Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.
A division of the Colorado Court of Appeals looked at how disability benefits are calculated when an employee sustains multiple, on-the-job injuries. The court ruled the effects of multiple injuries to the same body part must be taken into account when calculating a total “impairment rating” first before financial benefits are determined.
Colorado Springs law enforcement officer Timothy Browne first injured his cervical spine during a training in 2007. By January 2010 Browne reached his maximum medical improvement level and was compensated $31,577.95 for a 6% permanent impairment rating.
In July 2016, Browne once again injured his cervical spine on the job. The city of Colorado Springs, based on a physician’s exam, filed a final admission of liability for a 25% permanent impairment rating. A division-sponsored independent medical exam conducted on Browne’s request calculated a 26% impairment rating.
The one-percent disagreement is a critical figure for workers’ compensation disability caps: impairment ratings of 25% or less are capped at $86,697.04 and ratings greater than 25% are capped at $173,391.90.
The city and Browne disagreed on how to account for the 2007 injury when calculating the impairment rating. The city argued that 6% of Browne’s impairment rating should be subtracted to account for his earlier injury. Browne, on the other hand, argued his benefits should be based on the total 2016 impairment rating but should subtract the compensation awarded in 2007.
The court of appeals looked at how compensation caps established in 8-42-107.5 C.R.S. 2020 interact with 8-42-104(5)(a) that dishes out benefits for multiple injuries to the same body part. An ALJ concluded the plain language of 104(5) supported the city’s position and the Industrial Claim Appeals Office upheld the decision. Browne appealed the ruling arguing 104(5) mandates that disability caps be based on total impairment ratings and that the previous interpretation violates equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment by providing different protection to those with different impairment ratings.
The court upheld the ICAO’s decision, interpreting that that 104(5)(a) “unequivocally states” in cases of injuries to the same body part, permanent medical impairment rating is calculated by subtracting the previous impairments from the most recent impairment.
In 2017, while working for Bob Adams Trucking, Edith Keating was seriously injured, requiring treatment at Delta County Memorial Hospital in western Colorado. Her employer, Robert Adams, did not have adequate workers compensation insurance but was ordered by an ALJ to pay a $130k deposit to the Division of Workers and take out a bond for the same amount to cover Keating’s medical and disability claims.
Keating later testified Adams did not pay her or pay the hospital. Despite showing Delta County Memorial Hospital the ALJ’s order, Keating was billed directly by the hospital in violation of section CRS 8-42-101(4). Counsel for the hospital claimed that since Adams had not paid the deposit, it was left with no other recourse to collect the debt. In total, Delta sent Keating eight bills including two which were forwarded to collections.
Keating filed multiple hearing applications to seek penalties against Delta County. Two filings that named the hospital were rejected since it was not the respondent employer; one filing that named Adams was accepted and a hearing was scheduled for June 20, 2019.
Another ALJ rejected Delta’s claim that it was not properly joined to Keating and was exempt from 8-42-101(4). They further ruled that Delta had committed “continuing statutory violation” of 8-42-101(4) by sending multiple bills from June 13 through Oct. 9, 2019. The ALJ calculated a penalty award of $89,250, charging $750 for the 119 days.
The ALJ decision was reviewed by the Industrial Claim Appeals Office that affirmed the violation but remanded the penalty calculation, finding that since the hospital could not fix its violation after sending the bills it was not “continuing.” On remand, the ALJ excluded the bills sent to collections to calculate eight distinct violations totaling $6,000.
The hospital appealed the ICAO decision claiming that it was a non-party and therefore the ALJ lacked personal jurisdiction to assess penalties and since it was a non-party imposing penalties violated its right to due process. The Colorado Court of Appeals rejected both arguments, finding that by entering a general appearance in the proceedings, the hospital had submitted itself to the jurisdiction of the Office of Administrative Courts.
The court then examined the calculated penalty award. It agreed with ICAO that the violations were discrete, not continuous and upheld the ICAO’s reasoning. However, the court ruled that the two times bills were sent to collections should be included in the penalty award and remanded the ICAO to recalculate the penalty.