Brewer-Strong v. HNI Corp.

Decision Date08 June 2018
Docket NumberNo. 16-1364,16-1364
Citation913 N.W.2d 235
Parties Kelly BREWER-STRONG, Appellant, v. HNI CORPORATION, Appellee.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Anthony J. Bribriesco, Andrew W. Bribriesco, and William J. Bribriesco of Bribriesco Law Firm, Bettendorf, for appellant.

Valerie A. Landis of Hopkins & Huebner, P.C., Des Moines, for appellee.

Jason D. Neifert of Neifert, Byrne & Ozga, P.C., West Des Moines, for amicus curiae Iowa Association for Justice Workers’ Compensation Core Group.

Ryan G. Koopmans (until withdrawal) and Joseph A. Quinn, Nyemaster Goode, P.C., Des Moines, for amicus curiae Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Insurance Institute, the Iowa Defense Counsel Association, and the Iowa Self-Insurers Association.

ZAGER, Justice.

Claimant Kelly Brewer-Strong contends the workers’ compensation commissioner wrongly denied her healing period benefits under Iowa Code section 85.34(1) (2016). Brewer-Strong filed a petition seeking workers’ compensation benefits after developing bilateral carpal tunnel

injuries allegedly arising out of and in the course of her employment with HNI Corporation (HNI). HNI originally denied liability for the claimed injuries. Brewer-Strong filed a petition for alternate medical care that was dismissed on procedural grounds because HNI contested liability for the injury. A physician chosen by HNI examined Brewer-Strong, and the physician confirmed that the claimed injuries were work-related. HNI subsequently amended its answer to admit liability and authorized Brewer-Strong to undergo medical care with its chosen medical providers. However, Brewer-Strong sought medical treatment from a different, unauthorized physician who proceeded to perform two surgeries on Brewer-Strong. HNI refused to pay Brewer-Strong healing period benefits for the time she was recovering from the unauthorized surgeries.

The workers’ compensation commissioner decided Brewer-Strong was not entitled to healing period benefits. Specifically, the commissioner found that HNI provided a valid authorization defense, and Brewer-Strong did not meet her burden to prove that her unauthorized care resulted in a more favorable outcome than the care she would have received from the authorized physician. On judicial review, the district court affirmed this decision on the same grounds. Brewer-Strong appealed, and we retained the appeal. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the decision of the district court.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Kelly Brewer-Strong became an HNI employee in 2007. Her position required Brewer-Strong to use her left upper extremity to move fabric from the left to right sides of her body over 700 times per day. She would also carry equipment weighing around 140 pounds and, at times, lift this equipment on to a shelf that was located above her shoulder level. Due to this work, Brewer-Strong injured her left shoulder prior to the injuries involved in this case.

On December 5, 2011, HNI authorized Dr. Tina Stec, an occupational physician, to treat Brewer-Strong for a new injury that is the subject of this case. HNI had previously authorized Dr. Stec to treat Brewer-Strong for her left shoulder injury. Dr. Stec reexamined the left shoulder and examined Brewer-Strong for her complaints of numbness in the left arm. Due to her symptoms, Dr. Stec ordered a nerve test—an EMG/NCV—for both of her arms. On January 26, 2012, the test results revealed Brewer-Strong had mild bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome

. Dr. Stec subsequently opted to provide Brewer-Strong with a conservative treatment and gave her bilateral rigid wrist braces to wear at night. Dr. Stec did not refer Brewer-Strong for any further treatment or evaluation for the bilateral carpal tunnel. In a note she wrote on January 30, Dr. Stec noted the bilateral carpal tunnel was unrelated to her prior left shoulder injury, but she wrote that it could "potentially [be] work related due to forceful gripping at work."

On or about June 7, Brewer-Strong served her original notice and petition on HNI. In her petition, she pled that she sustained cumulative, bilateral arm injuries that arose out of and in the course of her employment with HNI commencing on January 26, 2012. She also requested workers’ compensation benefits, including medical benefits, pursuant to Iowa Code section 85.27. HNI answered on June 20 denying liability for the bilateral arm injuries. HNI subsequently solicited and received an opinion letter from Dr. Stec which stated, "I do believe carpal tunnel

can be/is related to her work activities." HNI did not believe this opinion letter served as a definitive assertion that Brewer-Strong’s employment at HNI caused her bilateral carpal tunnel. Brewer-Strong then again requested medical care to treat her bilateral arm injuries, asserting that Dr. Stec’s opinion letter confirmed that her bilateral carpal tunnel was work-related. On August 30, HNI declined this request and again denied liability, asserting that Dr. Stec’s opinion letter did not definitively establish that the bilateral carpal tunnel injury sustained by Brewer-Strong was work-related.

On September 4, Brewer-Strong filed a petition for alternate medical care asking the workers’ compensation commissioner to issue a ruling on medical care for her injury and claiming an "abandonment of care" by HNI. HNI answered and again denied liability for the bilateral carpal tunnel

. As a result, on September 10, the deputy workers’ compensation commissioner dismissed the petition for alternate medical care. In issuing its order of dismissal on alternate medical care, the deputy commissioner stated, "[I]f claimant seeks to recover the charges incurred in obtaining the care for which defendants deny liability, defendants are barred from asserting lack of authorization as a defense for those charges."

Following this order of dismissal, Brewer-Strong did not immediately obtain any further medical treatment. However, HNI continued to investigate the claimed injury. HNI arranged for Brewer-Strong to be seen by Dr. Brian Adams at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for an evaluation of her injury. HNI also sought an opinion from Dr. Adams on whether the injuries suffered by Brewer-Strong were work-related and whether the injury required subsequent medical treatment. Brewer-Strong was evaluated by Dr. Adams on October 22. Dr. Adams diagnosed her with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome

, mild cubital tunnel syndrome, and trigger finger. In his evaluation, Dr. Adams opined that the bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome"is substantially aggravated by her work activities or caused by her work activities and therefore a work-related disorder." Likewise, he noted the mild cubital tunnel syndrome"is most likely substantially aggravated by her work activities and therefore a work-related condition." Nonetheless, Dr. Adams found that none of the conditions required further examination or surgical treatment. Dr. Adams recommended that she continue using her wrist splints, modify her activity, and engage in certain exercises.

Upon receiving this opinion from Dr. Adams, HNI amended its answer on November 8 and admitted Brewer-Strong sustained her bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome

in the course of her employment with HNI on January 26, 2012. Between November 8, 2012 and January 15, 2013, Brewer-Strong sought no medical care for her bilateral upper extremity complaints. On January 15, 2013, Brewer-Strong was seen and examined by Dr. Kreiter. In his examination, Dr. Kreiter noted that her complaints had worsened since her evaluation with Dr. Adams. Dr. Kreiter recommended Brewer-Strong undergo another EMG/NCV test, and he suggested surgery. Upon receipt of Dr. Kreiter’s report, HNI arranged for Brewer-Strong to return to Dr. Adams for another evaluation to determine the appropriate course of medical care. HNI advised Brewer-Strong of these arrangements on March 12. HNI also made clear that Dr. Adams was the authorized medical provider to provide Brewer-Strong with the medical care required to treat her bilateral upper extremity complaints. However, Brewer-Strong refused to attend any appointments with Dr. Adams. She testified at her hearing that her symptoms had significantly worsened since her October 2012 evaluation. She testified she did not know whether Dr. Adams would have suggested surgery or a more conservative course of treatment if she attended the scheduled April 2013 appointment.

Brewer-Strong was deposed on April 16. It was through this deposition that HNI discovered that Brewer-Strong planned to seek medical care for her bilateral upper extremities from Dr. Thomas VonGillern. As of the deposition date, Brewer-Strong had not yet set up an appointment with Dr. VonGillern or received any treatment from him. Brewer-Strong also asserted her opposition to returning to Dr. Adams for treatment, calling Dr. Adams a "high educated idiot" and proclaiming that she disliked him because he did not speak to her in layman’s terms. During the deposition, HNI discovered that Brewer-Strong had also sought medical treatment from Dr. Atwell on March 25. As a result of his examination, Dr. Atwell agreed with Dr. Adams’ diagnosis and did not think surgery was necessary to treat her injuries. Brewer-Strong subsequently opted not to seek further medical treatment from Dr. Atwell.

On April 22, HNI again advised Brewer-Strong that Dr. Adams was the authorized physician for her care. It also reiterated that it would not cover the costs of her medical expenses and weekly benefits if she was treated by Dr. VonGillern since he was not the authorized physician. At that time, there was no doubt that Brewer-Strong knew that HNI had accepted liability for her bilateral upper extremity claim. HNI also filed a motion to compel examination on April 22, seeking to have Dr. Adams conduct another evaluation of Brewer-Strong. The commissioner granted this motion on April 25, ordering Brewer-Strong to attend a second evaluation with Dr. Adams....

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