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Employee Not Entitled to Further Worker's Compensation Benefits Because Her Disability-Causing Surgery was not Related to a Compensable Work Injury

By Daniel M. Pedriana and Claudia R. Harke - Lindner & Marsack, S.C.

October 15, 2018

On August 28, 2018, District I of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that the Plaintiff was not entitled to further worker’s compensation benefits because her disability-causing surgery was not related to a compensable work injury.

In Theresa Payton-Myrick v. LIRC, Theresa Payton-Myrick was diagnosed with arthritic changes and degenerative disc disease in her spine. Payton-Myrick was employed as an administrative assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. On July 21, 2009, she fell out of her desk chair and sustained several muscle strains. She subsequently received opinions from several doctors, one of whom recommended a spinal fusion surgery.

Despite conflicting medical opinions, Payton-Myrick underwent surgery, which resulted in multiple procedures and left her “arguably disabled.” Payton-Myrick applied for worker’s compensation benefits. The UW System denied her benefits, which caused Payton-Myrick to file a worker’s compensation claim.

An administrative law judge concluded that Payton-Myrick had “suffered a work-related injury that aggravated Payton-Myrick’s back condition beyond its normal progression” and that “the treatment, including surgery, was necessary and reasonable.”

The Labor and Industry Review Commission (“LIRC”) reversed the ALJ and found that Payton-Myrick’s muscle strains were from a compensable work injury, however, the work injury had healed and did not aggravate her pre-existing condition enough to necessitate surgery. LIRC also made several factual findings including that Payton-Myrick’s disability causing surgeries treated her pre-existing condition, not her compensable work injury.

The Court of Appeals upheld LIRC’s denial of further benefits based on a holding from the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Flug v. LIRC. In Flug, the Supreme Court ruled that Wis. Stat. § 102.42(1m), which states that if an employee who has sustained a compensable injury undertakes treatment in good faith that is medically acceptable, but unnecessary, the employer shall pay for all disability incurred as a result, only applies if the unnecessary, but acceptable surgery is to address the workplace injury.

Since LIRC made a factual finding that Payton-Myrick’s two spinal surgeries were focused on her pre-existing disc problems, not the workplace injury, the Court of Appeals upheld LIRC’s denial of further benefits.

This Decision does not drastically change the law surrounding whether an employee is entitled to further worker’s compensation benefits, however, it reinforces that Wis. Stat. § 102.42(1m) only applies if the unnecessary-but-acceptable surgery was done to address the workplace injury. However, it will be important to have treating and independent doctors specifically note the reason for an employee undergoing an unnecessary-but-acceptable surgery, as that will determine whether they are owed additional benefits.

The time to appeal this decision has passed and the decision remains unpublished. If you have questions about this decision, please contact Daniel M. Pedriana at dpedriana@lindner-marsack.com or Claudia R. Harke at charke@lindner-marsack.com.

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