RICHARD S. REED, Employee/Appellant, v. CHANDLER-WILBERT VAULT CO. and HARTFORD INS. CO., Employer-Insurer, and SPECIAL COMPENSATION FUND.
WORKERS= COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
DECEMBER 22, 2005
PERMANENT TOTAL DISABILITY - SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE. Where the employee had not worked at all during the twenty-two-year interim since his work-related heart injury, where, in addition to his continuing heart condition, the employee suffered from diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidemia, depression, legal blindness, and surgically treated low back problems, and where the judge=s decision was otherwise supported by the medical opinion and other evidence of record, the compensation judge=s conclusion that the employee had been permanently totally disabled since the date of his work injury was not clearly erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence, notwithstanding the absence of any vocational evidence in the record.
Determined by: Pederson, J., Rykken, J., and Johnson, C.J.
Compensation Judge: Catherine A. Dallner
Attorneys: Joel C. Monke, Attorney at Law, Woodbury, MN, for the Appellant. Anne E. Kevlin, Law Offices of Adam S. Wolkoff, Eagan, MN, for the Respondents.
WILLIAM R. PEDERSON, Judge
The employee appeals from the compensation judge=s finding that the employee has been permanently and totally disabled since September 27, 1982, as a result of his work-related heart attack on that date. We affirm.
For purposes of this appeal, the relevant facts are essentially undisputed. Richard Reed [the employee] sustained an admitted injury in the nature of a heart attack on September 27, 1982, while working for Chandler-Wilbert Vault Co. [the employer]. On that date, the employee was forty-six years old and was earning a weekly wage of $352.00. Since the date of the injury, the employee has not worked and the employer and insurer have been paying temporary total disability benefits, nor has there been any attempt to return the employee to work.
On March 25, 2004, the employer and insurer filed a Petition for a Determination of Permanent Total Disability, alleging that the employee has been permanently and totally disabled since September 27, 1982. The employee disputed the employer and insurer=s allegation, and the matter was heard by a compensation judge on May 19, 2005. The only evidence introduced at trial were the employee=s medical records, records from the Social Security Administration, and the employee=s brief testimony that he was currently receiving temporary total disability benefits from the insurer, that ever since 1982 he had had a desire to return to work, and that no doctor had ever told him that he would never return to work. In a Findings and Order issued July 15, 2005, the compensation judge determined that the employee has been permanently and totally disabled since September 27, 1982, as a result of his work-related injury on that date. The employee appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
On appeal, the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals must determine whether "the findings of fact and order [are] clearly erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted." Minn. Stat. ' 176.421, subd. 1 (2004). Substantial evidence supports the findings if, in the context of the entire record, "they are supported by evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Hengemuhle v. Long Prairie Jaycees, 358 N.W.2d 54, 59, 37 W.C.D. 235, 239 (Minn. 1984). Where evidence conflicts or more than one inference may reasonably be drawn from the evidence, the findings are to be affirmed. Id. at 60, 37 W.C.D. at 240. Similarly, findings of fact should not be disturbed, even though the reviewing court might disagree with them, "unless they are clearly erroneous in the sense that they are manifestly contrary to the weight of the evidence or not reasonably supported by the evidence as a whole.@ Northern States Power Co. v. Lyon Food Prods., Inc., 304 Minn. 196, 201, 229 N.W.2d 521, 524 (1975).
On appeal, the employee contends that the compensation judge=s determination that the employee is permanently and totally disabled is unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted. He argues that a determination of permanent total disability has both a medical and a vocational component and that medical evidence alone, such as that relied on exclusively by the judge, is insufficient to support the judge=s conclusion. He argues that no effort has ever been made to return him to the work force, that he has never been provided with a functional capacities evaluation, and, most importantly, that there has been no competent vocational opinion offered relative to his employability. We are not persuaded.
An injured employee is permanently and totally disabled Aif his physical condition, in combination with his age, training, and experience, and the type of work available in his community, causes him to be unable to secure anything more than sporadic employment resulting in an insubstantial income.@ Schulte v. C.H. Peterson Constr. Co., 278 Minn. 79, 83, 153 N.W.2d 130, 133-34, 24 W.C.D. 290, 295 (1967). While vocational opinion on the issue may have been helpful in this case, such an opinion is not necessarily required to establish permanent total disability. Boschee v. Edina Care Ctr., slip op. (W.C.C.A. July 9, 1997). If an employee is deemed by his doctors to be restricted from all work on a solely medical basis, the vocational component to an employee=s permanent total disability status is in effect a moot issue. See Redgate v. Sroga=s Standard Serv., 421 N.W.2d 729, 733, 40 W.C.D. 948, 954 (Minn. 1988) (Aemployees who are capable of work must make a diligent job search to establish total disability@). It is clear to us from the judge=s memorandum that she reasonably inferred from the doctors= opinions that the doctors deemed the employee to be so disabled.
In her memorandum, the judge noted that, at the time of the hearing, the employee was sixty-nine years old and had not worked since his injury on September 27, 1982. No attempt had been made to return the employee to work in the succeeding twenty-three years. The employee=s medical records reflected the severity of his heart condition. He had undergone three coronary by-pass procedures, two in 1981 prior to the work injury and a third in 1992. The employee had also undergone coronary angiography on numerous occasions over the years since the work injury. The judge noted that the employee had limited his activities to some golf and volunteer work at United Hospital. In October of 2001, while at the hospital pushing a patient in a wheel chair, the employee had collapsed. He had been treated with an automatic external defibrillator and had then been admitted as a patient to the hospital. In the course of his hospitalization during October and November of 2001, the employee had undergone surgery for placement of a dual chamber pacemaker system.
The judge noted that as early as November 5, 1982, Dr. James Lillehei, one of the employee=s primary treating physicians, opined that the employee should not return to his previous occupation with the employer, stating, Aat this time there seems little likelihood that he will be able to be employed in the foreseeable future because of the coronary artery disease and angina.@ On January 7, 1983, Dr. Lillehei stated further that the employee=s heart condition Ahas the effect of making it impossible for him to perform most occupations.@ Dr. Stanley Fruchtman, who examined the employee for the employer and insurer on May 26, 1983, reported that A[p]hysical effort of any kind is still a major problem for this patient. Obviously, the possibility of his entering an occupation with reasonable continued employment is highly questionable.@
In addition to the employee=s heart condition, the judge noted the employee=s diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidemia, and depression. According to his treating physicians, the employee is Alegally blind@ in his right eye, and he also has suffered from low back problems for which he underwent a hemilaminectomy at L1-L2 in December of 2004. The employee continues to work as a hospital volunteer but has noted that that activity occasionally precipitates symptoms. He continues to take numerous medications for control of his heart condition as well as his other medical conditions, and he continues to treat regularly with physicians at the St. Paul Heart Clinic.
Because there exists substantial evidence in the record to support the judge=s conclusion that the employee has been medically unable to work since September 27, 1982, the employee having offered no evidence to the contrary, we affirm the judge=s finding of permanent total disability commencing September 27, 1982. See Hengemuhle, 358 N.W.2d at 59, 37 W.C.D. at 239.