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Chavez v. State ex rel Wyoming Workers' Safety and Compensation Division

March 31, 2009

IN THE MATTER OF THE WORKER'S COMPENSATION CLAIM OF: ELMER CHAVEZ, APPELLANT (PETITIONER),
v.
STATE OF WYOMING, EX REL., WYOMING WORKERS' SAFETY AND COMPENSATION DIVISION, APPELLEE (RESPONDENT).



Appeal from the District Court of Goshen County, The Honorable Keith G. Kautz, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Burke, Justice.

Before VOIGT, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, KITE, and BURKE, JJ.

[¶1] Elmer Chavez applied to the Wyoming Workers' Safety and Compensation Division for reimbursement of medical expenses relating to his back surgery in 2006. Mr. Chavez claimed that the surgery was necessary because of a work-related injury he suffered in 1989. The Division denied the benefits. Mr. Chavez requested a hearing on the denial of his benefits, and the matter was referred to the Medical Commission. The Commission affirmed the Division's denial of benefits, and Mr. Chavez appealed to the district court. The district court affirmed the denial of benefits, and Mr. Chavez now raises the matter for our review. We, too, will affirm the denial of benefits.

ISSUES

[¶2] Mr. Chavez raises two issues for our review, which we have reworded slightly:

1. Whether the Medical Commission Panel erred in failing to analyze the case as "involving injuries which occur over a substantial period of time," resulting in a decision not in accordance with law.

2. Whether the Medical Commission erred in failing to invoke and apply the "second compensable injury" rule in this case, resulting in a decision not in accordance with law.

This case is easier to understand, however, if we begin the discussion with an issue listed by the Division:

A. Was the decision of the Medical Commission denying benefits to Mr. Chavez supported by substantial evidence?

FACTS

[¶3] Mr. Chavez was employed as a veterinary technician by the Goshen Veterinary Clinic in Torrington, Wyoming, from 1979 to 1981, and again from 1983 to 1991. His duties included routine chores and assisting with surgery at the clinic, but the majority of his time was spent working with cattle at the local livestock auctions. Starting in approximately 1981, Mr. Chavez began getting occasional chiropractic treatments for a "sore back" and related problems.

[¶4] On November 17, 1989, Mr. Chavez injured his back while working with a cow. After this incident he began experiencing "extreme" pain "worse than it had ever been." He was treated by a chiropractor over the next few weeks, and the condition improved over time. He was released from further treatment on January 27, 1990, after informing his chiropractor that he was able to resume his normal activities without pain or discomfort.

[¶5] Mr. Chavez testified that he continued having pain in his back and leg. Some days were "pretty bad," but there were also days when the pain "wasn't present." He did not seek any additional treatment over the next fifteen months, until the spring of 1991 when he told a veterinarian he worked with that his back hurt and his legs felt numb. The veterinarian suggested that he see a doctor. Mr. Chavez went to his primary care physician, who referred him to Dr. Beehler, a neurosurgeon in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Dr. Beehler diagnosed a "large disc herniation" between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae, and operated on Mr. Chavez on May 9, 1991. During the surgery, Dr. Beehler discovered a calcifying disc and spur that could not be completely removed, and the doctor predicted that Mr. Chavez "may well have trouble in the future." A short while after the surgery, however, Dr. Beehler reported that Mr. Chavez was "definitely improving," and that his back pain was "pretty well cleared," although he still had "a little pain in the left lower extremity."

[¶6] After his 1991 surgery, Mr. Chavez continued to suffer from lower back pain, and from occasional numbness in his left leg. In November 2005, Mr. Chavez consulted with Dr. Beer, a neurosurgeon in Cheyenne. He told Dr. Beer that he had a "10-year long history of low back pain," with the symptoms becoming much worse over the past few months. Dr. Beer performed surgery to decompress and fuse the third, fourth, and fifth lumbar vertebrae. According to Mr. Chavez, this surgery was successful in alleviating most of the pain in his back and legs.

[¶7] The Workers' Compensation Division paid for Mr. Chavez's chiropractic treatments after the 1989 incident. It also paid for his surgery in 1991, and for pain management treatments afterward. However, the Division declined to pay for the 2006 surgery, based on a determination that the surgery was not related to the work injury he had suffered in 1989, and that the need for medical treatment was due to pre-existing degenerative disc disease and arthritis in addition to natural aging and the activities of day-to-day living. Mr. Chavez requested a hearing on the denial of his benefits, and the matter was referred to the Medical Commission.

[¶8] The Commission convened its hearing on February 27, 2007. It received into evidence a large number of Mr. Chavez's past medical records, and heard testimony from Mr. Chavez. The Commission also considered the deposition testimony of Dr. Beer, offered into evidence by Mr. Chavez, and the telephonic testimony of Dr. Ruttle, who was called as a witness by the Division. The conflicting testimony from these two doctors will be examined in detail in the discussion below.

[ΒΆ9] The Commission affirmed the denial of benefits. Mr. Chavez appealed that decision to the district court. After the district court affirmed the Commission's ...


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