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Alphin v. State

April 1, 2010

JOSHUA TODD ALPHIN, APPELLANT (PETITIONER),
v.
STATE OF WYOMING, EX REL., WYOMING WORKERS‟ SAFETY AND COMPENSATION DIVISION, APPELLEE (RESPONDENT).



Appeal from the District Court of Sublette County The Honorable Marv Tyler, Judge.

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

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

[¶1] In this worker‟s compensation case, Appellant, Joshua Todd Alphin (Alphin), challenges the order of the district court which affirmed the "Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order" issued by a hearing examiner for the Office of Administrative Hearings. Alphin contends that the hearing examiner abused his discretion and acted in a manner that was arbitrary, capricious or not otherwise in accordance with applicable law in denying Alphin‟s claim for benefits. He also contends that the findings made by the hearing examiner were not supported by substantial evidence. We will affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] Alphin raises these issues:

I. Whether the [hearing examiner] abused his discretion, acted arbitrarily, capriciously or otherwise not in accordance with [law] when he denied [Alphin‟s claim for] benefits.

II. Whether the [hearing examiner‟s] decision denying benefits was supported by substantial evidence.

The Workers‟ Safety and Compensation Division (Division) asks:

I. Did the hearing examiner have sufficient evidence to support the finding that [Alphin‟s] low back injury was a pre-existing condition which was not related to nor materially aggravated by his workplace injury of December 12, 2005?

II. Was the hearing examiner‟s decision in accordance with the law and neither the result of arbitrary or capricious reasoning?

In his reply brief, Alphin responds:

I. Whether the arbitrary and capricious standard of review applies when the hearing examiner acts without considering all the facts and circumstances.

II. This Court has the authority to review whether a lower court‟s action enforced an illegal contract even when raised for the first time on appeal.

FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

[¶3] For purposes of context, we relate these preliminary facts and circumstances. It is undisputed that Alphin was injured in the course and scope of his employment on December 12, 2005. It is also undisputed that his employer, Black Horse Construction, Inc., convinced him to seek medical treatment outside the constraints of the Worker‟s Compensation Act because that was of significant benefit to the employer. The employer paid for Alphin‟s medical treatment for a short period of time, but fired him because he was unable to work, due to his injury, and then discontinued making such payments on his behalf. It was not until Alphin was incarcerated at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in mid-2006, that he filed a claim for benefits.

[¶4] Alphin‟s claim was initially denied because it was not timely filed with the employer or with the Division. However, at the hearing the Division conceded that, given the above-described circumstances, Alphin‟s claim was to be heard as if it had been timely filed and was to be decided on its merits.

[¶5] The hearing examiner concisely identified the issue to be considered at the hearing: "[W]hether or not Mr. Alphin can prove that his current low back condition and need for continued treatment is directly related to his December 2005 work injury (either as an acute new injury or a material aggravation of a pre-existing condition)."

[¶6] Alphin described his December 12, 2005, injury in his "Wyoming Report of Injury," which he filed on August 29, 2006, while incarcerated at the Wyoming State Penitentiary:

On the injury date I was unloading a trailer of trash into the trash bin at the intersection of Luman and Burma Rd. when Juan brought the backhoe around to grab bigger pieces off the trailer. [M]y back was to him and the equipment and I could not see when the hoe on the backhoe slipped and I was standing beside the trailer and another employee Jose was on the trailer when the backhoe struck me and pinned me to the trailer. The operator Juan backed off and helped me to the truck where we then notified a supervisor[.]

[¶7] Alphin first saw Robert Berg, M.D., on December 13, 2005, in Pinedale. He assessed Alphin‟s condition like this: "Impression is severe left pelvic bone contusion and hip joint, muscle contusion of left thigh secondary to a backhoe accident." He was also treated by Blane A. Woodfin, M.D., on December 13, 2005, and Dr. Woodfin‟s notes briefly described the injury Alphin reported. Dr. Woodfin went on to say:

He was able to ambulate into the clinic here at Pinedale today and was seen by Dr. Berg. He found evidence of no soft tissue injury to the abdomen or pelvis. The patient‟s complaints are centered about the anterior iliac area and the anterior aspect of the hip. He has no past history of injury. He does have an extensive history of lumbar spine problems, but has no current complaints of back pain.

[¶8] Alphin testified that about three weeks after the event described above, he began experiencing severe back pain, although he reported no such pain immediately following the accident. Alphin denied previous back injury, but he did concede that in late June of 2005, he did present at the Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County with low back pain. The treatment he received at that time revealed that he had "moderate size disc herniations at L4-5 and L5-S1." The attending physician‟s notes indicate that Alphin reported he "had four years of on and off low back pain since falling off a roof [in 2001]." The attending physician also noted that after that June 2005 appointment, Alphin was given an epidural steroid injection to treat the back pain. That did not produce the desired results and Dr. Ludwig F. Kroner recommended "operative treatment." Alphin further testified that after his last visit with Dr. Kroner, his back did get better, and that is when he began looking for work which, in turn, led to the job with Black Horse where he suffered the injury which is directly at issue in this case.

[¶9] Alphin claimed that he did not hurt his back in the 2001 incident and that when he went to work for Black Horse, he was not experiencing any back problems. Nevertheless, it was Alphin‟s intention, as well as that of Black Horse, that he not put significant strain on his back while working. However, beginning several weeks after the injury involving the backhoe, Alphin was experiencing severe back pain.

[¶10] The Division sent Alphin‟s medical records to Mark R. Rangitsch, M.D., for an evaluation. Dr. Rangitsch provided this report to the Division:

Specifically, Mr. Alphin, apparently, has had longstanding lumbar spinal problems, dating back to, likely a fall, from a roof back in 2001. He was treated for low back problems. Actually, before the injury of 12/2005, Dr. Kroner had recommended surgical intervention to his lumbar spine. At the time of his accident, he apparently did not injure his lumbar spine, per Dr. Berg‟s note. He had epidural steroid injection for the lumbar ...


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