On appeal from the Final Agency Decision of Department of Labor, Division of Worker's Compensation, Claim Petition No. 2003-23570.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Graves and J. N. Harris.
Petitioner Eudoxia Iatridis appeals from a final judgment of the Division of Workers' Compensation (Division) denying her claim for permanent disability. We affirm.
We need not recount all the extensive details of the numerous court events, examinations, and incidents described in both the testimony and documentary evidence presented during trial. On March 6, 2003, Iatridis sustained an injury when she slipped and fell at the workplace of her employer, Georgeson Shareholders (Georgeson). She was transported to Hackensack University Medical Center's emergency department where she was examined, treated, and discharged that same day. The extent of her injuries as of that date was limited to her right knee only.
Subsequently, she began to experience other complications and sought additional medical treatment for headaches, low back pain, neck pain, wrist pain, and ultimately psychological injuries. However, as early as May 29, 2003, Dr. Wayne J. Altman, M.D.'s examination noted, "Ms. Iatridis has multiple areas of pain and tenderness, without evidence of objective orthopedic findings. I have nothing further to offer this individual." He fortified his conclusion as follows: "[h]er complaints appear to be simply subjective without any underlying anatomic basis." Several other physicians concurred in this point of view.
By mid-July 2003, Iatridis was cleared by a physician to return to work. When she timely failed to return to her job-- claiming multiple unresolved injuries that impeded her ability to work--her employment was promptly terminated by Georgeson.
In the ensuing proceeding for temporary and permanent disability benefits pursuant to the Workers' Compensation Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -142, Supervising Judge Beverly Karch characterized Iatridis's claim as "whether just overly dramatic or frankly disingenuous, I am unable to accept her presentation of her problems as accurate and real." After reviewing the direct and indirect medical and other evidence complied from the reports of more than twenty-four physicians,*fn1 most of who were selected by Iatridis herself, Judge Karch determined that Iatridis "failed to sustain her burden of proving a permanent disability by a preponderance of evidence." Nevertheless, based upon "the only objective proofs before me, namely the x-rays and MRIs," Judge Karch did find "a permanent disability of [fifteen per cent] of the right leg for the residuals of right knee sprain with tear of the posterior medial meniscus."*fn2
Additionally, Judge Karch held that Iatridis's claimed psychiatric disability was caused not because of an accidental injury arising out of and in the course of employment, but rather by the termination of her employment.
The standard for our review of a determination of a judge of compensation is equivalent to that used for the review of a non-jury case. Brock v. Public Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 149 N.J. 378, 383 (1997), appeal after remand, 325 N.J. Super. 582 (App. Div. 1999), certif. denied, 163 N.J. 77 (2000). The reviewing court may not substitute its own fact-finding for that of the judge of compensation, even if this court were inclined to do so. Lombardo v. Revlon, Inc., 328 N.J. Super. 484, 488 (App. Div. 2000). Generally, in a workers' compensation case, the standard of review is limited to: 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 and, in the case of agency review, with due regard also to the agency's expertise where such expertise is a pertinent factor. [Sager v. O.A. Peterson Constr., Co., 182 N.J. 156, 163-164 (2004) (quoting Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965)).] Further, we must give deference to a judge of compensation's expertise in assessing the disability of an employee, "so long as the findings are supported by articulated reasons grounded in the evidence" in the record. Perez v. Capitol Ornamental Specialties, Inc., 288 N.J. Super. 359, 367 (App. Div. 1996) (citing Lewicki v. New Jersey Art Foundry, 88 N.J. 75, 88-90 (1981)); see also Laffey v. City of Jersey City, 289 N.J. Super. 292, 303 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 146 N.J. 500 (1996).
In workers' compensation claims, the petitioner bears the burden of proof in establishing his or her disability. Squeo v. Comfort Control Corp., 99 N.J. 588, 599 (1985); Perez v. Monmouth Cable Vision, 278 N.J. Super. 275, 283 (App. Div. 1994), certif. denied, 140 N.J. 277 (1995) (citing Perez v. Pantasote, Inc., 95 N.J. 105, 118 (1984)). The petitioner also bears the burden of proving that the causation of the alleged disability actually stemmed from the employment. Lindquist v. City of Jersey City Fire Dep't, 175 N.J. 244, 278 (2003) ("The absence of any objective medical or scientific evidence establishing a causal link between petitioner's place of employment and a claimed occupational disease will usually be fatal to the petitioner's workers' compensation case."); Laffey v. City of Jersey City, 289 N.J. Super. 292, 303 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 146 N.J. 500 (1996); Wiggins v. Port Auth. of N.Y. and N.J., 276 N.J. Super. 636, 639 (App. Div. 1994).
We routinely defer to the factual findings of a compensation judge provided they are "supported by substantial credible evidence in the record and are not so wide off the mark as to be manifestly mistaken," Tlumac v. High Bridge Stone, 187 N.J. 567, 573 (2006), especially considering the judge of compensation's "opportunity to evaluate witnesses' credibility" and "expertise with respect to weighing the testimony of competing medical experts and appraising the validity of [petitioner's] compensation claim," Ramos v. M & F Fashions, 154 N.J. 583, 598 (1998), together with the judge's "expertise in assessing the nature and extent of the disability," Colon v. Coordinated Transp., Inc., 141 N.J. 1, 11 (1995).
Furthermore, when reviewing a workers' compensation decision, we are mindful "that judges of compensation are regarded as experts." Kovach v. GM Corp., New Departure Hyatt Bearings Div., 151 N.J. Super. 546, 549 (App. Div. 1978). Accordingly, we must "defer to the judge of compensation's expertise in analyzing medical testimony and abide by the longstanding principle that a judge of compensation is not bound by the conclusional opinions of any one or more, or all of the medical ...