Comp board can’t prefer one doctor’s testimony over another’sPosted On: May. 29, 2019 1:57 PM CST
In a case referred to as a “battle of the experts,” an appellate court in New Jersey on Tuesday reversed and remanded a state Workers’ Compensation Board ruling that found a woman to not be disabled, relying on one doctor’s testimony over that of another without reason.
Jenny Stankowski was working as a public school custodian in Winslow Township, New Jersey, in 2008 when she injured her back while folding tables. Her workers compensation claim was accepted and she returned to work several months later on light duty, according to documents in Jenny Stankowski v. Board of Trustees, Public Employees’ Retirement System, filed in Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, in Jersey City, New Jersey.
In 2010, she was laid off when the district transferred custodial services to a private firm. In 2011, she applied for accidental disability benefits stemming from the 2008 accident, using her doctor’s records and assessment that deemed her disabled and in pain, according to documents.
Her doctor’s “report detailed Stankowski's complaints. Stankowski told him that she had difficulty performing household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and shopping. She no longer participated in her favorite recreational activities such as fishing and shooting. She could not sit or stand for more than ten minutes without discomfort. She had trouble sleeping; walking could be a challenge; and lifting anything heavier than five pounds was problematic. She experienced chronic pain at level eight, on a scale of zero to ten,” documents state.
A separate doctor found otherwise, deeming her capable of working and not disabled, relying mostly on imaging and in-office testing of her movement and flexibility.
An administrative law judge ruled in her favor, yet on appeal the commission found that the second doctor’s assessment was more credible since it did not rely heavily on Ms. Stankowski’s “subjective” complaints, according to documents.
In reversing and remanding the decision, the appeals court wrote: “the Board's decision is subject to challenge because the Board did not disturb the ALJ's finding that Stankowski was a credible witness. Since that finding involved an ‘issue of credibility of lay witness testimony,’ the Board could not reject or modify it ‘unless it is first determined from a review of the record that the findings are arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or are not supported by sufficient, competent, and credible evidence in the record.’”
The appeals court ruled that the board “was obliged to explain its internally inconsistent findings” in the information from both doctors and Ms. Stankowski’s testimony in which she “stated she was in constant pain; she worked through pain when she returned to work in 2008; and by 2011, she concluded that she was unable to work under any conditions.”
The school district and attorneys involved could not immediately be reached for comment.