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3rd District Upholds Validity of IMR

The Third District Court of Appeals has issued its decision in Ramirez v W.C.A.B., again upholding the constitutionality of the independent medical review (IMR) process for review UR determinations and providing, perhaps, some additional nuggets for potential challenges on the W.C.A.B. decision in Dubon II that concerns the authority of the W.C.A.B. to review medical decisions.

Ramirez is the third in a series of cases where applicant attorneys have attempted to challenge the constitutionality of the IMR process on various ground. In two prior decisions (Stevens v W.C.A.B. and Margaris v W.C.A.B.), different districts of the Courts of Appeal had rejected constitutional challenges to the IMR process based on similar arguments presented by the applicant in this case.

See also: Appellate Court Rules on IMR Timeframes  

While the applicant’s arguments in this appeal were somewhat broader than either of the prior appeals, the court’s rejection was just as emphatic. Ramirez’ challenge to IMR was based on multiple arguments:

  • He argued the underlying UR was based on an incorrect standard, in effect appealing the UR determination itself to the court. This argument was rejected by the court on the grounds that the attack was at the heart of the determination of medical necessity, a determination that Labor Code  4610.6(c) prohibits the court from making. The court noted the applicant attorney did not argue that the IMR reviewer used in improper standard and that was the only one the court could only review for nonsubstantive reasons as set out in Labor Code  4610.6(h).
  • Ramirez also challenged the constitutionality of the IMR process arguing that it violates the separation of powers clause as well as state and federal principles of due process. Both of these arguments were rejected in much the same manner as the court in Stevens rejected a similar argument.
  • Ramirez argued that the W.C.A.B. decision in Dubon II, which limited the W.C.A.B.’s authority to review UR determinations to the timeliness of the decisions, was incorrectly decided and that other flaws in the UR process should allow the W.C.A.B. to assume jurisdiction over medical treatment issues. The court specifically rejected the argument that the W.C.A.B. had jurisdiction to review an IMR determination on the ground that the UR determination did not use the Medical treatment utilization schedule (MTUS).

It is on this last point the court’s language becomes interesting. The court reviewed the history of the Dubon decisions and the progression from an expansive view of the W.C.A.B.’s authority to the much narrower result in Dubon II that limits the W.C.A.B.’s authority to review only timeliness. The court does note that in Dubon II, where a UR determination is late, the W.C.A.B. could determine the medical necessity for the proposed treatment.  After review the W.C.A.B.’s decision and Cal Code Regs Tit 8 §10451.2 the Court goes on to state:

“To the extent the Board has any jurisdiction to review a utilization review as provided by this regulation, it has jurisdiction only over nonmedical issues such as timeliness of the utilization review as stated in the Final Statement of Reasons and Dubon II. We are not presented with a nonmedical issue. Any question that has the effect of assessing medical necessity is a medical question to be conducted by a qualified medical professional by way of independent medical review.  (§ 4610.6, subd. (i) [“In no event shall a workers’ compensation administrative law judge, the appeals board, or any higher court make a determination of medical necessity contrary to the determination of the independent medical review organization.”].) Whether the utilization reviewer correctly followed the medical treatment utilization schedule is a question directly related to medical necessity, and is reviewable only by independent medical review.”

While the court does not specifically indicate the W.C.A.B. was incorrect in Dubon II in its ruling that an untimely UR determination vests jurisdiction with the W.C.A.B. on medical issues; the above language certainly (at least) infers that any medical determination is beyond the W.C.A.B.’s authority. In the instant case, the court held there was not a basis to challenge the UR decision as it was timely and the other issues were not subject to W.C.A.B. review. The bolded language in the above quote certainly provides food for thought and perhaps some additional basis to challenge the W.C.A.B.’s holding in Dubon II, which, so far, has not been given a serious challenge at the appellate level.

See also: IMR Practices May Be Legal, Yet…  

Comments and Conclusions:

That this court essentially followed the logic and reasoning of the prior appellate cases on this issue certainly suggests the options for challenging the IMR process are rapidly closing. While there are still a couple of additional challenges pending in the appellate courts (Zuniga in the first district challenging on one of the issues raised here — that the limitation on disclosure of the IMR doctor prohibited the applicant’s ability to challenge the doctor on bias, conflict of interest, etc. — and the Southard and Baker cases addressing the issue of late IMR as valid IMR as previously addressed in the negative in Margaris), so far the appellate courts have shown little interest in challenging the legislature’s authority to create and mold the workers’ compensation system.

As one who has consistently believed the W.C.A.B. exceeded its jurisdiction in deciding it could address medical issues in Dubon II in spite of the strongly stated legislative purpose prohibiting exactly that conduct, I am cautiously optimistic that someone will challenge that decision; even the W.C.A.B. might have second thoughts about maintaining its ability to decide medical issues.

Appellate Court Rules on IMR Timeframes

The 2nd Appellate District has issued the first of what should prove to be several appellate decisions on the timeliness of independent medical review (IMR) decisions. The court was considering the assertion by a W.C.A.B. panel that IMR timelines are mandatory and that late IMR means the W.C.A.B. — and not doctors — will determine whether treatment is medically necessary.

In SCIF v W.C.A.B. (Margaris), the court annulled the W.C.A.B. decision and remanded with instructions to issue a new decision. The court’s reason for accepting this case was set out early in the decision:

“…We issued a writ of review because this case presents an important issue of first impression regarding the interpretation of section 4610.6, and because it relates to an issue upon which the appeals board has rendered conflicting decisions.”

In its analysis, the court provided an extensive discussion of the history of authorization for medical treatment, the implementation of utilization review (UR) for treatment requests and the enactment of the statutory scheme for IMR.  As noted by the court in SB 228 and 899, the legislature changed both the standards and process used by an employer to evaluate a request for medical treatment. The legislature adopted the medical treatment utilization schedule (MTUS). The legislature then removed the existing process for resolving medical disputes using dueling doctors and required the use of utilization review, which required review of treatment requests in light of the MTUS.

In 2012, the legislature enacted another set of reforms to address disputes over UR determinations. As noted by the court, a UR determination authorizing medical treatment was binding on the employer but became subject to further review through IMR — but only for the employee. The court further observed that even where an IMR determination is ultimately reversed by the W.C.A.B., the issue of medical appropriateness was to be returned to IMR for further review, not decided by the W.C.A.B.

See also: IMR Practices May Be Legal, Yet…  

Turning to the specific issue before it, the court determined the use of “shall” in Labor Code 4610.6 was directive, not mandatory:

“…The appeals board concluded that section 4610.6, subdivision (d), is clear and unambiguous.  According to the appeals board, “shall” is mandatory, and any IMR determination issued after the 30-day time frame is necessarily invalid. In support of this interpretation, the appeals board cited section 15, which provides “‘[s]hall’ is mandatory and ‘may’ is permissive” (§ 15.). Thus, the appeals board concluded that construing “shall” as mandatory, such that an untimely IMR determination is invalid, comports with both the ordinary meaning and the statutory definition of “shall.” As we explain, however, the issue is more nuanced than the appeals board recognized.

We note that section 15, upon which the appeals board relied in this case to support its interpretation of section 4610.6, subdivision (d), juxtaposes “mandatory” against “permissive,” which arguably suggests the legislature used “shall” in the obligatory permissive sense rather than in the mandatory-directory sense, as the appeals board concluded. (See McGee, supra, 19 Cal.3d at p. 960 [discussing section 15 and concluding that “on its face, the statutory language suggests that the legislature intended the present provision to be mandatory (i.e., obligatory), rather than permissive.”]) However, given the difference in meaning given to “shall” in the statutory context, we conclude section 4610.6, subdivision (d), is ambiguous. Accordingly, we move beyond the plain language of that section and consider its meaning with reference to the rest of the statutory scheme and the intent of the legislature.”

The court commented further on this issue:

“Generally, time limits applicable to government action are deemed to be directory, unless the legislature clearly expresses a contrary intent.  (Edwards, supra, 25 Cal.3d at p. 410.) “‘In ascertaining probable intent, California courts have expressed a variety of tests. In some cases, focus has been directed at the likely consequences of holding a particular time limitation mandatory, in an attempt to ascertain whether those consequences would defeat or promote the purpose of the enactment.  [Citations.] Other cases have suggested that a time limitation is deemed merely directory ‘unless a consequence or penalty is provided for failure to do the act within the time commanded.’”

The court also found the lack of a penalty or consequence for noncompliance to be significant. Citing similar language in actions by the state personnel board, which had been held to be directive rather than mandatory, the court suggested a failure to meet the statutory time frame did not result in a loss of jurisdiction. The court also indicates in its review of the mandatory vs. directory dichotomy that statutes that set time frames for government actions that do not include a self-executing consequence are almost universally construed as directory.

The court also noted that construing the 30-day time frame as directory furthers the legislative objective of SB 863.

“We conclude from these findings that the legislature intended to remove the authority to make decisions about medical necessity of proposed treatment for injured workers from the appeals board and place it in the hands of independent, unbiased medical professionals. Construing section 4610.6, subdivision (d), as directory best furthers the legislature’s intent in this regard. The appeals board’s conclusion in this case — that an untimely IMR determination terminates the IMR process and vests jurisdiction in the appeals board to determine medical necessity — is wholly inconsistent with the legislature’s stated goals and their evident intent.

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, the legislature provided that, “[i]n no event shall a workers’ compensation administrative law judge, the appeals board, or any higher court make a determination of medical necessity contrary to the determination of the independent medical review organization” (Stats. 2012, ch. 363, § 45, codified at § 4610.6, subd. (i)). We find this portion of the statute — particularly the use of the phrase “in no event” — to be a frank expression of the legislature’s desire to remove the issue of medical necessity of proposed treatment from the jurisdiction of the appeals board in all cases subject to IMR. The legislature’s intent would be defeated by giving section 4610.6, subdivision (d), mandatory effect, as the appeals board did in the present case.”

See also: 20 Work Comp Issues to Watch in 2016

Additionally, the applicant attorney argued that the W.C.A.B.’s holding in the Dubon case (Dubon 2) supported the W.C.A.B’s usurpation of authority to decide medical treatment. The court noted the holding in Dubon 2 is supported by the AD’s regulations providing that IMR applies solely to timely and procedurally proper UR but that no similar regulation existed for IMR. The court declined to comment on the W.C.A.B.’s decision in Dubon 2 as the issue was not before it.

Comments and Conclusions:

There are currently two other cases pending in the appellate courts, both in the 3rd appellate district — on this same issue and, interestingly, this case was not the first grant on the issue. However, the court set a very aggressive briefing schedule and, even with multiple amicus briefs it heard, considered and decided this case in, what is by appellate standards, a very short time (less than six months). Clearly the court was very interested in this issue, which had multiple W.C.A.B. panel decisions with conflicting holdings.

The court, in its decision, also rejected arguments offered by both the applicant and the W.C.A.B. that untimely IMR resulted in unnecessary delays — a rationale offered by the majority panel in both Dubon and Margaris. The court, very astutely, noted this argument made no sense given the time frame for obtaining QME opinions or litigating medical treatment issues before the W.C.A.B.  The court pointed out that, even with the delays in completing IMR, the W.C.A.B. decision was more than 13 months after the initial decision in UR and more than 10 months after Maximus rendered its decision. The court was clearly, and properly, skeptical of the argument that letting the W.C.A.B. decide medical issues would result in a more prompt disposition.

The court did offer an option to applicants to challenge untimely UR through the ability to file a petition for writ of mandate to compel a decision. While a statutorily viable option, this is impractical, especially in light of the current timeliness of most IMR determinations. Further, the issue here has never really been the timeliness of IMR. The goal for the applicant attorney bar, and apparently some of the commissioners, has been to usurp the medical decision making process from being medically driven to being litigation-based.

The decision does not provide a lot of nourishment for those who are waiting for some sliver of light on the Dubon 2 issue. The court, in its footnote, declined to really comment on Dubon 2, but it did note there was some basis for the W.C.A.B.’s decision. However, the very strong language of the court emphasizing the public and legislative policy behind having medical decisions made by physicians, and the much greater speed and certainty of the UR/IMR process over the legislatively disfavored litigation process, may provide some hope that, given a chance, the appellate court would also reject the W.C.A.B.’s arguments in support of Dubon 2.

Court Reverses Award of Psychiatric Injury

The First Appellate District Court of Appeal has closed what could have turned into a significant expansion of the concept of “sudden and extraordinary employment condition” contained in Labor Code § 3208.3(d) with a reversal of a W.C.A.B. decision awarding benefits for a psychiatric injury in Travelers Casualty and Surety Co v W.C.A.B. (Dreher).

The applicant was employed as a live-in maintenance supervisor for an apartment complex and had been employed for only 74 days at the time of his injury on Oct. 19, 2009. He was walking in the rain from one building to another in the complex, when he slipped and fell on a slippery concrete sidewalk sustaining multiple significant injuries, including fractured pelvis, injuries to his neck, right shoulder, right leg and knee. He also suffered gait derangement, a sleep disorder and headaches. As a result of those injuries, he developed psychiatric complaints as a consequence of his multiple surgeries and continuing issues. A medical report supported a relationship between his injury and a psychiatric disorder.

However, at trial, the WCJ denied his claim for his psychiatric condition on the basis that his employment failed to meet the minimum six-month requirement for employment under Labor Code § 3208.3(d) and further determined the exception for a “sudden and extraordinary employment condition” had not been met. On reconsideration, a split panel reversed the WCJ holding and determined that the applicant’s fall on slippery concrete met the sudden and extraordinary requirement of the statute. The Court of Appeal granted Travelers’ petition for writ of review.

After dealing with some procedural issues, the court got to the heart of the matter. Reviewing the multiple cases outlining the criterion for applying the sudden and extraordinary employment condition, the court refused to find that a slip and fall on a sidewalk met the criterion. Citing the landmark decision in Wal-mart v W.C.A.B., the court noted that the mere fact the injury was accidental did not meet the statutory exception:

“If the argument were made that an accidental injury constitutes a ‘sudden and extraordinary employment condition,’ we would reject it. For one thing, such an interpretation would mean that psychological injuries resulting from accidents would not be subject to the six-month rule, but such injuries arising from cumulative physical injury would be governed by that limitation; this distinction would make no sense, and we are reluctant to attribute irrational intentions to the Legislature.”

See Also: Appeals Court Settles Key Work Comp Issue

The court also rejected the argument advanced by applicant that the unexpectedly catastrophic nature of the injury served as a basis for an extraordinary employment condition.

“Here, the statute provides that the six-month limitation does not apply if the psychiatric condition is caused by a ;sudden and extraordinary employment condition.’ (§ 3208.3, subd. (d).) The statute does not include the nature of the injuries resulting from an incident as a basis for the exception. Had the Legislature intended to include the nature of the injury as a factor in the definition of a sudden and extraordinary employment condition, it knew how to do so….

“Accordingly, although Dreher’s injury was more serious than might be expected, it did not constitute, nor was it caused by, a sudden and extraordinary employment event within the meaning of section 3208.3, subdivision (d). The evidence showed that Dreher routinely walked between buildings on concrete walkways at the work site and that he slipped and fell while walking on rain-slicked pavement.”

The court further noted the burden was on the employee to prove the sudden and extraordinary employment condition, and the applicant’s testimony that he was “surprised” by the slick surface did not demonstrate that his injury was caused by an uncommon, unusual or totally unexpected event.

The matter was remanded to the W.C.A.B. with instructions to deny the claim for psychiatric injury.

Comments and Conclusions:

This is a relatively short appellate decision but with a firm result. The court was clearly of a mind that the W.C.A.B.’s interpretation of what constituted a sudden and extraordinary employment condition did not meet the common sense test for legislative interpretation. Commissioner Caplane, in her dissent in the W.C.A.B. decision, had noted that the majority’s opinion on what constituted a sudden and extraordinary event could be applied to virtually every claim because injuries were almost always unexpected when they occurred. While the court did not make a specific comment, the idea that an employee slipping on a wet sidewalk was in any way shape or form “extraordinary” simply did not pass the smell test.

The court’s holding that the nature of the injuries sustained did not figure into the equation is also of considerable help in defining application of the rule under Labor Code § 3208.3(d).

While the court’s interpretation of Labor Code § 3208.3(d) is helpful for that section, I do not think this decision is going to have any impact on our understanding of the language in Labor Code § 4660.1(c)(2)(B), with the exception created for “catastrophic injuries.” That section clearly intends there be consideration of the nature of an injury in the determination of whether additional psychiatric sequelae is to be included in the calculation of PD.

Court Dumps Lien Filing Fee Challenge

The 2nd District Court of Appeal has handed down a decision affirming the legislature’s creation of the lien filing fee as part of SB 863. In Chorn v. W.C.A.B., a physician (Robin Chorn M.D.) filed a complaint that was joined by two injured workers in an effort to challenge, on constitutional grounds, the imposition of a lien filing fee. The court, with frequent references to Angelotti Chiropractic Inc v. Baker, rejected similar arguments that were raised, which, unsuccessfully, (thus far) challenged the lien activation fee provisions of SB 863.

First, the court dealt with the issue of judicial standing for the injured workers—whether they could raise an issue of constitutionality regarding the lien filing fee provisions and in short order dismissed their claims in the case.

From the ruling:

Petitioners Kalestian, Vounov and Buie contend they have a “real and direct interest in challenging constitutionally infirm provisions of law that are transparently intended to impair access to expeditious treatment of their workplace injuries.” They claim that “the imposition of a lien filing fee that bears no connection to the value of the services rendered will make it less likely that medical providers will offer or render care to workers’ compensation patients on a lien basis,” and will “deprive injured workers of any choice as where [sic] they receive their care (if they receive care at all),” thereby “impairing the promise of unencumbered access to medical treatment of their injuries.” But petitioners have not submitted any evidence in support of these claims or any details of their alleged injuries beyond the bare assertion that they have “been denied medical care access as a consequence of SB863.” Moreover, they have not demonstrated that they are more affected than the “public at large” by the operation of sections 4903.05 and 4903.8, or that their constitutional challenges, if successful, would directly affect their rights.”

See Also: Hidden Motives on Workers’ Comp

After dismissing the causes of action by the purported injured workers (no doubt added into the mix in an unsuccessful effort to piggyback onto a more sympathetic plaintiff than the medical provider), the court turned to the multiple arguments raised by the medical provider plaintiff.

On the issue of the imposition of a lien filing fee as an impermissible “encumbrance” on the system, the court was unimpressed, noting the plaintiff failed to cite any legal authority as the basis of its assertions. The court pointed out that the courts have rarely been willing to substitute their judgment for the legislature’s in its efforts to create or maintain a system of workers’ compensation. Noting the legislature’s findings regarding workers’ compensation abuse on a broad scale, the court found the imposition of a $150 filing fee to be a rational exercise of legislative authority.

The court then sequentially addressed the additional arguments: right to petition, due process, equal protection and right to contract.  In each argument, the court found the medical lien provider failed to demonstrate a constitutional violation based on the obligation to pay a filing fee. The court was particularly swayed by the fact that the lien claimants could, upon meeting the statutory criterion and prevailing in litigation, recover their fees:

“…The compromise effected by section 4903.05—lien claimants must pay to file their liens, but may recoup their filing fees if they ultimately prevail—sufficiently protects the due process rights of lien claimants while serving the legitimate goal of deterring frivolous filings.”

The court was particularly dismissive of the claim of contractual impairment, as the court noted the contracts that the plaintiff claimed were being impaired had not yet been created. The statutory prohibition on impairing contractual rights essentially prevents the government from changing existing contracts, but it does not extend to future contracts.

The petition requesting an injunction enforcing the lien activation provisions of SB 863 was denied for the medical lien provider and for the injured worker plaintiffs, with respondents to recover their costs.

Comments and Conclusions:

This case had more or less dropped off the radar, particularly since the initial filing by the medical lien provider, Dr. Chorn, The refiled petition was filed directly with the Court of Appeal, the first level of appellate review that can consider constitutional issues. As a result, there really is no factual record to review. The court’s decision rests almost entirely upon statutory interpretation and the court’s conclusions (based on much the same logic as in the Angelotti case) that the legislature has broad discretion. The imposition of a recoverable filing fee turns out to be no more of an impermissible exercise of the legislature’s power than the activation fee.

This case is likely to be appealed to the California Supreme Court, where it is almost just as likely to fail.

A Victory for Exclusive Remedy on Asbestos

In a recent case, the 2nd Appellate District of California declined to open an new avenue to avoid the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation in Melendrez v Ameron International Corporation, not only upholding the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for defendant/employer but also allowing the defendant to recover expert witness fees.

The employee, Lario Melendrez, was employed by Ameron for 24 years and was exposed to asbestos from insulation products. In 2011, he died from mesothelioma related to his asbestos exposure. His survivors/plaintiffs attempted to circumvent the exclusive remedy rule by alleging the employee had been allowed to take waste and scraps of insulated pipe home for personal use. Plaintiffs asserted the employee should not be shielded by workers’ compensation exclusivity for his non-work-related use of the employer’s asbestos products. Neither the trial court nor the appellate courts agreed with the effort to create a new exception to the exclusive remedy rule. The Appellate Court commented as follows:

“While we agree that a triable issue of fact exists whether Melendrez’s exposure to asbestos at home arose out of and in the course of his employment with Ameron, that issue is not material to the viability of Ameron’s defense of workers’ compensation exclusivity. It is undisputed that Melendrez’s exposure to asbestos in his employment with Ameron substantially contributed to his mesothelioma. Therefore, under the contributing cause standard applicable in workers’ compensation law, his mesothelioma is covered by workers’ compensation, and his separate exposure at home does not create a separate injury outside workers’ compensation coverage. Thus, plaintiffs’ lawsuit is barred by workers’ compensation exclusivity.”

Citing the recent California Supreme Court holding in South Coast Framing, the 2nd district held:

“Given the purposes of workers’ compensation, courts have long applied a broad concept of contributing cause to bring injuries within workers’ compensation coverage. In short, if a substantial contributing cause of an injury arises out of and in the course of employment, the injury is covered by workers’ compensation, even if another, nonindustrial cause also substantially contributed to the injury. As recently explained in South Coast Framing, Inc. v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (2015) 61 Cal.4th 291 (South Coast Framing): “[T]he workers’ compensation system is not based upon fault. ‘It seeks (1) to ensure that the cost of industrial injuries will be part of the cost of goods rather than a burden on society, (2) to guarantee prompt, limited compensation for an employee’s work injuries, regardless of fault, as an inevitable cost of production, (3) to spur increased industrial safety, and (4) in return, to insulate the employer from tort liability for his employees’ injuries.’…”

The court also cited case law that had established that the exclusivity provisions of workers’ compensation also apply to collateral or derivative injuries:

“[C]ourts have regularly barred claims where the alleged injury is collateral to or derivative of a compensable workplace injury.”… see also Vacanti, supra, 24 Cal.4th at p. 815 [“courts have barred employees from suing for psychic injuries caused by their termination, or their employer’s abusive conduct during the termination process]; LeFiell, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 284 [“‘[c]ourts have held that the exclusive jurisdiction provisions bar civil actions against employers by nondependent parents of an employee for the employee’s wrongful death, by an employee’s spouse for loss of the employee’s services or consortium, and for emotional distress suffered by a spouse in witnessing the employee’s injuries…'”

The court further distinguished authorities proposed by plaintiff to expand the ability to escape the exclusivity clause. In each of the cases cited by plaintiff, the court noted there were findings that the employee was not performing any service related to employment or even actions prohibited by his employer. In each of those cases, the injury was solely related to the non-work-related episode, and the plaintiff offered no authority to support severing a single injury into separate components as would be required in this case.

Comments and Conclusions:

This case represents an interesting effort to evade the exclusive remedy provisions in workers’ comp. A successful plaintiff’s result could potentially have expanded the ability to file civil actions whenever an employee took home something from work that eventually contributed to a work injury. Think a carpenter who receives permission to take home a tool and later files both a WC injury claim and a civil action against his employer for allowing him to use a work tool at home that resulted in injury. The potential combinations are endless for such scenarios.

Luckily, with this case the exceptions noted by plaintiffs in their brief will remain isolated and not expanded under this ruling.