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Puckett v. Matrix Services, Del. Supr. No. 435, 2012 (Jan. 7, 2013)

The Delaware Supreme Court concludes that in the context of a termination petition the Employer is not require to prove a change in the medical condition of the Claimant.

In this case Claimant was injured at work by way of aggravation of an underlying spinal condition. The Claimant had a condition known as a "syrinx" (a spinal cord cyst). While working for Employer, the condition became aggravated and symptomatic. Claimant filed a Petition to Determine Compensation Due, Employer opposed Claimant's Petition. Ultimately the Board concluded that Claimant's condition, as aggravated by the work injury, rendered him totally disabled.

Several years elapsed and Employer had the Claimant undergo two DME exams. The DMEs concluded that Claimant was no longer medically disabled from working. Claimant argued at the Hearing that his medical condition had not changed or improved. It is unequivocal that Claimant's condition had not changed nor improved. In this regard, Claimant argued that the Board was precluded under the doctrine of res judicata (and collateral estoppel) from finding that he was not totally disabled. Claimant's theory was that the prior Board decision had determined that his condition was totally disabling and that, absent a change in that condition, he was still totally disabled. Employer argued that the Board was statutorily empowered under 19 Del. C. §2347 to review prior compensation agreements and awards and that the passage of time had indicated the stability of Claimant's condition.

The Board ultimately determined that Claimant was no longer medically totally disabled; noting that they found Employer's expert more credible in that Claimant was at no greater risk of further aggravation of his syrinx condition while performing sedentary work than he was while staying at home. Claimant appealed to the Superior Court, which affirmed, and then the Supreme Court.

The Delaware Supreme Court agreed with the Board, and the Employer, that the Employer is not required to prove that Claimant's medical condition has changed in order to prevail on a termination petition, only that the circumstances have changed such that the Claimant is no longer totally medically disabled at that time. Thus, res judicata (and collateral estoppel) are inapposite as the temporal component of the inquiry was not, nor could be, addressed by a prior Board. In sum, the Board's decision on any given petition is not an adjudication of future disability and res judicata will not prohibit the Board from exercising its statutorily-authorized review under 19 Del. C. §2347.

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