It is always important to remember that with permanent total disability applications there is only one evidentiary hearing. More importantly, the Hearing Officer has a great deal of latitude in determining the weight to be given to the opinions provided by medical doctors in evaluating that application. The Administrative Code under Section 4121-3-34(C) indicates that medical evidence presented in support of an application must include an opinion that “addresses the injured worker’s physical and/or mental limitations resulting from the allowed conditions.” However, general statements issued by a treating physician concerning the injured worker’s ability to return to gainful employment and that only address issues of pain and range of motion are routinely offered in support of the application and are relied upon to support an award.
The Tenth District Court of Appeals recently addressed this situation in the State ex rel. Honda of America v. Industrial Commission decision, 2014-Ohio-5245. In this case, Honda of America filed a mandamus action challenging the Industrial Commission’s decision awarding claimant, Donald Siegfried, permanent total disability benefits and relying upon the opinion of his treating physician, Dr. Altic. Dr. Altic indicated in a letter he submitted in support of the application that Mr. Siegfried was “permanently totally disabled from all gainful and immediate employment” and that the injuries “created limitations that included impaired range of motion lumbar spine, and chronic pain.” Honda argued that without a more specific explanation of the physical limitations suffered by Mr. Siegfried, Dr. Altic’s report should have been disregarded.
However, the Court of Appeals disagreed and instead found that so long as there was some discussion of the “limitations” arising from the workplace injury and the doctor provided an opinion that the injured worker was permanently and totally disabled, there was sufficient evidence to support the Industrial Commission’s decision. The Court again emphasized that the Industrial Commission retains a great deal of latitude and discretion in reviewing medical evidence and in determining the extent of disability in any workers’ compensation claim.
While the Court’s decision does not require the Commission to accept this type of short and conclusory opinion supporting permanent total disability applications, the court was not willing to strictly enforce the evidentiary requirements found in the Administrative Code. All employers should be mindful that any evidence submitted from a treating doctor that supports a finding of disability or allowance of additional conditions can still be considered reliable evidence on those issues without any explanation of the opinion. It will be interesting to see if Honda of America appeals this decision to the Supreme Court.