Workforce Safety and Ins. v. Auck

Decision Date02 July 2010
Docket NumberNo. 20090223.,20090223.
Citation2010 ND 126,785 N.W.2d 186
PartiesWORKFORCE SAFETY AND INSURANCE, and Bobcat Company, Appellants v. Cynthia AUCK, Appellee.
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court

Lolita G. Hartl Romanick, Special Assistant Attorney General (argued), Grand Forks, N.D., and Leslie Bakken Oliver (appeared), Bismarck, N.D., for appellants.

Irvin B. Nodland (argued), Bismarck, N.D., for appellee.

SANDSTROM, Justice.

[¶ 1] Workforce Safety and Insurance ("WSI") and Bobcat Company appeal adistrict court order affirming an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") order reversing WSI's denial of death benefits to Cynthia Auck, the surviving spouse of Richard Auck ("Auck"). Because a reasoning mind reasonably could have determined the preponderance of the evidence proved a compensable injury, we affirm.

I

[¶ 2] Auck began working for Bobcat Company, which was then the Melroe Manufacturing Company, in 1974. The majority of his time at the company was spent as an assembler. In November 2006, he experienced extreme pain in his leg while at work. While in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, Auck went into cardiac arrest. He died shortly thereafter. The surviving spouse filed for workers' compensation benefits, claiming unusual stress at Bobcat was at least fifty percent responsible for causing his death. WSI denied the application for benefits, as well as a request for reconsideration. The surviving spouse requested an independent review and an administrative hearing. After a request from WSI, the office of administrative hearings designated an administrative law judge to conduct the hearing. See N.D.C.C. § 65-02-22.1 (initiated measure approved Nov. 4, 2008, providing WSI shall contract with the office of administrative hearings for the designation of ALJs who shall conduct evidentiary hearings and issue final findings of fact, conclusions of law, and orders).

[¶ 3] At the hearing, Auck's primary care physician testified he had begun treating him in "roughly" 1994 and saw him "extremely frequently." He testified Auck had suffered from chronic pain, chronic stress, and depression related to his work. He testified stress was at least fifty percent of the cause of Auck's heart attack as compared to all other contributing factors. He testified that if Auck had not been working at Bobcat, he would not have had a heart attack when he did. A cardiology specialist retained by WSI testified Auck had other risk factors, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, and a family history of coronary disease. He also testified that the link between long-term stress and heart disease is controversial. A family medicine specialist retained by Bobcat agreed that Auck had other risk factors and testified that he was not aware of any study linking long-term stress and heart attacks.

[¶ 4] The ALJ concluded the greater weight of the evidence showed with reasonable medical certainty that the heart attack that resulted in Auck's death was caused by mental stimulus, namely unusual stress, resulting from his work with long-term chronic pain as an assembler at Bobcat. The ALJ also concluded that, with reasonable medical certainty, the unusual stress was at least fifty percent of the cause of the heart attack compared with all other contributing causes combined. The ALJ issued recommended findings of fact, conclusions of law, and an order to award the surviving spouse benefits. WSI remanded the decision back to the ALJ to issue a final order, and the ALJ issued final findings of fact, conclusions of law, and an order. See N.D.C.C. § 65-02-22.1 (initiated measure approved Nov. 4, 2008, providing WSI shall contract with the office of administrative hearings for the designation of ALJs who shall conduct evidentiary hearings and issue final findings of fact, conclusions of law, and orders) (emphasis added). The district court affirmed the ALJ's order.

[¶ 5] On appeal, WSI and Bobcat argue the ALJ's findings of fact are not supported by the preponderance of the evidence, the ALJ's conclusions of law are notsustained by the findings of fact, and the final order does not accord with the law.

[¶ 6] The district court had jurisdiction under N.D. Const. art. VI, § 8, and N.D.C.C. §§ 27-05-06, 28-32-42, and 65-10-01. The appeal was timely under N.D.R.App.P. 4(a) and N.D.C.C. § 28-32-49. This Court has jurisdiction under N.D. Const. art. VI, §§ 2 and 6, and N.D.C.C. § 28-32-49.

II

[¶ 7] As the claimant, the surviving spouse had the burden below of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that Auck suffered a compensable injury and that she was entitled to workers' compensation benefits. N.D.C.C. § 65-01-11; Manske v. Workforce Safety & Ins., 2008 ND 79, ¶ 9, 748 N.W.2d 394. A "compensable injury" is an injury by accident arising out of and in the course of hazardous employment that must be established by medical evidence supported by objective medical findings. N.D.C.C. § 65-01-02(10). The term includes:

Injuries due to heart attack or other heart-related disease, stroke, and physical injury caused by mental stimulus, but only when caused by the employee's employment with reasonable medical certainty, and only when it is determined with reasonable medical certainty that unusual stress is at least fifty percent of the cause of the injury or disease as compared with all other contributing causes combined.

N.D.C.C. § 65-01-02(10)(a)(3). "Unusual stress means stress greater than the highest level of stress normally experienced or anticipated in that position or line of work." Id. Therefore, the surviving spouse had the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that: 1) The heart attack that resulted in Auck's death was caused by a mental stimulus, here stress, that was caused by his employment with reasonable medical certainty; 2) The stress was "unusual," meaning stress greater than the highest level of stress normally experienced or anticipated in Auck's position or line of work; and 3) The stress was at least fifty percent of the cause of the heart attack as compared with all other contributing causes combined.

[¶ 8] Courts exercise limited appellate review of administrative agency decisions under the Administrative Agencies Practice Act, chapter 28-32 of the North Dakota Century Code. Zimmerman v. N.D. Workforce Safety & Ins. Fund, 2010 ND 42, ¶ 4, 779 N.W.2d 372. The district court under N.D.C.C. § 28-32-46 and this Court under N.D.C.C. § 28-32-49 affirm an administrative agency decision unless:

1. The order is not in accordance with the law.
2. The order is in violation of the constitutional rights of the appellant.
3. The provisions of this chapter have not been complied with in the proceedings before the agency.
4. The rules or procedure of the agency have not afforded the appellant a fair hearing.
5. The findings of fact made by the agency are not supported by a preponderance of the evidence.
6. The conclusions of law and order of the agency are not supported by its findings of fact.
7. The findings of fact made by the agency do not sufficiently address the evidence presented to the agency by the appellant.
8. The conclusions of law and order of the agency do not sufficiently explain the agency's rationale for not adopting any contrary recommendationsby a hearing officer or an administrative law judge.

N.D.C.C. § 28-32-46.

[¶ 9] Generally, a deferential standard applies when reviewing an agency decision. N.D. Sec. Comm'r v. Juran & Moody, Inc., 2000 ND 136, ¶ 22, 613 N.W.2d 503. Reviewing an agency's factual findings, we do not make independent findings or substitute our judgment for the agency's judgment, but instead determine only whether a reasoning mind reasonably could have determined the findings were proven by the weight of the evidence in the record. Id. at ¶ 23. When reviewing an appeal from a final decision by an independent ALJ, similar deference is given to the ALJ's factual findings. Id. at ¶ 24. An ALJ has the opportunity to observe witnesses and the "responsibility to assess the credibility of witnesses and resolve conflicts in the evidence." Id. at ¶ 24 (quoting Stewart v. N.D. Workers Comp. Bur., 1999 ND 174, ¶ 7, 599 N.W.2d 280). Similar deference to the ALJ's legal conclusions, however, is not justified. Id. at ¶ 26. An ALJ, unlike an agency, does not necessarily have specialized knowledge or expertise warranting deference to its legal interpretations and conclusions. Id. Although N.D.C.C. § 54-57-03(4) states the director of the office of administrative hearings ("OAH") shall attempt to assign an administrative law judge with expertise in the particular subject matter, the OAH is not a specialized agency and the ALJ is not interpreting the OAH's own rules. Id. Here, the ALJ interpreted and applied the rules of Workforce Safety and Insurance, an agency independent from the OAH. Therefore, we review the ALJ's factual findings under the same standard of review used for agency decisions, but we review the ALJ's legal conclusions in the same manner as legal conclusions generally. Id. at ¶ 27. Questions of law, including the interpretation of a statute, are fully reviewable on appeal. Zimmerman v. N.D. Workforce Safety & Ins. Fund, 2010 ND 42, ¶ 5, 779 N.W.2d 372.

III

[¶ 10] The ALJ concluded that the greater weight of the evidence showed with reasonable medical certainty that the heart attack that resulted in Auck's death was caused by mental stimulus, namely unusual stress, resulting from his work with long-term chronic pain as an assembler employed by Bobcat, and that, with reasonable medical certainty, the unusual stress was at least fifty percent of the cause of the heart attack as compared with all other contributing causes combined.

[¶ 11] WSI and Bobcat argue the ALJ's findings of fact are not supported by the preponderance of the evidence. They argue the ALJ's conclusions of law are not sustained by the findings of fact, because there is no objective medical evidence to support the statutory requirement. Thus, they...

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