by Claudio J. DiPaolo
Brignol vs. Workers Compensation Appeal Board (US Airways and AIG Claims Services, Inc.)
Claudio J. DiPaolo recently received a favorable opinion from the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Brignol vs. Workers Compensation Appeal Board (US Airways and AIG Claims Services, Inc.).
Brignol (claimant) petitioned the Commonwealth Court after the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) affirmed the Decision and Order of the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ). In the underlying proceedings, the WCJ found the claimant to be fully recovered from her work injury, and ordered a termination of her workers’ compensation benefits.
The operative Bureau of Workers Compensation (BWC) document, governing the claimant’s entitlement to benefits, was a Notice of Compensation Payable (NCP). The NCP acknowledged that on April 2, 2006, the claimant sustained a “lumbar sprain” during the course and scope of her employment. Accordingly, the claimant began to receive workers’ compensation benefits. Based upon an independent medical evaluation (IME), the employer filed a Termination Petition with the BWC, alleging that the claimant had fully recovered from her injury. In response, the claimant filed a Review Petition, seeking to amend the NCP to include “L4-L5 and L5-S1 herniated discs with radiculopathy and an aggravation of degenerative joint disease.”
At a hearing before the WCJ, the claimant disputed the contention that she had recovered from her injuries, or that she could return to work as a customer service agent for U.S. Airways. Based upon a number of inconsistencies and admissions, the WCJ rejected the claimant’s veracity in this regard, as well as any corroborating testimony from her treating physician. In doing so, the WCJ fully credited the employer’s medical expert, who testified that the claimant had fully recovered from her work injury and could resume work, unabated.
On appeal, the claimant asserted that it was incongruous for the WCJ to reach such a conclusion given that the WCJ had granted the claimant’s Review Petition in part, finding that claimant had suffered a “radiculopathy” as a result of her work injury.
In the context of a Termination Petition, it is axiomatic in Pennsylvania workers’ compensation law that the employer must prove that either the claimant’s work-related disability has ceased, or that an intervening or superseding cause has arisen to a point that it becomes the substantial contributing factor to any ongoing disability. Thus, it was entirely proper for the WCJ to consider the degree to which the claimant’s underlying condition impacted upon any purported disability. Therefore, notwithstanding the disposition of the claimant’s Review Petition, the WCJ justifiably terminated the claimant’s benefits, reasoning that any purported ongoing disability was solely attributable to an insidious and disabling pathology. The WCJ dismissed the remaining allegations of the Review Petition, which purported to establish a causal nexus between the claimant’s degenerative disease and her work injury.
In affirming the decisions of the WCJ and WCAB, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the decision of the WCJ was supported by substantial and competent evidence of record. The Court reasoned that the WCJ acted well within her province as trier of fact, in finding that the claimant had fully recovered from her work related injury, as well as from any sequela therefrom. The Court properly noted that the WCJ had not committed an error of law in retroactively expanding the description of the work injury, while concurrently terminating benefits.
Finally, the Court also disposed of the claimant’s alternative argument relating to whether the WCJ had authored a “reasoned decision,” noting that the decision fully comported with Section 422(a) of the Act as it adequately explained the reasons for discrediting conflicting evidence, and in so doing, allowed for adequate appellate review. 77 P.S. § 834
The Commonwealth Court thereby affirmed the WCAB Opinion, which had affirmed the WCJ’s decision and order, granting a termination of the claimant’s benefits under the Act.
Claudio J. DiPaolo, Chair of the Workers’ Compensation Group, has practiced in the area of workers’ compensation law for over 15 years. He has defended workers’ compensation claims on behalf of self-insured corporations, insurance carriers, and various political entities. Claudio is admitted to practice in Pennsylvania and New York, as well as before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.