judge’s decision.

WCCA emphasized that a compensation judge is given discretion in the way a hearing is administered, including evidentiary rulings. They noted that Minn. Stat. § 176.411, subd. 1, provides: “[A] compensation judge is bound neither by the common law or statutory rules of evidence nor by technical or formal rules of pleading or procedure. Hearsay evidence which is reliable is admissible.” 

Further, WCCA noted that workers’ compensation proceedings are not subject to rules of evidence governing judicial courts. They emphasized that the compensation judge did not solely rely on Ms. Magee’s deposition testimony in denying the employee’s claim. WCCA found not no abuse of discretion in the judge’s consideration and acceptance of Ms. Magee’s deposition transcript into evidence at hearing, which would require a reversal. As such WCCA affirmed the compensation judge’s finding that the employee failed to prove she sustained a compensable injury arising out of and in the course of her employment.