Friday, July 18, 2008

Summary 2008 WY 84

Summary of Decision issued July 18, 2008

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Summaries are prepared by Law Librarians and are not official statements of the Wyoming Supreme Court

Case Name: In the Matter of the Worker's Compensation Claim of Bradley M. Dale v. S & S Builders, LLC

Citation: 2008 WY 84


Docket Number: S-07-0145

Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County , Honorable Edward L. Grant, Judge

Representing Appellant (Petitioner): Lynn Boak, Cheyenne, Wyoming

Representing Appellee S& S Builders (Employer): J. Stan Wolfe, Gillette, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee State of Wyoming ex rel. Wyo. Workers' Safety & Comp. Division: Bruce A. Salzburg, Wyoming Attorney General; John W. Renneisen, Deputy Attorney General; Steven R. Czoschke, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Kristi M. Radosevich, Assistant Attorney General.

Date of Decision: July 18, 2008

Issues: Whether it was a fundamental error for the hearing examiner to acknowledge that due to his prescription medication the Appellant "was not always coherent in his testimony" and recess the hearing, then make ultimate findings of fact in which discrepancies in the Appellant's testimony between the first segment and the second segment of the hearing were used. Whether the Hearing Examiner's Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order denying benefits for an staph infection in Petitioner's knee were arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion.

Standard of Review: In the interests of simplifying the process of identifying the correct standard of review, henceforth the substantial evidence standard will be applied any time the court reviews an evidentiary ruling in an administrative appeal. When the burdened party prevailed before the agency, it will be determined if substantial evidence exists to support the finding for that party by considering whether there is relevant evidence in the entire record which a reasonable mind might accept in support of the agency's conclusions. If the hearing examiner determines that the burdened party failed to meet his burden of proof, the court will decide whether there is substantial evidence to support the agency's decision to reject the evidence offered by the burdened party by considering whether that conclusion was contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence in the record as a whole. If, in the course of its decision making process, the agency disregards certain evidence and explains its reasons for doing so based upon determinations of credibility or other factors contained in the record, its decision will be sustainable under the substantial evidence test. Importantly, the review of any particular decision turns not on whether the court agrees with the outcome, but on whether the agency could reasonably conclude as it did, based on all the evidence before it.

The arbitrary and capricious standard remains a "safety net" to catch agency action which prejudices a party's substantial rights or which may be contrary to the other Wyoming Administrative Procedures Act (WAPA) review standards yet is not easily categorized or fit to any one particular standard." The "safety net" application of the arbitrary and capricious standard is not meant to apply to true evidentiary questions. Instead, the arbitrary and capricious standard will apply if the hearing examiner refused to admit testimony or documentary exhibits that were clearly admissible or failed to provide appropriate findings of fact or conclusions of law. There will be times when the arbitrary and capricious standard appears to overlap with some of the other standards. For example, a decision against the great weight of the evidence might properly be called arbitrary or capricious in everyday language. However, the words "arbitrary" and "capricious" must be understood in context as terms of art under the administrative review statute and should not be employed in areas where the more specifically defined standards provide sufficient relief.

A party is obligated to object at the agency level to the administrative tribunal's procedure so that the tribunal will have an opportunity to correct its errors. If a party has an opportunity to object to the administrative tribunal's procedural rulings and fails to do so, it waives its right to challenge the administrative tribunal's procedure on appeal.

In the present action, Appellant was given an ample opportunity to be heard and, in the absence of an objection, he waived his right to contest the hearing examiner's procedural ruling. Because both segments of the hearing were part of the evidentiary record, the hearing examiner appropriately referred to both and noted inconsistencies in Appellant's testimony. Moreover, Appellant was not prejudiced by the hearing examiner considering both portions of the hearing in reaching his decision. While the hearing examiner did note some minor discrepancies in Appellant's testimony, those discrepancies were not the sole or even primary reason for the hearing examiner's decision.

The claimant has the burden of proving each of the essential elements of his claim by a preponderance of the evidence. As a part of that burden, the claimant must prove a causal connection exists between a work-related injury and the injury for which worker's compensation benefits are being sought. That determination involves a question of fact.

It is abundantly clear from the record that the evidence in this case was extensive and complex. There was quite a bit of contradictory evidence regarding the origin of the wound. It was the hearing examiner's responsibility to determine the credibility of the witnesses and weigh the evidence, including that obtained from medical experts. The hearing examiner weighed the evidence and concluded there was no causal connection between the work related injury and the staph infection. A hearing examiner is entitled to disregard an expert opinion if he finds the opinion unreasonable, not adequately supported by the facts upon which the opinion is based, or based upon an incomplete and inaccurate medical history provided by the claimant. An examination of the conflicting and contradictory evidence shows that there is substantial evidence, or relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept, to support the hearing examiner's decision that there was no causal connection between Appellant's staph infection diagnosed his work related injury. The hearing examiner, therefore, properly denied Appellant's claim.


J. Kite delivered the opinion for the court.

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