Rueda v. Utah Labor Comm'n

Decision Date31 August 2017
Docket NumberNo. 20140043,20140043
Citation423 P.3d 1175 (Mem)
Parties Genoveva RUEDA, Appellee, v. UTAH LABOR COMMISSION, JBS USA LLC, American Zurich Insurance Co., and Zurich American Insurance Co., Appellants.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Loren M. Lambert, Midvale, for appellee, Jaceson R. Maughan, Salt Lake City, for appellant, Utah Labor Commission.

Mark R. Sumsion, Cody G. Kesler, Salt Lake City, for appellants, JBS USA LLC, American Zurich Insurance Co., and Zurich American Insurance Co.

Justice Himonas authored an opinion, in which Justice Pearce joined.

Chief Justice Durrant authored an opinion, in which Justice Durham joined.

Associate Chief Justice Lee authored an opinion.*

Justice Himonas, opinion:

INTRODUCTION

¶ 1 We confront the effect of the 1991 amendments to the Occupational Disease Act, UTAH CODE§ 34A-3-101 to -113, on the Workers' Compensation Act, id. § 34A-2-101 to -905. Lamentably, we are divided on how to square the acts and are left with a splintered opinion in which Justice Pearce and I would affirm in part and reverse in part the final order of the Labor Commission, Chief Justice Durrant and Justice Durham would affirm, and Associate Chief Justice Lee would vacate and remand. The result is that the order stands as issued.1

¶ 2 The facts in this case concern Genoveva Rueda, who claimed workers' compensation benefits against her employer, JBS USA, for injuries she sustained while working in its meat processing plant from 2007 to 2009. Initially, JBS USA and its insurers, American Zurich Insurance and Zurich American Insurance, (collectively, JBS) paid Ms. Rueda's benefits. But in 2012 they asked for a medical review to determine any further liability. After this review, JBS determined that either it was no longer liable to Ms. Rueda or "Ms. Rueda's condition, while connected to the employment, did not constitute a compensable ‘accident’ under the Workers' Compensation Act, but was instead an occupational disease under the ... Occupational Disease Act." Ms. Rueda petitioned an administrative law judge (ALJ) on the matter. The ALJ found in favor of Ms. Rueda, concluding that JBS was subject to ongoing liability for her injuries, which were caused by a workplace accident under a theory of "cumulative trauma." JBS petitioned for review of this decision to the Labor Commission, which upheld the decision of the ALJ in its final order. That order is before us on proper appeal by JBS.

¶ 3 With an eye trained on our longstanding precedent, I would affirm in part and reverse in part. The majority of my colleagues, however, based on no relevant changes to the Workers' Compensation Act and only minor, twenty-six-year-old amendments to the Occupational Disease Act, would now fundamentally adjust the scope of both acts. While I certainly understand their urge to bring clarity to these muddy waters, and while I also share many of their policy concerns, I think we forget the wisdom behind Justice Scalia's aphorism that legislative bodies do not "hide elephants in mouseholes" and, in so forgetting, overstep our authority by making sweeping changes. Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass'ns , 531 U.S. 457, 468, 121 S.Ct. 903, 149 L.Ed.2d 1 (2001).

¶ 4 I reject this approach and tackle the questions presented by this matter as set forth below. First, I address JBS's contention that the 1991 amendments to the Occupational Disease Act abrogated the "cumulative trauma" theory of injury by accident under the Workers' Compensation Act. I conclude that they did not.2

¶ 5 Second, I address the challenge by Ms. Rueda that her injury was improperly classified as the result of "cumulative trauma" rather than a series of distinct accidents. I conclude that there was substantial evidence to support the Labor Commission's findings that Ms. Rueda suffered a medical condition affecting her right arm as the result of gradual and consistent exposure to the regular duties of her employment. And, thus, I would affirm the finding of the Labor Commission that Ms. Rueda's injury was caused by "cumulative trauma."

¶ 6 Third, I conclude that these findings, when viewed against the legal backdrop of the proper construction of the interplay between the Occupational Disease Act and the Workers' Compensation Act, result in a determination that Ms. Rueda's condition is an occupational disease. Thus, in my view, we should reverse the Labor Commission's determination that Ms. Rueda's injury was by accident.

BACKGROUND

¶ 7 Ms. Rueda began working at JBS USA's meat processing plant on July 23, 2007. She first worked as a mock tender trimmer in the fabrication department, which required her to repeatedly remove meat from a conveyor belt with a hook and trim the meat with a knife. Then, for a short time, Ms. Rueda worked in the "hot boning area," where she used a knife to "poke into the head of the tender" and "clip[ped] the tender to drop out of position." She also spent several weeks working as a fat trimmer, "trimming fat and lean with a straight knife."

¶ 8 As early as August 2007, Ms. Rueda began to experience "right upper extremity ... symptoms, including numbness, pain, wrist discomfort, elbow pain, forearm discomfort, and right shoulder symptoms." She also experienced swelling in her right hand. The swelling in her hand gradually worsened over time and spread up her right arm; the other pains and symptoms likewise persisted and progressed throughout her employment at the plant.

¶ 9 On January 1, 2008, Ms. Rueda was trimming mock tender and pulled product with a hook in order to trim it when she "felt pain on the left sides of her neck, shoulder and low back." Afterward, she was diagnosed with neck, shoulder, and back strain and began physical therapy in February 2008. On April 28 and June 3, 2008, Ms. Rueda "reported right medial elbow soreness and right shoulder and arm pain." She continued receiving physical therapy until late November 2008.

¶ 10 In February 2009, Ms. Rueda was moved to a new position as a meat trimmer. She would use her left hand to position the neck bone and use her right hand to remove the meat from the bone with a mechanized knife. The physical demands of the position were "in the [l]ight work category with frequent lifting up to 20 pounds and carrying objects up to 10 pounds, reaching with the right [arm] occasionally and the left arm frequently, handling with the right hand frequently and the left hand frequently[,] and standing six to eight hours."

¶ 11 On May 11, 2009, Ms. Rueda filed another injury report. On that day, she felt pain in her right shoulder and in her right hand as she was removing meat from bones and throwing the bones onto trays. She "began to hear [her] right shoulder make a popping noise that she had not heard before." Ms. Rueda reported the injury and was placed on light work duty, which consisted of using a small hand tool to count pieces of product as they fell into a box.

¶ 12 In June and July 2009, Ms. Rueda received physical therapy for her ailments. An MRI scan revealed a "partial thickness tear through the supraspinatus and infraspinatus portions of the rotator cuff." Ms. Rueda underwent surgery on her right shoulder in October 2009 and returned to work the next month. She was assigned to light work duty but was released from work a week later "due to ongoing right arm pain" and did not return to work after that.

¶ 13 On January 11, 2010, a doctor opined that Ms. Rueda's right shoulder condition was "medically stable." He assessed "a permanent impairment rating of 4% whole person for [Ms. Rueda's] right shoulder condition of which he apportioned 80% to the industrial accident, or 3% whole person, and 20% to non-industrial." The following day, January 12, 2010, Ms. Rueda voluntarily quit her job.

¶ 14 After leaving JBS USA, Ms. Rueda continued undergoing medical evaluations and treatment for her right upper extremity symptoms for a couple of years. In 2012, JBS requested an orthopedic evaluation to determine its additional liability, if any, for Ms. Rueda's condition. After the evaluation, JBS maintained that it was no longer liable for Ms. Rueda's medical expenses and that it had paid Ms. Rueda all that was required under the law. Alternatively, JBS contended that Ms. Rueda's injury was the result of an occupational disease, rather than an industrial accident, and that any benefits should be apportioned in accordance with the medical evidence. Ms. Rueda then filed an Application for Hearing with the Adjudication Division of the Utah Labor Commission, claiming entitlement to additional workers' compensation benefits.

¶ 15 The dispute was heard before an ALJ, who determined that there was a conflict of medical opinion regarding Ms. Rueda's need for ongoing treatment. The ALJ directed the factual medical questions to a Labor Commission medical panel, which issued a report on May 16, 2013. Neither party objected to the medical panel's report, and it was admitted into evidence. Based on the earlier hearing and the medical panel's report, the ALJ ruled in favor of Ms. Rueda, concluding that Ms. Rueda needed further treatment for her condition resulting from her "industrial accident," and ordered JBS to provide Ms. Rueda additional workers' compensation benefits.

¶ 16 In response to the ALJ's order, JBS asked the Labor Commission for review. The Labor Commission affirmed the ALJ's order, and JBS subsequently filed a petition to review the Labor Commission's decision with the Utah Court of Appeals under the Utah Administrative Procedures Act. UTAH CODE§ 63G-4-403. The court of appeals certified the case for transfer to this court. We have jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(b).

STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶ 17 Appellate courts have authority to review final agency adjudications on the grounds enumerated in the Utah Administrative Procedures Act. UTAH CODE§ 63G-4-403. A court may grant relief if "it determines that a person seeking judicial review has been substantially prejudiced" because "the agency has erroneously interpreted or applied...

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