On appeal from New Jersey Department of Labor, Division of Workers' Compensation.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Skillman and LeWinn.
In 1999, petitioner Dawn Grasso filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits for alleged injuries to her right hand and arm as a result of work performed for respondent on a computer keyboard, telephone and typewriter. This claim was settled on December 19, 2001 by a partial, permanent award of 45% of the right arm, which equaled 1481/2 weeks of compensation at a rate of $163.43 per week, for a total of $24,270. The order memorializing this award stated that it "approximates 30% right arm and 20% of the hand."
In July 2003, petitioner applied for an increase in the compensation award on the ground that her condition had worsened and as a result she needed additional medical care including surgery. Petitioner also filed a new claim petition, which was consolidated with her application for an increase in the original award. Petitioner's claims were tried before the Division of Workers' Compensation in a five-day hearing.
Petitioner testified she had to have a third surgery on her wrist and forearm after the original compensation award. After the surgery, petitioner had three months of four-day per week physical therapy before returning to work. Despite the surgery and physical therapy, petitioner testified that she continued to suffer severe pain performing her work and was planning to retire early because she could not stand the pain any longer. Petitioner also testified that she no longer goes fishing with her husband because she cannot hook the bait, needs help carrying groceries and cannot garden.
Petitioner's application for an increase in her compensation award was supported by the testimony of two medical experts. Dr. Martin Riss testified that he first examined petitioner in 2000, after she filed her original claim for workers' compensation benefits, at which time he concluded that she suffered a 45% total disability of her right arm and 45% total disability of her right hand. Dr. Riss again examined petitioner after she filed her application for an increase in her workers' compensation award, at which time he found an increase in the loss of motion in both her wrist and elbow. He also found a positive Tinel's sign, which indicated carpal tunnel dysfunction, which was not present during the 2000 exam. Dr. Riss concluded that petitioner has orthopedic disabilities of 65% of the right arm and 75% of the right hand.
Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein, a psychiatrist/neurologist, who only evaluated petitioner after she filed the application for an increase in her compensation award, concluded that she had a neurological disability in her right hand and forearm of 35% and a psychiatric disability of 25%.
Respondent presented the testimony of two medical experts who concluded that petitioner had not suffered any additional disability to her arm and hand since the original compensation award.
The Judge of Compensation credited the testimony of petitioner and Dr. Riss and found that "petitioner had demonstrated increased disability and additional functional loss with respect to both her arm and hand." However, he did not "find any objective medical evidence to support any psychiatric disability." Thus, the Judge of Compensation rejected the part of Dr. Eisenstein's testimony relating to that alleged disability. The Judge found that petitioner's "present disability [is] 40% of [her] arm and 50% of the hand, which is the equivalent of 42.42% partial total for the residuals of orthopedic and neurological consequences[.]"
Based on these findings, the Judge awarded petitioner both 40% of the total loss of an arm (330 weeks), see N.J.S.A. 34:15-12c(9), which equals 132 weeks, and 50% of the total loss of a hand (245 weeks), see N.J.S.A. 34:15-12c(8), which equals 122.50 weeks, for a total of 254.50 weeks. The Judge deducted the number of weeks petitioner had already been paid on her original award, which resulted in a net award of 179.49 weeks at $383 per week, for a total of $68,726.
On appeal, the State argues that petitioner failed to prove any increase in the disability to her arm or hand after the original compensation award. The State also argues, in the alternative, that the award to petitioner was improperly calculated and excessive.
Our review of the factual findings of a Judge of Compensation is limited to determining "'whether the findings made could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record,' considering 'the proofs as a whole,' with due regard to the opportunity of the one who heard the witnesses to judge of their credibility." Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964)). We are satisfied that the Judge of Compensation's finding that petitioner suffered "increased disability and additional functional loss with respect to both her arm and hand" after the original 2001 partial, permanent award is supported by sufficient credible evidence and therefore must be affirmed. This evidence consisted of testimony by petitioner and two medical experts. One of those experts, Dr. Riss, examined petitioner both at the time of her original application and at the time of her application for increased benefits. Dr. Riss detailed the differences in petitioner's range of motion tests in his original and subsequent examinations of her, which indicated that her injury had substantially worsened. Additionally, Dr. Riss concluded that petitioner should not return to her current work or to any occupation that involves the manual use of hands, which is a conclusion he did not reach at the time of his prior evaluation. Even the respondent's expert, Dr. ...