Area Agency on Aging and Risk Management Resources v. Charlene Catlett

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CA 03-883

FEBRUARY 18, 2004


[NO. F202950]


Terry Crabtree, Judge

The Workers' Compensation Commission affirmed and adopted the decision of an Administrative Law Judge finding that the appellee, Charlene Catlett, suffered a compensable injury to her low back on December 31, 2001. The Commission awarded her temporary total disability benefits from February 13, 2002, to a date yet to be determined. On appeal, the appellant, Area Agency on Aging, claims that substantial evidence does not support the Commission's finding that appellee sustained a compensable injury. We affirm.

In reviewing decisions from the Workers' Compensation Commission, the appellate court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom in the light most favorable to the Commission's findings, and we affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Carman v. Haworth, Inc., 74 Ark. App. 55, 45 S.W.3d 408 (2001). Substantial evidence exists if reasonable minds could reach the same conclusion. Daniels v. Arkansas Dep't Human Servs., 77 Ark. App. 99, 72 S.W.3d 128 (2002); Lee v. Dr. Pepper Bottling Co., 74 Ark. App. 43, 47 S.W.3d 263 (2001).

According to appellee, on December 31, 2001, she sustained an injury to her low back

while working for appellant as a nurse's aide in home health care. On that day, appellee worked in Booneville, Arkansas, in the home of a patient, Nancy Stone, who had a broken hip. As appellee lifted and pulled Stone to her bed from a bedside commode, appellant felt something "give" or "pull" in her lower back, just below her beltline. After appellee settled Stone in her bed, appellee's back pain increased. Appellee woke Stone's daughter-in-law, who was resting in the house, and told her about the accident and her resulting pain. Appellee informed the daughter-in-law that she needed to go home because the pain was so intense.

Appellee testified that when she arrived home, she attempted to take a bath and at that point she noticed her right leg and foot were numb. Appellee called Wilma Karow, her co-worker, and told her that she had pulled her back and that her leg was numb. That evening, appellee also informed her neighbor, Harriett Stinnett, of the incident at work and her resulting injuries. Appellee stated that on January 1 or 2 she called appellant's office and reported the incident to Carol Smith, who handled scheduling. Appellee told Smith that as a result of the incident she was planning to seek treatment from Dr. Demetrio Suguitan.

When appellee presented to Dr. Suguitan, he ordered a CT scan of appellee's lumbar spine and found "mild broad based disc bulge at the L3-4 level." According to appellee, several days later she informed her supervisor, Vicki Cummings, of her incident, injury, and doctor's visit. In turn, Cummings told appellee to visit appellant's "company doctor," Charles Johnson, which appellee did on January 14, 2002. Around this time, appellant put appellee on light duty, and she continued in that capacity until February 12, 2002. Appellee remained under the treatment of Dr. Johnson until appellant refused to provide any further medical services in February 2002. Since that time, appellee has been unable to obtain continuing medical treatment due to her lack of finances.

As the claimant, appellee had the burden of proving her compensable injury by a preponderance of the evidence. Ark. Code Ann. § 11-9-102(4)(E)(I) (Repl. 2002). A "compensable injury" is one "arising out of and in the course of employment." Ark. Code Ann. § 11-9-102(4)(A)(i) (Repl. 2002). Arkansas Code Annotated section 11-9-102(4)(D) provides, "[a] compensable injury must be established by medical evidence supported by `objective findings' as defined in subdivision (16) of this section." "Objective findings" are "those findings which cannot come under the voluntary control of the patient." Ark. Code Ann. § 11-9-102(16); Carman v. Haworth, Inc., 74 Ark. App. 55, 45 S.W.3d 408 (2001). In order to prove a compensable injury the claimant must prove, among other things, a causal relationship between his employment and the injury. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Westbrook, 77 Ark. App. 167, 72 S.W.3d 889 (2002). However, medical evidence is not required to prove that the cause of an injury was work-related. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. VanWagner, 337 Ark. 443, 990 S.W.2d 522 (1999). The requirement that a compensable injury be established by medical evidence supported by objective medical findings applies only to the existence and extent of the injury. Cross v. Magnolia Hosp. Reciprocal Group, 82 Ark. App. 406, 109 S.W.3d 145 (2003); Stephens Truck Lines v. Millican, 58 Ark. App. 275, 950 S.W.2d 472 (1997). Without an initial finding of compensability, a claimant cannot be awarded temporary-total disability benefits or additional medical treatment. Cross, supra; see Ark. Code Ann. § 11-9-102(4)(D) (Supp. 1999).

On January 30, 2002, Dr. Johnson ordered a MRI for appellant. After reading the MRI, the doctor wrote:

There is a disk degeneration at multiple levels in the lumbar spine. There is moderate disk space narrowing at L1-2. Marginal spurring is present at multiple levels also most pronounced L1-2. There is moderate diffuse disk bulging at L1-2 but without any spinal canal stenosis. There is mild to moderate diffuse disk bulging L2-3, also without any spinal canal or foraminal stenosis. Mild diffuse disk bulging L3-4. Mild dextroscoliosis. The the cal sac has a nice spacious size throughout.

(Emphasis added). Although this MRI documents that appellee had a degenerative condition, it also serves as objective medical evidence that appellee suffered an injury. The MRI revealed the herniated disk, and Dr. Johnson described the extent of that injury in his medical notes.

Next, we consider whether appellee sufficiently established that her injury arose out of a work-related incident. In making its review concerning the causal-connection requirement, the Commission made the following findings:

[Appellee's] testimony concerning the events that occurred on December 31, 2001, and the contemporaneous onset of her lower back and right leg symptoms [are] consistent with the statements she made on that same date to Dorothy Stone (the client's daughter-in-law), Harriett Stinnett (a neighbor) and Wilma Karkow (a co-worker). [Appellee's] testimony concerning the events surrounding the onset of her current difficulties with her lower back and right leg is also consistent with the histories she gave to both Dr. Suguitan (her initial treating physician) and to Dr. Johnson ([appellant's] company physician). Finally, this description is also consistent with that given by [appellee] on the AR-N provided her by [appellant]. [We] would also note that [appellant] did not call Carol Smith or Vicki Cummings, the employees of [appellant] to whom [appellee] testified she immediately reported her injury and difficulties.

The Commission also specifically found that appellee's "testimony concerning these matters to accurately depict the onset of her current lower back and right lower extremity symptoms and the events that occurred contemporaneously with the onset of these difficulties."

We recognize that appellee conceded that she had experienced previous symptoms with her lower back and right lower extremity. In fact, a medical report dated November 6, 1995, indicates that appellee presented on that date with complaints of "pain across her low back and down into her foot." The report noted that these symptoms had persisted "for over a month." At that time, she could not "describe [an] injury or accident that might have happened to her," and she was diagnosed with lumbar somatic dysfunction.

On October 8, 2001, appellee presented to Dr. Suguitan with complaints of low back pain. According to appellee, although she experienced some pain, she was not limited in the performance of any of her job duties until the December 31, 2001, incident. Moreover, she stated that it was not necessary for her to take Celebrex on a regular basis until her present injury. At the hearing, appellee stated that her current episode of complaints differed from prior difficulties. She testified that her prior difficulties had always resolved with little or no medical treatment, whereas her current difficulties have persisted and even worsened. She also stated that she had never experienced the numbness in her right leg, which appeared shortly after the incident on December 31, 2001.

The Commission found that appellee's current symptoms and difficulties were of a different nature, greater magnitude, and longer duration than those she experienced on previous occasions. We will not reverse the Commission's decision unless we are convinced that fair-minded persons with the same facts before them could not have reached the conclusions arrived at by the Commission. White v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., 339 Ark. 474, 6 S.W.3d 98 (1999). In this instance, we are not convinced. Additionally, we recognize that the Commission specifically found appellee to be a credible witness. We readily acknowledge that it is the function of the Commission to determine the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Stotts, 74 Ark. App. 428, 58 S.W.3d 853 (2001). In reaching our holding, we look to appellee's testimony along with specific medical reports to serve as substantial evidence for the Commission's finding of compensability.


Hart and Roaf, JJ., agree.