North Carolina Full Commission Reaffirms Applying Revised Standard in Third Extended Benefits Decision
On July 26, 2022, the Full Commission issued another extended benefits decision, Messick v. Walmart Stores, Inc. The panel consisted of Vice-Chair Griffin, Commissioner Taylor and Commissioner Goodman. In this case, the Full Commission awarded the claimant extended benefits. The issue of extended benefits was not an issue at the Deputy Commissioner level. The Deputy Commissioner issued an Opinion and Award finding compensable aggravations to claimant’s pre-existing left knee condition and mental health condition, awarded ongoing TTD benefits, and ordered payment for claimant’s dental treatment related to a post-accident fall. Defendants did not appeal the findings or conclusions related to causation, but appealed on the issue of whether the first date of disability versus the date of injury was controlling in regard to determining the indemnity benefits and/or extended benefits owed to claimant under N.C.G.S. § 97-29.
Claimant sustained two compensable injuries; one to her lumbar spine and another to her right knee. Her lumbar spine injury was pre-2011 statutory reform and her right knee injury was post-2011 reform. Both injuries were accepted by Defendants. Defendants also authorized benefits for psychological treatment as a part of the claim. Ultimately, claimant required, among other treatment, a spinal cord stimulator, a knee replacement surgery, and a knee replacement revision procedure, along with increased psychological treatment for depression, which included a 20-day psychological support and physical reconditioning program where she weaned off Oxycodone. Eventually, claimant’s left knee became problematic, and she required a left total knee replacement, which claimant’s doctor opined was the result of her accepted right knee injury. She was ultimately assessed with failed back syndrome, chronic low lumbar pain, and chronic knee pain.
As a part of litigation, the parties deposed nine experts, consisting of claimant’s medical providers and claimant’s vocational expert. In terms of disability, many providers deferred to other providers and/or a vocational expert, and claimant was assigned permanent sedentary restrictions with no repetitive bending or stooping; no lifting more than twenty pounds; no twisting; no kneeling; no climbing ladders or stairs; no walking more than forty yards at a time; and no sitting or standing for more than thirty minutes at a time. The claimant’s vocational expert concluded that there was no reasonable vocational probability that claimant would be able to secure a job and maintain gainful employment. He testified she had a total loss of wage-earning capacity, despite noting that claimant expressed multiple times she would prefer to be working and productive.
The good news is the Full Commission, in keeping with it’s other extend benefits decisions, clearly states that the standard in extended benefits cases is different than the normal standard for proving entitlement to temporary total disability benefits. Applying the revised standard set forth in the 2011 revisions to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-29(c), the Full Commission reiterated that to establish entitlement to extended compensation, a plaintiff must show that they have a total loss of the ability to earn wages in any employment. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-29(c) (2021).
However, the Full Commission found the vocational expert’s opinion credible and concluded there were no jobs in the job market within claimant’s functional capabilities. The Commission found ongoing disability for claimant’s pre-reform injury, and the Commission also found a total loss of wage-earning capacity due to her compensable injury for the second post-reform injury. Claimant was awarded ongoing medical benefits and TTD benefits for the pre-reform injury until claimant returns to work or until further order by the Commission and awarded extended benefits for the post-reform injury. The Commission focused on claimant’s chronic pain, age, and length of time from being in any academic situation and relied on the only vocational expert to testify in the case to conclude that claimant has sustained a total loss of her wage-earning capacity.
Takeaways for Defendants
This Opinion and Award once again demonstrates the importance of expert testimony in these extended benefit cases. The physicians deposed all found claimant’s pain complaints credible and either would not comment on claimant’s ability to work or deferred to a vocational expert as to whether there were jobs available that claimant could perform. The only vocational expert that was deposed clearly testified that claimant had suffered a total loss of wage-earning capacity because of her restrictions and chronic pain complaints. In order for defendants to successfully defend these cases, they must retain or have testimony from both medical and vocational experts that the claimant has some wage earning capacity. If defendants can successfully present this evidence, past cases suggest that they will prevail and extended benefits will not be awarded.