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Soniat v. Crown Buick & Risk Management Services

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

December 12, 2018

JAMES M. SONIAT
v.
CROWN BUICK & RISK MANAGEMENT SERVICES

          ON APPEAL FROM THE OFFICE OF WORKERS' COMPENSATION, DISTRICT 7, PARISH OF JEFFERSON, STATE OF LOUISIANA NO. 17-4737 HONORABLE SHANNON BRUNO BISHOP, JUDGE PRESIDING

          COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT, JAMES M. SONIAT Anthony J. Milazzo, Jr.

          COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLEE, CROWN BUICK & RISK MANAGEMENT SERVICES Wade A. Langlois, III Brittany A. Cooper

          Panel composed of Judges Susan M. Chehardy, Robert A. Chaisson, and John J. Molaison, Jr.

          JOHN J. MOLAISON, JR. JUDGE.

         In this worker's compensation case, Claimant, James Soniat, appeals the trial court's judgment denying him reinstatement of previously awarded indemnity benefits. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         As we noted in Claimant's prior appeal in this matter, [1] it is undisputed that he suffered a work-related back injury[2] on February 16, 2012, while employed as an auto technician for Crown Buick Pontiac GMC Truck ("Crown Buick"). On August 3, 2017, in a Disputed Claim For Compensation filed by Claimant in Louisiana Worker's Compensation Court, District 7, Claimant asserted that he attempted to return to a light duty job at Crown Buick on April 13, 2017, but the continuing pain he experienced since his accident prevented him from performing the work. Claimant stated that his weekly benefits were terminated on April 13, 2017, in connection with the job opening at Crown Buick, and that when he requested the reinstatement of his weekly benefits because of his inability to meet the requirements of the light duty job, Crown Buick refused to do so. In addition to the reinstatement of his benefits, Claimant also asked the court to impose sanctions and award attorney's fees.

         The matter came for trial on January 3, 2018. At that time, Claimant testified about his initial injury sustained at Crown Buick, his subsequent medical treatment, and the consistent pain[3] he experienced throughout his treatment that was exacerbated by certain movements. Claimant said that the cause of his pain could not be determined, but Dr. Waguespack, his treating physician, offered treatment in the form of steroid injections, which worked to a limited extent.[4] He also tried physical therapy, which he quit because it was too painful. Dr. Waguespack had recommended two different types of surgery to treat Claimant's pain, but Claimant had declined both. Claimant testified that his daily activities since the accident consisted mainly of housework, such as cooking or cleaning clothes.

         With regard to his attempt to return to work at Crown Buick, Claimant stated that Dr. Waguespack signed a job analysis for him which said that she thought Claimant could perform a light duty job at Crown Buick that involved sitting continuously, with certain restrictions. Claimant testified that, while at the new job, he was in constant pain when he sat. He also walked and stood occasionally, but not without pain. Claimant explained that he was unable to drive continuously to Crown Buick, and needed to stop, get out of his car and stretch on the way there.[5] His extended commute sometimes took two hours, and he would arrive at the dealership in pain. At times, his leg would get so numb during the day that he would become unsure of whether he could drive home.

         Upon returning to work, claimant's supervisor at Crown Buick was Cheryl Wright. Every day, Claimant reported to Wright that his pain got to a point where he could not take it anymore and had to leave. Claimant stated that he was never able to complete an eight-hour work day, and was never able to work two days in a row. He said summarily that he could not perform the light duty job at Crown Buick. Claimant continued to treat with Dr. Waguespack on a monthly basis, and was aware that Dr. Waguespack still believed that he could do the light duty job, despite his complaints about pain.

         Claimant testified that his supervisors at Crown Buick made every effort to accommodate him. They switched out his office chair on request, and also had no problem with him standing, moving, walking and sitting as needed. Claimant's job was to call people on the phone who had some service done at the dealership and check on whether the customer was satisfied with the service. He did not take extra medication to perform the job.

         Elier Diaz was accepted by the court, without objection, as a licensed Louisiana Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor who had worked with Claimant to find him a job. Diaz obtained Claimant's medical information from Dr. Waguespack and contacted Crown Buick, which expressed an interest in exploring the possibility of letting Claimant work in a new position. Diaz obtained the list of physical work restrictions, and a position was created for Claimant which was within the "sedentary level."[6] The job itself was to assist with a customer satisfaction index, and would allow Claimant latitude to be able to alternate sitting and standing and walking. Before anything else was done, a conference was conducted with Claimant's treating doctor, Dr. Waguespack, who verbally confirmed why she felt the physical aspects of a job were appropriate for Claimant.[7]

         Diaz monitored Claimant at his job, and ensured that Crown Buick was meeting Claimant's requirements. When Claimant told Diaz that he was not able to physically accomplish the work, a second consultation with Dr. Waguespack was arranged at Diaz's request and Dr. Waguespack reiterated her opinion that Claimant could physically perform the job offered to him by Crown Buick. Diaz said that Crown Buick was willing to help Claimant to be successful and that the company was complimentary about the way Claimant performed his work for them.

         Cheryl Wright testified that she held the position of the controller at Crown Buick. She worked with Diaz and Claimant to assist Claimant in his role as a customer service representative. Wright observed that Claimant did well as a customer service representative, and that the job was still available to Claimant as of the time of trial. Claimant last worked for Crown Buick in June of 2017.

         At the conclusion of trial, the matter was taken under advisement. On February 20, 2018, the trial court rendered a final judgment in favor of Crown Buick, holding that Claimant "failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he is incapable of employment due to substantial pain" and, accordingly, "failed to prove that he is entitled to reinstatement of his indemnity benefits." ...


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