W.C. No. 4-808-587.Industrial Claim Appeals Office.
April 6, 2011.
The respondents seek review of an order of Administrative Law Judge Jones (ALJ) dated December 15, 2010, that determined that the claimant sustained a compensable injury and that ordered the respondents to pay medical benefits and temporary disability benefits. We affirm.
A hearing was held on the issues of compensability, medical benefits, average weekly wage, and temporary disability benefits. Following the hearing the ALJ entered factual findings that for the purposes of our order may be summarized as follows. The claimant worked as a truck driver for this employer and on June 22, 2009 he injured his back while stowing tarps in his truck. The tarps weighed 100 pounds each and the claimant lifted them over his head and twisted to place them in a compartment. The claimant reported the injury to the employer, but did not request any medical treatment. He continued to drive his truck following June 22nd and by October his condition had worsened and he was experiencing numbness in his hands, fingers, and legs. On October 9th pursuant to the employer’s instructions the claimant consulted his doctor, Dr. Warren Johnson, who referred the claimant for an MRI. The claimant was referred to Dr. Van Buskirk, who diagnosed the claimant with critical cervical stenosis at two levels of the claimant’s cervical spine, with myelopathy, and with moderate degenerative disk disease. She recommended surgery on an “emergency basis,” which the claimant underwent on October 23, 2009. The ALJ found that he was temporarily disabled from October 20th until April 18th, when he obtained other work that was less strenuous than his usual employment.
Based on her factual findings, the ALJ concluded that the claimant had sustained a compensable injury to his back and that the medical treatment he underwent, including that to his cervical spine, was the responsibility of the respondents. She ordered them to pay medical benefits and temporary total and partial disability benefits.
The respondents appealed and argue that the record lacks evidentiary support for the ALJ’s finding that the claimant’s cervical problems were caused by the compensable injury. In this regard the respondents argue that the factual record merely shows that the claimant suffered a mid-and low-back compensable injury and that subsequently he required medical treatment for his unrelated cervical problems. However, they assert that the record is devoid of testimony or evidence from which the ALJ could infer that the cervical condition was caused by the work-related injury. To the contrary, they argue that the record is undisputed that the claimant’s neck problems were caused by his preexisting degenerative condition. However, we have reviewed the record and considered the respondents’ arguments and we are unpersuaded that the ALJ committed reversible error or abused her discretion.
Where the claimant’s entitlement to benefits is disputed, the claimant has the burden to prove a causal relationship between a work-related injury or disease and the condition for which benefits or compensation are sought. Snyder v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office, 942 P.2d 1337 (Colo. App. 1997). Whether the claimant sustained his burden of proof is a factual question for resolution by the ALJ. City of Durango v. Dunagan, 939 P.2d 496 (Colo. App. 1997). The ALJ’s factual determinations must be upheld if supported by substantial evidence and plausible inferences drawn from the record. We have no authority to substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ concerning the credibility of witnesses and we may not reweigh the evidence on appeal. Id.; Delta Drywall v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office, 868 P.2d 1155 (Colo. App. 1993).
Because these questions are factual in nature, we are bound by the ALJ’s determinations in this regard if they are supported by substantial evidence in the record. § 8-43-304(8), C.R.S.; City of Durango v. Dunagan, supra. Substantial evidence is probative evidence which would warrant a reasonable belief in the existence of facts supporting a particular finding, without regard to the existence of contradictory testimony or contrary inferences See F.R. Orr Construction v. Rinta, 717
P.2d 965 (Colo. App. 1985). The substantial evidence standard requires that we view evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, and defer to the ALJ’s assessment of the sufficiency and probative weight of the evidence. Thus, the scope of our review is “exceedingly narrow.” Metro Moving Storage Co. v. Gussert, 914 P.2d 411 (Colo.App. 2003). This narrow standard of review also requires that we defer to the ALJ’s resolution of conflicts in the evidence, credibility determinations, and plausible inferences drawn from the record. Wilson v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office, 81 P.3d 1117 (Colo. App. 2003).
We note that expert medical opinion is not needed to prove causation where circumstantial evidence supports an inference of a causal relationship between the injury and the claimant’s condition Savio House v. Dennis, 665 P.d. 141 (Colo. App. 1983). Where conflicting expert opinion is presented, it is for the ALJ as fact-finder to resolve the conflict. Rockwell International v. Turnbull, 802 P.d. 1182 (Colo. App. 1990).
Here, as we understand the ALJ’s order, she relied upon the claimant’s testimony that when he injured his back during the act of lifting the tarps overhead and twisting to place them in the truck’s compartment he had “no history of back or neck trouble.” Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order at 4, ¶ 2 (hereafter “Order”). She also credited the claimant’s testimony that between the time of his injury and the development of his cervical symptoms no further injury or “intervening event” occurred. Order at 4, ¶ 2. She inferred that the gradual numbness and tingling in the claimant’s arms, hands, feet, and legs resulted from an injury to his neck that occurred when he lifted the tarps over his head and twisted. In our view this is a reasonable inference from the factual record and thus we must uphold the factual finding that the claimant’s cervical problems were the result of the work-related injury.
We are unpersuaded by the respondents’ argument that the factual record compels a finding that the claimant’s cervical problems were unrelated to the work-related injury. It is apparently true that no medical provider stated an expert opinion concerning the relatedness of the cervical condition to the injury. In any event, we have been unable to locate any such express opinion and neither party has directed our attention to one. However, expert medical opinion is not needed to prove or disprove causation where circumstantial evidence supports the ALJ’s inferences regarding the claimant’s condition. Savio House v. Dennis, 665 P.2d 141 (Colo. App. 1983). Here, the circumstantial evidence of the claimant’s injury and the development of his symptoms provides such support. It is indisputable that the ALJ might reasonably have reached a different conclusion. However, she was not compelled to do so. The existence of a factual record from which the ALJ might have drawn contrary inferences does not provide the basis for relief on appeal. Cordova v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office, 55 P.3d 186 (Colo. App. 2002).
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the ALJ’s order issued December 15, 2010 is affirmed.
INDUSTRIAL CLAIM APPEALS PANEL
______________________________ John D. Baird
______________________________ Curt Kriksciun
DARYL ROZINEK, BRIGHTON, CO, (Claimant).
TRANS-SYSTEM INC., PHOENIX, AZ, (Employer).
CHARTIS CLAIMS, Attn: GINA NEUSER, SHAWNEE MISSION, KS, (Insurer).
THE FRICKEY LAW FIRM, Attn: REBECCA L BRADLEY, ESQ., AURORA, CO, (For Claimant).
TREECE, ALFREY, MUSAT BOSWORTH, PC, Attn: CHRISTOPHER P. AHMANN, ESQ., DENVER, CO, (For Respondents).