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Merrell v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections)

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

February 6, 2017

Wayne Merrell, Petitioner
v.
Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections), Respondent

          Submitted: September 2, 2016

          BEFORE: HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, President Judge HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge HONORABLE JAMES GARDNER COLINS, Senior Judge.

          OPINION

          MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, President Judge.

         Wayne Merrell (Claimant) petitions for review of an adjudication of the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Board) that granted Claimant medical compensation but not disability. In doing so, the Board affirmed the decision of the Workers' Compensation Judge (WCJ). Claimant argues that the Board erred because the WCJ was bound by the decision of the arbitrator that awarded him disability under the Heart and Lung Act[1] for the same injury. Concluding that the arbitrator's decision did not have collateral estoppel effect in the workers' compensation proceeding, we affirm.

         Claimant worked for the Department of Corrections (Employer) as a corrections officer trainee at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford. On October 12, 2013, Claimant bent his right knee in an awkward way while carrying food trays down a flight of steps, causing immediate pain. A supervisor directed Claimant to the prison's medical facility, which sent him to Pottstown Hospital. There, Claimant's leg was x-rayed, which was negative, and he was given a knee immobilizer and pain medication. Claimant returned to work to complete his shift. Two days later, Claimant saw another physician who ordered an MRI. A few weeks later, Claimant met with an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Greene, who prescribed pain medication and suggested physical therapy. Dr. Greene released Claimant to return to work with restrictions. On November 14, 2013, Claimant returned to work but left after several days because of knee pain. Claimant returned to Dr. Greene, who again restricted him to sedentary work, which Employer did not have available.

         Claimant filed a claim for benefits under the Heart and Lung Act, which was denied by Employer. Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officer Association and Employer, an arbitrator was assigned to hear Claimant's grievance of the denial of Heart and Lung benefits. A hearing was held on January 8, 2014, at which Claimant and Employer presented evidence, in the form of depositions and exhibits.

         In his deposition, Claimant described the incident of October 12, 2013, as follows:

That morning, as I was taking breakfast trays from the inmates … I was going down the steps, I was carrying six --- five, six, seven trays. I stepped down with my right foot and as my left foot came down my right knee bent sharply backwards. I was able to continue walking down the steps. From that moment on, I was having --- I had a little bit of a limp and I was in a lot of pain.

Reproduced Record at 34a (R.R.__). Claimant continued working. When asked why he did not seek immediate medical treatment, Claimant responded:

As a trainee, I didn't want to make waves and complain. A lot of people don't like to work in the restricted housing units, and as a trainee, I didn't want to give them the illusion that I did not want to be there, that I was afraid of the inmates. I prefer to have the trust and confidence of my fellow officers.

R.R. 39a. Claimant also presented a report from Dr. Greene, his orthopedic surgeon.[2]

         Employer presented the medical deposition of Dr. David Cooper, a board certified orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Cooper testified that he met with Claimant on June 2, 2014; obtained Claimant's medical history; performed a physical examination; and reviewed the results of an MRI done on October 21, 2013. Dr. Cooper opined that Claimant suffered from chronic arthritis in the right knee. He stated that the MRI did not reveal a ligament or meniscal tear that would be consistent with trauma and, thus, he could not attribute Claimant's knee pain to the October 12, 2013, work incident. Moreover, Dr. Cooper testified that assuming there was some hyperextension of the right knee caused by the work incident, it would have caused a soft tissue injury, i.e., a right knee sprain. Dr. Cooper concluded that if Claimant had sprained his knee, it was fully recovered.

         On September 24, 2014, the arbitrator issued an award granting Claimant Heart and Lung benefits. The arbitrator credited Claimant's testimony finding it was "direct, clear and forthright." Arbitration Award at 13; R.R. 131a. He specifically found that Claimant's delay in reporting his injury was not dispositive and Claimant's behavior was "a reasonable response under the circumstances." Id. Further, the arbitrator credited the medical opinion of Dr. Greene, explaining his reasoning as follows:

In determining which of these clear, unequivocal competing [medical] opinions to rely on I find most compelling the fact that [Claimant], who was thirty five years old at the time of the October 12, 2013 injury, had never experienced any prior knee problems. Dr. Greene likewise found this critical to his opinion. If, as Dr. Cooper opines, [Claimant's] pain is now solely the result of degenerative conditions in his knee, he would have had other indications of these conditions before this injury. I cannot disregard the fact that, all of [Claimant's] knee problems began after the work injury. Therefore, also mindful that I can give deference to the treating physician's opinion, I credit the opinion of Dr. Greene.

Arbitration Award at 15; R.R. 133a.

         On April 28, 2014, Claimant filed a claim petition under the Workers' Compensation Act, [3] alleging his right knee hyperextension and medial compartment arthrosis were caused by the work incident on October 12, 2013, and left him unable to work. He sought disability benefits as of October 29, 2013, and ongoing. Employer filed an answer, denying all material allegations.

         At the hearing before the WCJ, Claimant moved for an award of disability compensation based upon the arbitrator's award of Heart and Lung benefits. Claimant argued that the arbitrator's award was binding on the WCJ under the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Claimant offered the arbitrator's award and Claimant's deposition from the arbitration, but he did not offer any medical evidence. Employer disputed the application of collateral estoppel. It presented the medical deposition testimony of Dr. David Cooper that it had offered in the Heart and Lung arbitration.

         The WCJ denied Claimant's motion for an award of disability benefits, holding that she was not collaterally estopped by the arbitration award. The WCJ found that Claimant sustained a work injury on October 12, 2013, but he did not prove a wage loss caused by the work injury. The WCJ granted Claimant's claim petition for medical benefits from October 12, 2013, up to June 2, 2014; he denied disability benefits. Claimant appealed to the Board.

         On appeal to the Board, Claimant argued that the arbitration award resolved the issue of his disability and is binding in the workers' compensation proceeding. The Board rejected this argument. The Board reasoned that "the instant workers' compensation case dealt with a potentially indefinite period of disability and was a more formal setting than the previous Heart and Lung arbitration[, t]hus … the stakes were lower in the previous proceedings and could not have a preclusive effect." Board Adjudication at 3. Claimant now petitions this Court for review.[4]

         Before this Court, Claimant argues that the arbitrator's finding that he was temporarily disabled and, thus, entitled to Heart and Lung benefits precluded the WCJ from finding that Claimant was not entitled to disability benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act when the Heart and Lung benefits ended.

         Collateral estoppel, also known as issue preclusion, prevents relitigation of questions of law or issues of fact that have already been litigated in a court of competent jurisdiction. Department of Corrections v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Wagner-Stover), 6 A.3d 603, 608 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010). The doctrine of collateral estoppel is based on the policy that a losing litigant does not deserve a rematch after fairly suffering a loss in adversarial proceedings on an issue identical in substance to the one he subsequently seeks to raise. Id. (quoting McGill v. Southwark Realty Co., 828 A.2d 430, 434 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2003)).

         Collateral estoppel will foreclose relitigation of issues of fact or law in subsequent actions where the following criteria are met: (1) the issue in the prior adjudication is identical to the one presented in the later action; (2) there was a final judgment on the merits; (3) the party against whom the plea is asserted was a party or in privity with a party to the prior adjudication; (4) the party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted has had a full and fair opportunity to ...


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