Oceguera v. Labor Commission, 052920 UTCA, 20190367-CA

Docket Nº:20190367-CA
Opinion Judge:HARRIS, Judge.
Party Name:Martha Oceguera, Petitioner, v. Labor Commission and The Corporation of the Presiding Bishop, Respondents.
Attorney:Loren M. Lambert, Attorney for Petitioner Lori L. Hansen and Cody G. Kesler, Attorneys for Respondent The Corporation of the Presiding Bishop
Judge Panel:Judge Ryan M. Harris authored this Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K. Orme and Michele M. Christiansen Forster concurred.
Case Date:May 29, 2020
Court:Court of Appeals of Utah
 
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2020 UT App 83

Martha Oceguera, Petitioner,

v.

Labor Commission and The Corporation of the Presiding Bishop, Respondents.

No. 20190367-CA

Court of Appeals of Utah

May 29, 2020

Original Proceeding in this Court

Loren M. Lambert, Attorney for Petitioner

Lori L. Hansen and Cody G. Kesler, Attorneys for Respondent The Corporation of the Presiding Bishop

Judge Ryan M. Harris authored this Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K. Orme and Michele M. Christiansen Forster concurred.

OPINION

HARRIS, Judge.

¶1 Martha Oceguera injured her knee while working as a seamstress for The Corporation of the Presiding Bishop (CPB), and sought temporary total workers' compensation benefits. The Appeals Board (the Board) of the Utah Labor Commission dismissed Oceguera's claim after determining that she failed to show that her work activity legally caused her injuries. Oceguera asks us to review the Board's determination, and we conclude that the Board erred by rejecting Oceguera's legal causation argument. Accordingly, we set aside the Board's order and return this matter to the Commission for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

¶2 In 2016, Oceguera was employed as a seamstress at Beehive Clothing, a clothing factory operated by CPB to produce religious garments. Oceguera usually tried to work quickly in order to maximize her production rate, and the nature of the work required her to move quickly from one sewing machine to another. Oceguera was required to depress a foot pedal in order to activate each machine. Most of the foot pedals were covered in "grip tape" to help prevent a worker's foot from slipping, but a few of the pedals had no grip tape.

¶3 On August 20, 2016, Oceguera was hurrying to a table to operate a sewing machine. Once she arrived, she placed the garment on the table and, from a standing posture, applied "significant pressure" to the machine's pedal with her right foot. Oceguera later testified that the pedal in question turned out to be lacking grip tape. In addition, at the moment Oceguera stepped on the pedal, it happened to be covered with "a piece of slippery cloth" that had fallen onto it. As Oceguera applied pressure to the pedal, her right foot "slipped and twisted inward with her toes facing left and her ankle [and] heel facing right." This movement caused a "very strong pain" and a "crack" in the back of Oceguera's right knee, which eventually went numb.

¶4 Oceguera reported the injury to her supervisor, and later went to the hospital for treatment. She was diagnosed with a torn meniscus, which eventually required surgical treatment. Doctors also noticed that Oceguera had preexisting osteoarthritis in the injured knee.

¶5 In November 2016, Oceguera filed an application for workers' compensation benefits, including temporary total disability benefits, related to the August 2016 workplace injury. Following the filing of her claim, medical experts retained by each side independently examined her. CPB's medical consultant, an orthopedic surgeon, concluded that the pain Oceguera believed was caused by her August 2016 workplace accident was instead attributable to her preexisting osteoarthritis. On the other hand, a chiropractor retained by Oceguera disagreed, and concluded that Oceguera's injury was caused by the workplace accident and that her preexisting condition did not contribute to her injury. In addition, the surgeon who performed Oceguera's meniscus surgery also indicated that her meniscus tear was not caused by any preexisting condition.

¶6 Due to the existence of conflicting medical opinions, an administrative law judge (the ALJ) referred the medical aspects of Oceguera's claim to an impartial medical panel.1 The panel observed that Oceguera's osteoarthritis pre-dated the August 2016 workplace accident, and concluded that this preexisting condition contributed, in part, to the severity of her meniscal tear. The ALJ credited the medical panel's report, and found that Oceguera had a preexisting condition at the time of the accident that contributed to her injury by "allow[ing] the injury to occur with reduced force" that likely "would not have been sufficient to cause a meniscal tear in a healthy knee." Accordingly, the ALJ determined that, under Utah law, in order to prove that her injury was legally caused by the workplace accident, Oceguera would have to "show that the employment contributed something substantial to increase the risk [she] already faced in everyday life because of [her preexisting] condition." See Allen v. Industrial Comm'n, 729 P.2d 15, 25 (Utah 1986). In the ALJ's view, Oceguera could not meet that standard; the ALJ determined that "[t]he act of one's foot slipping in a limited manner on a slippery surface is a common place occurrence in modern, non-employment life," and that the "physical exertion" Oceguera faced did "not exceed" the usual and customary activities of daily life in the modern world. The ALJ also determined that "the force with which [Oceguera] slipped and twisted her knee would not have been sufficient to cause a meniscal tear in a healthy knee, but her pre-existing condition allowed the injury to occur with reduced force." The ALJ therefore dismissed Oceguera's request for benefits.

¶7 Oceguera appealed the ALJ's decision to the Board, arguing that her osteoarthritis was not the type of preexisting condition that triggers the heightened Allen standard, and arguing that she could in any event demonstrate legal causation. However, a majority of the Board adopted the ALJ's findings and upheld the ALJ's decision, concluding that Oceguera could not show legal causation because the workplace activity that led to the injury did not involve "an unusual or extraordinary exertion above the usual wear and tear of nonemployment life," and opining that "[i]t is not unusual for a person to hurry and then step on a surface and have one's foot slip off and twist to the side such as when a person hurries to cross a street and his or her foot slips off a street curb or hurries to catch a bus or train and then slips while boarding." One member of the Board dissented, opining that the majority was too "obsessed with the 'mechanism of injury'" and had not focused enough on the "environs of the work place."

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶8 Oceguera now asks us to review two aspects of the Board's order. First, Oceguera asserts that the heightened Allen standard for legal causation does not apply here. Second, Oceguera argues that, even if Allen applies, she can satisfy its test, asserting that, under the totality of the circumstances presented, her "employment contributed something substantial to increase the risk she already faced in everyday life" due to her osteoarthritis, see Allen v. Industrial Comm'n, 729 P.2d 15, 25 (Utah 1986), and that her meniscus tear was therefore legally caused by the workplace accident. Both of these issues involve questions on which we owe no deference to the Board's conclusions. The first issue requires us to interpret the scope of a Utah...

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