Weathersby v. Miss. Baptist Health Sys., Inc.

Decision Date28 June 2016
Docket NumberNo. 2015–WC–01170–COA.,2015–WC–01170–COA.
Citation195 So.3d 877
Parties Patricia WEATHERSBY, Appellant v. MISSISSIPPI BAPTIST HEALTH SYSTEMS, INC. d/b/a Mississippi Baptist Medical Center, Appellee.
CourtMississippi Court of Appeals

Steven H. Funderburg, attorney for appellant.

Andrew D. Sweat, Jennifer Hughes Scott, Victoria Reppond Bradshaw, attorneys for appellee.

Before GRIFFIS, P.J., ISHEE and WILSON, JJ.

WILSON, J., for the Court:

¶ 1. Patricia Weathersby has worked in clerical positions at Mississippi Baptist Health Systems, most recently as a financial analyst, since 2001. In 2011, she injured her back at work, but she returned to her job, without restriction, and continued to earn the same wages and perform the same duties as prior to her injury. Weathersby has undergone two surgeries and experienced continued pain and discomfort as a result of her injury, but according to her supervisors and by her own account, she has continued to perform her job capably.

¶ 2. Weathersby filed a petition to controvert with the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Commission (Commission), seeking permanent partial disability benefits for her back injury. However, in accordance with longstanding precedent, the Commission applied a rebuttable presumption that Weathersby had suffered no loss of wage-earning capacity—and, hence, no disability—because she returned to work at the same wages as prior to her injury. The Commission also found that Weathersby had not presented any evidence to rebut that presumption. Because the Commission's decision is supported by substantial evidence and is not clearly erroneous, we affirm.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 3. Patricia Weathersby has worked for Mississippi Baptist Health Systems (Baptist) since July 2001. She started at Baptist as a claims collector, working with insurance companies to process payment of claims, and she was later promoted to a position as a financial analyst. On March 11, 2011, Weathersby injured her back while lifting a five-gallon water bottle to place on a water cooler. Baptist acknowledged that Weathersby had suffered a compensable injury and began paying workers' compensation benefits, including medical treatment and temporary disability benefits.

¶ 4. Dr. Lynn Stringer, a neurosurgeon, examined Weathersby and diagnosed her with a herniated disc at L4–L5. Dr. Stringer performed surgery on Weathersby in May 2011, and Weathersby began working from home via remote access as soon as she was stable in June 2011. Weathersby was allowed to telecommute on a full-time basis during her recovery, whereas prior to her injury she telecommuted only one or two days a week. By July 2011, Weathersby resumed her normal schedule of telecommuting only one or two days a week. This was consistent with Dr. Stringer's recommendations.

¶ 5. Weathersby continued her regular work schedule until September 2012, when she experienced a flare-up of her back injury. Dr. Stringer examined her and indicated that she needed to be off of work, although apparently she was able to continue working from home. Dr. Stringer also ordered an MRI, which revealed scarring from her prior surgery but no recurrent disc herniation. Weathersby then saw Dr. David Collipp, who placed her in physical therapy and prescribed medicine for pain. Weathersby also saw Dr. Edwin Dodd, a pain management specialist, who administered a series of epidural steroid injections.1 In November 2012, Dr. Collipp determined that Weathersby could continue regular work and, although it was not medically necessary, he recommended that she be allowed to continue to work from home. Baptist had no objection, so Weathersby continued to work from home until January 2013.

¶ 6. In January 2013, Dr. Collipp released Weathersby to all light-duty work, which included her normal work at Baptist. Dr. Collipp observed that Weathersby might experience permanent nerve pain or numbness, and he recommended that she take breaks from sitting every thirty minutes. He also ordered another MRI, which showed a mild generalized disc bulging at L4–L5 and a mild degenerative disc bulge at L5–S1.

¶ 7. After Dr. Collipp released her to work, Weathersby returned to her normal schedule of working from home one day a week and at Baptist the other four. Thereafter, Weathersby occasionally had to leave work early due to pain and numbness, and she took breaks to alternate between sitting and standing. Baptist also allowed her to take a few days off to recover after she received injections for pain and inflammation. Baptist evaluated Weathersby's work space and arranged for a new chair, a foot rocker, and a new computer setup. Baptist also provided Weathersby with a parking pass to allow her to park closer to her building.

¶ 8. Weathersby saw Dr. Stringer again in February 2013. She reported pain in her right hip, leg, and foot. Dr. Stringer diagnosed her with post-operative changes and prescribed medication for pain, but he did not recommend additional surgery at that time.

¶ 9. Dr. Robert McGuire conducted an independent medical exam of Weathersby in November 2013. Dr. McGuire did not believe Weathersby required further surgery, and he found that she had reached maximum medical improvement with a fifteen percent impairment to the body as a whole. He restricted her work to “light work” on a permanent basis and recommended that she avoid manual labor, but he concluded that she could continue her work as a financial analyst at Baptist without restriction.

¶ 10. Weathersby returned to Dr. Dodd in June 2014. She reported that she had done well with only a “few small episodes of decreased discomfort over the [prior] year and a half.” Dr. Dodd recommended that she continue taking an anti-inflammatory medication that another physician had prescribed. Dr. Dodd also noted Weathersby had experienced a symptom flare-up a few weeks prior, and he administered another epidural steroid injection. When he saw Weathersby again in July 2014, Dr. Dodd noted that she had improved since the last steroid injection, but she still experienced daily discomfort. He prescribed medicine for her pain and recommended that she repeat steroid injections.

¶ 11. Weathersby filed a petition to controvert with the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Commission on March 4, 2013. Baptist admitted a compensable injury but denied that Weathersby had suffered any permanent disability or loss of wage-earning capacity. On August 1, 2014, an administrative judge (AJ) of the Commission held an evidentiary hearing. The parties stipulated that (1) Weathersby injured her back in the course and scope of her employment on March 11, 2011; (2) Weathersby's average weekly wage at the time of her injury was $1,013.48; and (3) Weathersby was not entitled to additional temporary disability benefits. The only contested issues were the date of maximum medical improvement and the existence and extent of any permanent disability. Weathersby's deposition and medical records were admitted into evidence at the outset of the hearing.

¶ 12. Weathersby testified at the hearing that Baptist had been “very willing to assist” her in returning to work and that she had not lost any income as a result of her injury. She acknowledged that the physical demands of her job did not require her to lift anything heavier than a stack of documents and that her injury had not prevented her from fulfilling any of her job duties. She testified that, to the best of her knowledge, her supervisors were satisfied with her job performance. She also testified that she was not looking for other employment and planned to continue working at Baptist for the foreseeable future.

¶ 13. Ben McGaugh, Weathersby's supervisor from January 2010 until November 2013, testified that Weathersby's performance evaluations—both prior to and after her injury—all indicated that she met or exceeded expectations. McGaugh praised Weathersby's work ethic, initiative, and willingness to learn. He testified that her position was sedentary and did not require any physical activity more strenuous than lifting paper. According to McGaugh, Weathersby's injury had no effect on her work, and he received no complaints about her performance after she returned to work.

¶ 14. Lynn Christy had been Weathersby's supervisor since November 2013. She described Weathersby as a dedicated and capable employee. Christy testified that, due to shared office space, Weathersby and another contract analyst rotated days in the office. As a result, Weathersby telecommunicated two or three days a week, which was more often than prior to her injury. However, this was due to a change in the location of Weathersby's department, not her injury. Christy testified that Weathersby's back injury had not affected her job performance, and Weathersby had not been passed over for a promotion or pay increases as a result of her injury.

¶ 15. The AJ rendered a decision on November 7, 2014. The AJ identified July 5, 2011, as Weathersby's date of maximum medical improvement. This was the date Dr. Stringer released Weathersby to return to work, and Weathersby was already working full-time from her home at that time. The AJ also found that Weathersby had suffered a ten percent loss of wage-earning capacity. She ordered Baptist to pay $67.70 in permanent partial disability benefits from July 6, 2011, to continue for 450 weeks. On November 25, 2014, Baptist timely petitioned the full Commission for review of the AJ's decision.

¶ 16. On September 1, 2014—after the evidentiary hearing but prior to the AJ's ruling—Dr. Stringer recommended that Weathersby undergo surgery based on a recurrent disc herniation at L4–L5. Dr. Stringer performed the surgery on November 20, 2014. Weathersby was treated by Dr. Leon Grigoryev post-operation and also underwent a course of outpatient physical therapy. On March 16, 2015, Dr. Grigoryev determined that Weathersby had reached maximum medical improvement. He released her to work at Baptist without restriction and assigned a nine...

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