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McDougal-Saddler v. Herman

November 17, 1998



Before: McKEE, Rendell, Circuit Judges, and Debevoise, Senior District Judge*

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Debevoise, Senior District Judge

Argued October 8, 1998


Appellant, McDougal-Saddler, appeals the district court's order granting the motion of Cynthia Metzler, Acting Secretary, United States Department of Labor ("DOL")1 to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. We have jurisdiction over this appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and will affirm, although for reasons different from those upon which the district court relied.

I. The Facts

On May 14, 1982 McDougal-Saddler, then a 39-year old U.S. Postal Service distribution clerk, filed a claim with the Office of Workers' Compensation Program ("OWCP") for an injury to her back, upper neck and shoulder sustained on May 8 when handling trays of mail. On June 24 the OWCP began payment of compensation for temporary total disability. Dr. David S. Schwartz, a Board-certified internist and cardiologist, began treating McDougal-Saddler on August and diagnosed cervical and lumbosacral strains. He found his patient to be totally disabled.

After a February 1985 fitness-for-duty evaluation, McDougal-Saddler was offered and accepted reemployment as a distribution clerk with limited duties. She returned to work on March 31, 1985 but again stopped working on April 5, stating that because of pain in her neck, shoulder, arm and back she could not continue. Dr. Schwartz examined her the next day; he diagnosed cervical and lumbar strain and stated she was totally disabled.

On May 7, McDougal-Saddler filed a claim for a traumatic injury to her neck, shoulders and upper and lower back sustained on April 5 when casing mail. On May 20 the OWCP again began payment of compensation for temporary total disability. In a June 17, 1985 report Dr. Schwartz diagnosed cervical radiculopathy. In a May 22, 1986 report he diagnosed chronic pain syndrome including chronic lumbosacral strain and chronic cervical strain. In an April 10, 1987 report Dr. Schwartz wrote, "Because of chronic debilitating pain and limited range of motion due to muscle stiffness and spasm, despite intensive physical therapy and medication, [McDougal-Saddler] is totally disabled from work at this time and for the near indefinite future."

The OWCP referred McDougal-Saddler to Dr. William H. Simon, a Board-certified orthopedic surgeon for a second opinion. In a May 4, 1987 report Dr. Simon diagnosed cervical and lumbar discogenic syndrome with cervical and lumbar nerve root irritation. He concluded:

Her present findings are those of cervical and lumbar discogenic syndrome due to early degenerative disc disease in the cervical and lumbar spine. This is indicative of a genetic preDisposition to degenerative disc disease and is not in my opinion due to any specific incidents of trauma occurring at work. . . There is no evidence that she sustained any acute injury that

is responsible for this but that she has a slowly developing degenerative condition which limits the amount of work that she can do. She will have to decide whether she wishes to bear with the pain and continue her work or whether she wishes to retire from the work force.

On December 31, 1987 the OWCP notified McDougal-Saddler that it proposed to terminate her compensation on the ground that her disability resulting from her employment injuries had ceased. In response McDougal-Saddler submitted another report of Dr. Schwartz in which he stated that her symptoms were "specifically due" to her May 8, 1982 injury and that her April 5, 1985 injury "added to her previous cervical and lumbosocral strain."

Effective November 20, 1988 the OWCP terminated McDougal-Saddler's compensation on the ground that the weight of the medical evidence established that her disability from her employment injuries ceased by that date. After a hearing an OWCP hearing representative found in a February 21, 1989 decision that McDougal-Saddler had not been afforded due process because she had not been provided with a copy of Dr. Simon's May 4, 1987 report. The hearing representative remanded the case for reinstatement of compensation and a re-evaluation by Dr. Simon.

At Dr. Simon's request a Board-certified radiologist performed a computerized tomography scan of McDougal-Saddler's lumbosacral and cervical spine. On the basis of the resulting report Dr. Simon revised his original opinion, stating in a November 15, 1989 report, "we now have objective evidence that this patient has cervical discogenic abnormalities beyond degenerative changes both in her neck and back." He did not, however, attribute these discogenic abnormalities, as Dr. Schwartz did, to the 1982 and 1985 work incidents, and he disagreed with Dr. Schwartz's finding of total disability, stating, "I do think her discogenic abnormalities in her neck and back are enough to partially disable her but certainly not to totally disable her from returning to some form of work presuming that she is conditioned properly."

Based on the entirety of the reports which had been submitted to it, the OWCP found that there was a conflict of medical opinion. On October 22, 1991, it referred the case to Dr. John T. Williams, a Board-certified orthopedic surgeon, to resolve the conflict. The OWCP purported to act pursuant to the provisions of 5 U.S.C. § 8123(a), which provides: "If there is disagreement between the physician making the examination for the United States [Dr. Simon] and the physician of the employee [Dr. Schwartz], the Secretary shall appoint a third physician who shall make an examination." According to the Federal (FECA) Procedure Manual, "The [Employees' Compensation Appeals Board] has stated that `an impartial specialist's report is entitled to greater weight than other evidence of record as long as his Conclusion is not vague, speculative or equivocal and is supported by substantial medical reasoning'." Part Two, Chapter 2-810.11 c.(2).

Dr. Williams conducted a physical examination of McDougal-Saddler and in a January 21, 1992 report stated, among other things:

On my physical examination today there are no positive objective findings to correlate to her complaints. I see no residual pathology as it relates to the injury of 1982 or 1985. I feel that she has recovered to the extent that she is able to be gainfully employed. She has degenerative changes in her cervical and lumbar spine which are compatible with her age and her type of body build. She is obese.

I feel that she is able to resume her normal duties without any restrictions. If I were to place any restrictions on this patient they would be on the basis of the degenerative pathology which obviously pre-existed the work-related injury of 1982. The restrictions would be related to the degenerative changes in her cervical and lumbar spine.

Thereafter Dr. Williams reviewed the medical records and reported his findings on March 4, 1992:

[T]his degenerative pathology [in McDougal-Saddler's lumbar and cervical spine] is part and parcel of the normal aging process and has been aggravated by the patient's weight. Since the day of her accident she has been carried with a diagnosis of a cervical and lumbosacral sprain. These types of sprain strains are of a temporary and transitory nature and are self-resolving. The work-related incident may have aggravated the preexistent pathology but again on a temporary and transitory nature which resolved leaving her with her preexistent pathology.

As to x-ray findings from 1982, 1984 and 1987, Dr. Williams reported:

These studies were normal in 1982 and in 1984. Three years later in 1987 we see changes.

The patient had not been working during this interval so there is no work-related trauma that produced the findings noted on x-rays in 1987. So it was on the basis of the normal wear and tear that she ...

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