Mattick v. Hy-Vee Food Stores, No. A16-1802 (Minn. 2017)
This matter involves an Employee with pre-existing degenerative arthritis in her right ankle, for which she underwent surgery in 2000, prior to working for the Employer. On January 18, 2014 the Employee tripped over a pallet at work, twisting her right ankle. She was diagnosed with an ankle sprain. The Employee continued working and was not provided work restrictions. Her treating provider noted improvement in her condition until she experienced a non work-related re-injury in March 2014.
The Employee’s condition continued to worsen. In October 2014, she treated with Dr. Collier who indicated she had significant degenerative arthritis and discussed the possibility of an ankle fusion. The Employee filed a Claim Petition in January 2015 for the ankle fusion. The Employee eventually underwent the ankle fusion with Dr. Ryssman on August 31, 2015.
Dr. Collier opined that the work injury was not the primary cause of her arthritis, but that it led her flare in symptoms. Dr. Ryssman “declined to comment on whether the work injury aggravated” her arthritis.
The Employer and Insurer subsequently obtained an IME with Dr. Fey, who opined the Employee’s arthritis was not accelerated or modified by the work injury, which was mild and temporary. As a result, the Employee’s ankle fusion was unrelated to the work injury.
At the Employee’s request, she was also examined by Dr. Bert, who opined that the work injury permanently aggravated her arthritis and was a substantial contributing factor to her need for surgery.
The compensation judge adopted Dr. Fey’s opinion, determining that the Employee’s ankle fusion was unrelated to the work injury. The Employee appealed to the W.C.C.A, which reversed the compensation judge’s decision, indicating Dr. Fey’s report lacked adequate foundation, and that the “compensation judge’s finding that the work injury was not a substantial contributing cause of the surgery was unsupported by the evidence.”
The Employer and Insurer appealed the W.C.C.A. decision, arguing the W.C.C.A. exceeded the scope of its review.
The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the W.C.C.A. and reinstated the compensation judge’s decision. In doing so, the Court indicated that they must determine whether the W.C.C.A. properly set aside the compensation judge’s findings, including whether “it clearly and manifestly erred by rejecting findings supported by substantial evidence and substituting its own findings.” Dykhoff v. Xcel Energy; Hengenmuhle Long Prairie Jaycees. If the W.C.C.A. was correct in overturning the compensation judge’s decision, they would analyze whether the W.C.C.A.’s findings “manifestly contrary to the evidence.” Hengenmuhle.
The Supreme Court first determined that Dr. Fey’s report “rested on adequate factual foundation, and the compensation judge did not abuse its discretion by relying on it.” In doing so, the Court indicated that an opinion “lacks adequate foundation when (1) the opinion does not include the facts and/or data upon which the expert relied in forming the opinion, (2) it does not explain the basis for the opinion, or (3) the facts assumed by te expert in rendering an opinion are not supported by evidence.” Citing Hudson v. Trillium Staffing No. A16-2017 (Minn. 2017) (internal quotations omitted). The Court also stated that expert opinions must be based “on enough facts to form a reasonable opinion that is not based on speculation or conjecture.” Gianotti v. ISD 152, N.W.2d 796 (Minn. 2017).
The Court then determined that the compensation judge’s decision was supported by substantial evidence. Hengenmuhle. The Court noted that not only was Dr. Fey’s opinion supported by other evidence in the record, but that the Employee’s treating providers did not provide “an unequivocal opinion” on causation. As a result, the W.C.C.A. erred in rejecting the compensation judge’s finding that the work injury was not a substantial contributing factor to her need for the ankle fusion.