Disability in the Context of Presumption Analysis

This letter will serve to update you on a recent decision published by the First District Court of Appeal (First DCA) in Martz v. Volusia County Fire Services/County of Volusia Risk Management. In this decision, the First DCA addressed the issue of disability in the context of the presumption analysis.

In this case, the Claimant challenged the finding of the Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) that he was not entitled to the presumption afforded by section 112.18(1), Florida Statutes. Claimant specifically asserted that the JCC erred by 1) finding Claimant failed to satisfy the disability requirement of the statutory presumption, with respect to his heart disease; and 2) finding Claimant was not entitled to compensation for treatment of his hypertension under the "hindrance to recovery doctrine." The First DCA affirmed as to the second issue without further comment.

The Court reversed as to the disability issue. It noted that Claimant, a firefighter, responded to a call, and afterward experienced elevated blood pressure and an irregular heart rate. He was taken to the hospital and admitted. During his hospitalization, Claimant underwent diagnostic tests that revealed atrial fibrillation (AF), which is considered heart disease, and essential hypertension. Claimant was kept in the hospital for one and a half days, and treated with medication until his heart rate was controlled. Claimant was then discharged without any work restrictions. The testimony of two physicians (Drs. Mathias and Kakkar) were presented at hearing, both of whom concluded that the Claimant would have been disabled during his hospitalization, at least (Dr. Mathias noted that it would have been reasonable for Claimant to have been out of work for a period after his hospitalization).

The First DCA noted that, at the time of his decision, the JCC did not have the benefit of its recent Carney v. Sarasota County Sheriff's Office decision, in which the Court found that the claimant had established disability under remarkably similar facts. Also in Carney, a covered employee was hospitalized due to an irregular heart rate, diagnosed with AF, and remained in the hospital for a little over a day, during which time he was treated with medication to regulate his heartbeat. And, there was medical testimony in that case that the claimant would have been unable to perform his job duties as a result of his AF while undergoing treatment in the hospital. As it did in Carney, the Court distinguished the instant case from its Bivens decision. The Court noted that in the instant case, unlike in Bivens, Claimant was hospitalized not merely for diagnostic purposes, but "because his heart was beating at a hazardous rate and required treatment to bring his heartbeat to a safe level. Thus, this was not testing or treatment standing alone.'"

In finding that Claimant had indeed established the disability prong of the statutory presumption, the First DCA reversed JCC's denial of compensation for treatment of Claimant's AF condition. (Again, it affirmed the JCC's denial of treatment of hypertension, albeit under a different theory.)

The Court's decision in this and its Carney decisions are somewhat troubling, in that they stand for the proposition that any amount of disability, however short, will satisfy this requirement in the presumption. Of course, it remains imperative that a claimant establish through medical testimony (which appears to have been undisputed in this case) that his/her covered condition rendered him/her unable to work for that period. I would note that this decision is not final, as both parties have 15 days from the March 17, 2010 issuance of the decision to move for re-hearing.

Michael Broussard