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Conner v. Harrison Medical Center

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2

December 17, 2019

KATHRYNE L. CONNER, Appellant,
v.
HARRISON MEDICAL CENTER and DEPARTMENT OF LABOR & INDUSTRIES OF WASHINGTON, Respondent.

          MAXA, C.J.

         Kathryne Conner appeals the superior court's denial of her motion for attorney fees after her partially successful appeal of a Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals (BIIA) decision relating to her March 2010 industrial injury. She relies on RCW 51.52.130(1), which provides that the superior court shall award reasonable attorney fees to an injured worker on appeal of a BIIA decision if the BIIA's decision is reversed or modified and "additional relief is granted" to the worker.

         A superior court jury verdict affirmed all of the BIIA's findings regarding Conner's claim except one. Contrary to the BIIA's finding, the jury found that Conner's March 2010 industrial injury caused or aggravated her lumbar degenerative disc disease. Pursuant to this verdict, the superior court's judgment directed the Department of Labor and Industries (DLI) to issue an order allowing the lumbar degenerative disc disease under Conner's industrial injury claim. But the court also directed that the claim be closed without the payment of any further benefits.

         Connor argues that the superior court erred in denying her motion for attorney fees because allowing the lumbar degenerative disc disease condition constituted "additional relief." However, we conclude that the superior court's ruling was not a grant of "additional relief under RCW 51.52.130(1) because the court did not order DLI to pay any further benefits to Conner and whether the court's ruling will benefit Connor in the future is speculative. Accordingly, we affirm the superior court's denial of Conner's motion for attorney fees.

         FACTS

         Conner worked for Harrison Medical Center (HMC) as an occupational therapist from 2006 through 2010. On March 10, 2010, she was injured in the course of her employment, sustaining sprain injuries to her low back and left shoulder. Conner filed a claim with DLI seeking benefits in connection with this injury.[1]

         Conner received treatment for her injuries, including visits to a nurse practitioner with HMC Employee Health, follow up appointments with her primary care physician, and massage therapy. An MRI showed advanced degenerative disc disease in her lumbar spine. DLI apparently paid for Conner's medical treatment. Conner also received time-loss benefits beginning in September 2010.

         On July 18, 2012, DLI issued an order ending Conner's time-loss benefits as paid through June 30, 2012 and closed her claim without awarding a permanent partial disability. On October 3, 2013, DLI issued an order affirming the July 18 order. Conner appealed the DLI order to the BIIA.

         The BIIA affirmed DLI's order. The BIIA made the following finding of fact: "Before March 10, 2010, Kathryne L. Conner had degenerative disc disease of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, including at L5-S1. These conditions were not proximately caused or aggravated by her March 10, 2010 industrial injury?' Clerk's Papers (CP) at 20 (emphasis added). The BIIA concluded that Conner's thoracolumbar sprain condition arising from her employment was fixed and stable as of September 17, 2013 and that she was not entitled to further treatment.

         The BIIA also concluded that (1) Connor was not temporarily totally disabled from July 1, 2012 through October 3, 2013, and (2) the conditions caused or aggravated by the March 2010 industrial injury were fixed and stable as of October 3, 2013 and were not entitled to further treatment.

         Conner appealed the BIIA's decision to the superior court. The jury returned a verdict finding that the BIIA's decision was correct in all respects except for the finding that the March 2010 industrial injury did not cause or aggravate Conner's degenerative disc disease in her lumbar spine. Instead, the jury answered "yes" to the question of whether the March 2010 industrial injury proximately caused or aggravated Conner's lumbar degenerative disc disease. But the jury found that the BIIA was correct regarding the other two conclusions and was correct in determining that Conner was not permanently and totally disabled.

         The superior court entered a judgment and order based on the jury's verdict. The judgment reversed the BIIA's finding of fact that Conner's industrial injury did not proximately cause or aggravate her lumbar degenerative disc disease. The court also reversed the BIIA's conclusion of law that the lumbar degenerative disc disease was not included in the enumeration of conditions allowed under Conner's claim. The court therefore reversed the BIIA's October 3, 2013 order and directed DLI to

issue an order allowing the condition described as degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine under [Conner's claim] effective July 18, 2012, then to issue a subsequent order closing this claim effective July 18, 2012 without further time loss compensation, award for permanent partial disability, and without award for total permanent disability.

CP at 244-45.

         Conner moved for an award of her attorney fees and costs under RCW 51.52.130. The superior court denied Conner's motion. The court found that the jury's reversal of the BIIA's decision regarding lumbar degenerative disc disease did not entitle Conner to "additional relief because the jury did not grant additional benefits, treatment, or awards, and the only practical effect of the decision was to reverse one element of the BIIA's decision on a claim that remained closed. The court also denied Conner's motion for reconsideration.

         Conner appeals the superior court's denial of her motion for ...


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