Thursday, April 14, 2005

IME-Report to be Considered on a Equal Footing to All Other Proof in the Case

The Oklahoma Supreme Court issued an opinion Tuesday refusing to automatically give an independent medical examiner's report greater weight than that given to any other evidence. The court held that 85 O.S. §17 does not give an IME-report "prima facie effect." YOCUM v. GREENBRIAR NURSING HOME, 2005 OK 27

On February 2, 2000, Yocum suffered neck injury to her neck, back and shoulder while she was working at a nursing home. Yocum's physician "recommended she undergo a psychological evaluation as well as procedures for pain management. Her "employer's medical expert reached a contrary conclusion. According to his report she was neither in need of medical care and maintenance nor of treatment for psychological overlay. The report stated that [Yocum's] complaints of anxiety are caused by a pre-existing condition, not by the February 2nd injury. The trial judge then ordered four independent medical evaluations to assess claimant's need for further treatment. These four reports recommended pain management and psychological overlay treatment. On consideration of the entire medical evidence, the trial judge denied the request for treatment, resting his decision on the ground he was 'not persuaded . . . that she has psychological problems caused by the injuries.'"

The Court of Civil Appeals (COCA)vacated the panel's order and remanded the claim holding that "by its enactment of the independent medical examiner (IME) system the Legislature intended to accord prima facie effect to an IME-report assessment." The COCA held that the "legislative intent to give greater probative value to an opinion by a court-appointed IME is explicitly (or implicitly) reflected in the provisions of 85 O.S.2001 §17."

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Yocum's employer argued that "by prescribing a different weight to be given IME opinions, COCA distorts, if not indeed discards, the long-established any-competent-evidence standard for review of the panel's factual resolutions and invests the court-appointed doctor with "judicial authority" for making findings of fact."

The Supreme Court held that "there is neither legislative mandate for departing from the long-established any-competent-evidence standard of review nor for according an IME-report assessment an elevated (or lowered) rank for probative value. The court reasoned that "unlike the administratively managed workers' compensation regimes of Massachusetts and Louisiana, which statutorily mandate that IME opinions be treated as "prima facie" proof, the terms of 85 O.S.2001 §17(D) allocate no predetermined weight or probative value to the medical opinions of court-appointed physicians."

The court noted that "Any other gloss upon §17 would place its constitutionality in serious doubt," because it would "encroach upon the free exercise of decisionmaking powers reserved to the judiciary." According to the court this would violate the separation of powers doctrine which "interdicts legislative intrusion upon the functions assigned to the judiciary by the constitution." The court noted that the COCA's interpretation of the statute would "impermissibly rob that tribunal of its independent power to establish impairment or disability within the range of received competent evidence." (See Editorial note above.)

The court concluded that the "probative value of an IME's opinion on the extent of impairment or disability is evidence to be considered on a footing equal to all other proof in the case."


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