Court Affirms IWCC Award of 25% Loss of Use of Arm with 6% AMA Impairment Rating

Flexible Staffing Services v. Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, 2016 IL App (1st) 151300WC

In Flexible Staffing Services v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2016 IL App (1st) 151300WC Google ScholarIllinois Courts PDF, the Appellate Court considered whether the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission properly applied section 8.1b of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act.

This section of the Act provides, for injuries occurring on or after September 1, 2011, that the Commission shall base its determination of the level of permanent partial disability on the following five factors:

  1. the permanent partial disability impairment report (AMA impairment rating);
  2. the occupation of the injured employee;
  3. the age of the employee at the time of the injury;
  4. the employee’s future earning capacity; and
  5. evidence of disability corroborated by the treating medical records.

820 ILCS 305/8.1b Illinois General AssemblyIWCC PDF.

Section 8.1b further provides that “[n]o single enumerated factor shall be the sole determinant of disability. In determining the level of disability, the relevance and weight of any factors used in addition to the level of impairment as reported by the physician must be explained in a written order.” 820 ILCS 305/8.1b Illinois General AssemblyIWCC PDF. As noted by the Appellate Court, the language of section 8.1b “indicates that not all factors must be used in assessing permanent partial disability” and that “the Commission remains free to evaluate other relevant considerations.”

In this case, the claimant was a welder who suffered a distal biceps tendon rupture when he attempted to catch a 400 pound section of rail falling from a sawhorse. The claimant underwent surgery and was released to full duty when he reached maximum medical improvement. However, the claimant still suffered from numbness, diminished strength, loss of range of motion, and pain, for which he continued to use prescription opioids.

The employer sent the claimant for an AMA impairment rating before his hearing. The examining physician calculated that the claimant had a 6% upper-extremity impairment and a 4% disability rating of the person as a whole.

Applying the factors of section 8.1b, the arbitrator awarded the claimant permanent partial disability benefits based on a 30% loss of use of his arm. On review, the Commission modified the award to a 25% loss of use, but did not state its reasoning. The case was appealed to the circuit court, which remanded the case back to the Commission to explain its decision.

On remand the Commission noted the 6% impairment rating, but did not give this factor as much weight as the employer argued. The Commission found that the term “impairment” as used in the AMA “Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment” is not synonymous with the term “disability” as used in determining permanent partial disability benefits.

Regarding the claimant’s occupation, the Commission agreed with the claimant that the position of a welder-fabricator was a physically demanding job, and that a person with heavier job duties would suffer a greater degree of disability than someone with lighter duties.

Regarding the claimant’s age, which was 45 years old, the Commission found that claimant would “live longer with his disability than someone who is older.” The Commission reasoned that this factor warranted a higher finding of disability.

Regarding the claimant’s future earning capacity, the Commission found that even though he was released to full duty, the employer did not re-employ him  and the claimant had been unsuccessful in finding a job as a welder. The claimant had also testified that he continued to have difficulty using welding equipment that he personally owned. The Commission concluded that the claimant had suffered a loss in future earning capacity requiring a higher finding of disability.

Regarding the claimant’s evidence of disability corroborated by the treating medical records, the claimant’s medical records documented that he injured his dominant hand and that he continued to suffer from pain, numbness, and loss of range of motion.

Based on these factors, the Commission concluded that the claimant’s disability was higher than solely suggested by the AMA impairment rating. The Commission once again awarded the claimant permanent partial disability benefits based on 25% loss of use of his arm, which the employer appealed to the Circuit Court and then the Appellate Court.

The Appellate Court reviewed the employer’s appeal under the manifest weight of the evidence standard, which is highly deferential. Under this standard of review, the Appellate Court will reverse the Commission only if an opposite conclusion is clearly apparent.

In its analysis, the Appellate Court quickly rejects the employer’s arguments that there was insufficient evidence in support of the Commission’s findings for each factor. The claimant’s testimony and medical records – as described above – are clearly evidence in support of each finding. Moreover, it is the function of the Commission to draw reasonable inferences from this evidence. The Appellate Court stated that “it is worth remembering that the Commission is an administrative body, possessing unique skill and expertise in the areas of medical and workers’ compensation issues.” Accordingly, the Commission is owed substantial deference on this issue.

The Appellate Court concluded that “[i]t is not within our purview to rebalance the five factors set forth in section 8.1b(b) and substitute our judgment for that of the Commission.” The Commission’s decision was affirmed.

Additional cases cited by the Appellate Court in support:

Presson v. Industrial Commission, 200 Ill. App. 3d 876 (1990) (“Because of the Industrial Commission’s expertise in the area of workers’ compensation, its finding on the question of the nature and extent of permanent disability should be given substantial deference.”) Google Scholar.

Long v. Industrial Commission, 76 Ill. 2d 561 (1979) (“Therefore, a finding of fact by the Commission on this issue, based on any medical testimony or on inferences to be drawn from medical testimony, should be given substantial deference because of the expertise acquired by the Commission in this area.”) Google Scholar.

This article does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact an attorney directly.