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Sullivan v. West Central Cooperative

Court of Appeals of Iowa

August 21, 2019

BRETT V. SULLIVAN, Plaintiff-Appellant,

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Sarah Crane, Judge.

         The claimant appeals the district court's ruling on judicial review affirming the award of the Workers' Compensation Commissioner.

          Thomas M. Wertz of Wertz & Dake, Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

          Jeffrey W. Lanz of Huber, Book, Lanz & McConkey, P.L.L.C., West Des Moines, for appellees.

          Considered by Potterfield, P.J., and Doyle and Tabor, JJ.


         Brett Sullivan experienced a workplace injury in October 2011 when the wheel loader Sullivan was driving was struck by a train. Sullivan's resulting injuries necessitated a lengthy hospital stay and a number of surgeries. West Central Cooperative, Sullivan's former employer, and Farmland Mutual Insurance Company, the employer's insurer, admitted the injury. They paid Sullivan lost time and permanent partial disability benefits and covered all of his medical bills.

         Six issues arising from the workplace injury were contested and presented to a deputy commissioner of the Workers' Compensation Commission.[1] One of the issues was whether Sullivan had a mental-health condition caused by the workplace accident. The deputy commissioner found:

There are two experts who favor [Sullivan's] position that he has a mental component stemming from his work injury. The experts are Dr. Mills and Dr. Gallagher. Their opinions were detailed in preceding paragraphs. There are two experts who expressly disagree with Dr. Mills and Dr. Gallagher. They are Dr. Chesen and Dr. Andrikopolous. Their opinions are also detailed in preceding paragraphs. The two defense experts maintain [Sullivan] is malingering and he has no psychiatric diagnosis.
In this case, the old adage, "actions speak louder than words" applies. For more than two years after the work injury, claimant attended numerous medical appointments. He returned to work and performed his duties, even though he had faced several surgeries, physical therapy sessions, and had to use such assistive devices as wheelchairs and walkers to perform his duties. Throughout that timeframe, [Sullivan] did not report to any of his medical providers or to his supervisors he was having depression, anxiety, or PTSD. [Sullivan] did not request treatment or drug therapy for any mental health issues. His numerous treating physicians did not observe symptoms consistent with any mental conditions. Moreover, April Sullivan[2] often attended the medical appointments with [Sullivan]. She never indicated to the medical providers there was any change in [Sullivan's] mood or in his relationship with the family. [Sullivan] is not requesting medical care for any claimed mental condition.
It is only when [Sullivan] retained the services for his own experts in the fields of neuropsychology and psychiatry did [his] mental health become an issue in the case. Even then, [he] did not seek treatment for any depression, anxiety or PTSD. It is the determination of the undersigned[:] [Sullivan] does not have a mental condition that is the result of his work injury on October 2, 2011.

         Sullivan challenged the deputy commissioner's determination and argued the award of 60% industrial disability must be reconsidered in light of this incorrect determination. The deputy's ruling was adopted by the commissioner[3] and affirmed in a final agency decision.[4]

         Sullivan sought judicial review. He maintained the commissioner ignored all expert opinions in the record in rendering his causation findings and making the determination Sullivan's workplace accident did not cause a mental-health injury. The district court disagreed with Sullivan's claim, noting the ruling adopted by the agency "walked through each of the expert medical opinions in depth," with two experts who opined Sullivan had suffered a mental-health injury as a result of the workplace injury (Dr. Mills and Dr. Gallagher) and two that opined he did not (Dr. Chesen and Dr. Andrikopoulous). The commissioner did not explicitly find doctors Chesen and Andrikopoulous more credible than the other two experts, but he identified a number a factual findings-stemming from the reports of Chesen and Andrikopolous-to support the conclusion Sullivan's workplace accident did not cause him to suffer from a mental-health condition. The district court affirmed the agency's ruling, stating:

Many of the factual findings . . . cited to as a reason for the determination that Sullivan did not suffer a mental condition are reflected in the medical expert reports that align with [the commissioner's] determination. Just as in [Schutjer v. Algona Manor Care Center, 780 N.W.2d 549, 562 (Iowa 2010)] it is evident the commissioner chose to rely on certain experts "because those opinions were more consistent with the factual findings made by the commissioner." Based on the factual circumstances of this case, the commissioner was required to evaluate the timing of Sullivan's complaints of a mental condition and determine whether he agreed with Dr. Mills and Dr. Gallagher that Sullivan had experienced a late onset of a mental health condition nearly two years after the work injury or whether he agreed with Dr. Chesen and Dr. Andrikopoulos that the timing was "peculiar" and Sullivan did not have a mental condition. The court finds that, read in ...

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