IWCC Denies Correctional Officer’s Repetitive Trauma Claim

The Commission recently affirmed an Arbitration decision in Dryden v. Centralia Correctional Center, in determining that the Petitioner failed to prove that his work duties as a correctional officer caused his bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. In a 2-1 decision, the Commission affirmed the Arbitrator’s findings that the Petitioner’s job duties were not varied or sufficiently repetitive and that the medical opinion of the section 12 examiner was more informed and persuasive than the medical opinion of the treating physician.

The Petitioner in this case was a correctional officer that had been employed by the Respondent since 1997. He alleged a work accident on March 21, 2011. It was noted that the Petitioner was a reservist and had been deployed throughout his employment, most significantly from 2003 through 2009.

At Trial, the Petitioner testified that he had no upper extremity complaints as of 2009. The Petitioner further testified that he believed that his upper extremity complaints developed as a result of his work at the Respondent during the five months between October 2009 and March 2010. The Petitioner testified that he worked a variety of positions on the 7:00am to 3:00pm shift from October 2009 through March 2010, which had different duties and involved different upper extremity motions. The Petitioner testified that he worked the segregation unit for approximately 25 shifts that time period. The Petitioner testified that the position of a segregation officer required him to manipulate large Folger-Adams keys that weighed approximately one pound, as well as padlock keys, small cuff keys and standard-sized door keys. It was indicated that the segregation unit at the Respondent facility included only 30 cells and that the duties were divided amongst two officers during each day shift. It was noted that the majority of the key manipulation occurred between 8:00am and 11:30am. Aside from those 25 shifts working in the segregation unit, the petitioner worked as a dayroom officer, which required him to perform wing checks, inspect cells and inspect property boxes for contraband. He also worked in the control room, during which time he was required to operate a control panel with buttons, switches and a telephone. It was noted that the Petitioner worked full duty at the Respondent except for two brief periods in 2011.

In a job analysis report for the correctional officer position, it was indicated that the correctional center was a medium security facility in which the inmates used their own keys to let themselves in and out of their cells and were able to go to other areas of the prison. It was also noted that the inmates were locked in their cells at approximately 9:30pm by officers working the 3:00pm to 11:00pm shift and were not unlocked until approximately 4:30am by escort officers working the 11:00pm to 7:00am shift.

The Petitioner first reported his condition to his treating physician on March 21, 2011 and noted that the numbness and tingling in his upper extremities over the course of the previous year. An EMG taken on that date revealed mildly delayed median sensory latency in the left and right wrist. The treating physician recommended bilateral CTS releases on April 14, 2011 and administered Kenalog injections on August 29, 2011 with minimal temporary relief. The treating physician testified that his understanding of the Petitioner’s job duties came directly from the petitioner himself. He opined that the Petitioner’s upper extremity symptoms manifested in approximately March of 2010. He was unaware of the Petitioner’s military service. The treating physician even acknowledged that his opinion would be stronger if he had toured the Respondent’s facility and observed the type of activities that the Petitioner performed on a daily basis.

At Trial, the Respondent offered the report of the section 12 examiner, who had actually toured several correctional centers, including the Respondent’s facility, and had performed the actual duties of a correctional officer during his tour. In addition, it was indicated that the examiner also reviewed the job analysis report, DVD and job descriptions. The examiner opined that the Petitioner’s job duties as a correctional officer did not cause or aggravate his carpal tunnel syndrome.

The Arbitrator determined that the Petitioner failed to meet his burden of proof on the issue of accident. The Arbitrator indicated that the petitioner’s job duties were varied and not sufficiently repetitive to rise to the level of accident. The Arbitrator also determined that the opinions of the section 12 examiner were more persuasive than the opinions of a treating physician as a result of his better understanding of the Petitioner’s job duties. The Arbitrator also noted that the Petitioner testified that he believed his symptoms developed between October 2009 and March 2010, which was not consistent with his alleged March 21, 2011 date of accident.

Upon review, the Commission affirmed the decision of the Arbitrator in a 2-1 decision. The dissenting Commissioner’s opinion pointed to the Petitioner’s detailed testimony concerning his job duties. It also referenced the information that was not included in the job analysis; such as opening 150 doors per day or the number of times that the Petitioner would have to cuff and uncuff an inmate per day. The dissenting Commissioner opined that with the Petitioner’s credible testimony and the medical opinions of the treating physician, he met the burden of proof that his work activities were a causative factor in his bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome.

Bottom Line:  This case highlights an important issue for Illinois employers.  Disputed repetitive trauma cases are difficult to win but not impossible. We often see that the opinions of treating doctors in these cases are based on incorrect, inaccurate or incomplete information.  Care must be taken to obtain accurate information regarding job duties and provide it to the Section 12 examiner.    Illustrating this issue for the Arbitrator and Commission provides a basis for them to conclude that the Section 12 opinion is more credible than that of the treating doctor.

Thanks to attorney Mark Carter for this excellent summary.

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