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Trinidad v. Employees' Retirement System of Providence

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

May 2, 2019

Wanda I. Trinidad
Employees' Retirement System of Providence.

          Retirement Board of the Employees' Retirement System of Providence

          For Petitioner: Stephen M. Rappoport, Esq. Michael J. Farley, Esq.

          For Respondent: Etie-Lee Schaub, Esq. Kenneth B. Chiavarini, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          Indeglia, Justice

         The petitioner, Wanda I. Trinidad (Trinidad), filed a petition for the issuance of a writ of certiorari seeking review of a decision of the Retirement Board of the Employee Retirement System of Providence (the board) denying Trinidad's application for accidental-disability retirement benefits, and instead awarding her ordinary-disability benefits. This Court granted the petition, and Trinidad's case came before the Supreme Court for oral argument on March 27, 2019, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this matter should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' memoranda and oral arguments, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown and we proceed to decide the case at this time. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the board's decision to deny Trinidad accidental-disability benefits.


         Facts and Travel

         Beginning on March 9, 2004, Trinidad served as a bus monitor for the City of Providence. On May 9, 2014, Trinidad submitted an application for accidental-disability retirement benefits to the respondent, the Employees' Retirement System of Providence (respondent), alleging that she had suffered a work-related injury on January 26, 2011.[1] Included with her application was a written statement by Trinidad detailing the events that she maintained caused her injury. In her statement, Trinidad explained that, while working as a bus monitor, she injured her left wrist when she walked to the back of a moving bus to assist a child with a nosebleed and caught her hand on a seat.

         After the alleged incident, Trinidad visited the emergency room and was initially diagnosed with a sprain. However, her pain persisted, and Trinidad sought treatment from Gregory Austin, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon. While treating with Dr. Austin, Trinidad underwent an MRI, "which demonstrated question of triangular fibrocartilage tear." In addition, Trinidad received cortisone injections and a wrist sprint. Eventually, Dr. Austin performed an arthroscopy, which revealed "a fair amount" of swelling, "but no specific or repairable" tears. Following the arthroscopy, Trinidad's problems continued, and she underwent a second MRI, which Dr. Austin determined revealed a tear. Dr. Austin ultimately recommended and performed "an ulnar shortening" surgery; nevertheless, Trinidad's symptoms remained.

         In furtherance of her application, Trinidad underwent three independent medical examinations (IMEs), performed by three separate physicians selected by the board, to determine her eligibility for accidental-disability benefits pursuant to § 17-189(f) of the Providence Code of Ordinances governing accidental-disability retirement.

         The first doctor, Arnold-Peter C. Weiss, M.D., performed an IME and generated a report, dated April 14, 2016, detailing his evaluation. Therein, Dr. Weiss noted that Trinidad's pain was "of uncertain etiology far exceeding what one would expect from either the mechanism of injury or the treatment that's been provided." As to causality, Dr. Weiss explained, "I'm not sure that I can causally relate the patient's current upper extremity complaints of pain to her actual on-the-job incident as opposed to some other conversion disorder or other psychiatric reactive phenomenon." Doctor Weiss went on to explain that objectively he did not believe Trinidad was "totally disabled[, ]" but he noted that, "[f]rom a subjective complaint, and the significant symptoms she's had," she may be disabled; he gave Trinidad an "[e]xtremely poor" prognosis. Lastly, Dr. Weiss concluded his report by noting that Trinidad's injury, if any, was "very insignificant," but stated that, "[e]ven if she objectively is not disabled and has no physical capabilities that are inappropriate at this juncture, psychologically I believe she's completely unable to use the left upper extremity due to fear, anxiety or some other conversion reaction disorder."

         Next, Philip J. Reilly, M.D., performed an IME on April 19, 2016. In his report, Dr. Reilly opined "to within a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the patient's current left upper extremity pain and resultant disability are a result of the accident she sustained on January 26, 2011." Moreover, Dr. Reilly stated that Trinidad "has a permanent disability with regard to being employed as a bus monitor" and concluded that "she is simply unable to perform these activities." Doctor Reilly noted that there may be psychiatric influences that affect Trinidad's ability to recover, but determined that her overall prognosis was poor.

         The third examining doctor, Jack D. Goldstein, M.D., explained his findings in a report dated April 28, 2016. Doctor Goldstein stated that it was unlikely that Trinidad would improve to the point where she could return to her former job. In addition, Dr. Goldstein stated: "Clearly her injury as stated is the initial and only cause of her current disability. I feel that she is currently disabled from her previous job and this was entirely caused by the accident as described although it is difficult to assess what exactly was injured at the time of injury."

         The matter came before the board's disability subcommittee (the subcommittee) for hearings regarding Trinidad's application. After the subcommittee held hearings, it recommended to the full board that Trinidad's application be denied. Accordingly, on January 25, 2017, the board voted to deny the application. Then, on March 1, 2017, the board issued a written decision. In its decision, the board provided findings of fact and summarized the IMEs of the three physicians. The board concluded that "[t]he evidence provided does not establish that Trinidad is 'incapacitated for the performance of duty and * * * she shall be retired' pursuant to [§ 17-189(f)]." The board explained that the reports from the IMEs and other evidentiary material "do not support granting an accidental disability retirement." Rather, the board reasoned, the record established that "Trinidad is unable to work as a bus monitor because of subjective complaints without an actual diagnosis." The board again provided an overview of the reporting doctors' findings based on the IMEs, and ultimately relied on the opinion of Dr. Weiss. The board explained that "Dr. Weiss, the only orthopedic hand surgeon to examine Trinidad, found that Trinidad is not totally disabled and concluded that it was difficult to explain her significant subjective complaints from the innocuous incident on January 26, 2011." Additionally, the board emphasized that "Dr. Weiss specifically noted there are certainly no objective signs of Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome Type I (RSD) from a physical exam perspective." Basing its decision thereon, the board denied Trinidad's application for accidental-disability retirement benefits and instead granted Trinidad ordinary-disability benefits. Trinidad petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari to review the board's decision, and we granted that petition.

         Trinidad argues before this Court that each IME clearly establishes that she had a cognizable work-related injury that left her unable to perform her bus monitor duties. Furthermore, Trinidad maintains that her on-duty injury prevents her from returning to her work as a bus monitor and that she therefore qualifies for accidental-disability benefits, rather than ordinary-disability benefits, and should be compensated at the higher accidental-disability benefit rate. Trinidad proffers that the board erred in requiring that she be "totally disabled" to qualify for accidental-disability retirement benefits. ...

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