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Motichka v. Plum Creek Timber Co.

Court of Workers Compensation of Montana

March 4, 1994

GARY D. MOTICHKA Petitioner
v.
PLUM CREEK TIMBER COMPANY Respondent.

          ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Mike McCarter, Judge

         Gary Motichka (claimant) seeks a determination that he is disabled on account of a January 1, 1980 low-back injury he suffered while employed by the respondent, Plum Creek Timber Company (Plum Creek), which is self-insured. In a companion matter, this Court recently affirmed a decision of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) determining that claimant suffers from an occupational disease related to his low-back condition and apportioning his current disability 30 percent to occupational factors and 70 percent to non-occupational factors. The disability at issue in both cases is one and the same, stemming from claimant's low back. Citing the DLI decision, and invoking the doctrine of collateral estoppel, Plum Creek has moved for summary judgment.

         Since this Court has not adopted a specific rule governing motions for summary judgment, it will look to the Montana Rules of Civil procedure for guidance. Murer v. Montana State Compensation Mutual Insurance Fund, 257 Mont. 434, 849 P.2d 1036 (1993). Under Rule 56(c) summary judgment may be granted when the record discloses that there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Cate v. Hargrave, 209 Mont. 265, 269, 689 P.2d 952, 954 (1984).

         The factual basis of Plum Creek's collateral estoppel argument is the record of the DLI proceeding. We must determine if the decision in that proceeding precludes claimant from litigating his claim that his present disability is the result of his 1980 injury.

         Claimant quit working at Plum Creek on January 2, 1991. On April 12, 1991 he filed an emergency petition with this Court, alleging that his inability to work was due to his 1980 back injury. Motichka v. Plum Creek Timber Co., WCC No. 9104-6129. Plum Creek denied that his disability was due to his injury. In September 1991, the focus of the claim was redirected in the direction of an occupational disease. The DLI was involved and on September 26, 1991, it referred claimant to Dr. James Burton for a determination of whether claimant suffered from an occupational disease. Meanwhile, September 20, 1991, at the request of claimant, the emergency petition for workers' compensation benefits was dismissed without prejudice.

         The procedural history of the DLI proceeding is set forth in this Court's Order affirming a DLI decision. Motichka v. Plum Creek Timber Co., WCC No. 9301-6685 (February 14, 1994). Briefly revisiting that history, Dr. Burton initially found that claimant was suffering from an occupational disease relating to his lower back and apportioned his disability 100 percent to the occupational disease. Based on that evaluation, the DLI issued an initial determination finding that claimant was suffering from an occupational disease. Plum Creek then requested a hearing pursuant to section 39-72-611, MCA. While that request was pending both Plum Creek and the claimant requested that Dr. Burton reevaluate the matter based on additional information. Dr. Burton ultimately concluded that claimant was suffering from an occupational disease but apportioned disability 30 percent to the occupational factors and 70 percent to non-occupational factors. After hearing, a DLI hearing examiner adopted Dr. Burton's conclusions and on appeal this Court affirmed. The DLI hearing examiner found that claimant did not suffer any job-related injuries after 1980.

         While the appeal of the DLI decision was pending, claimant filed a new petition seeking a determination that his disability is the result of his 1980 injury. Plum Creek does not dispute claimant's contention that he suffered a low-back injury in 1980. A claim was filed and liability accepted. However, Plum Creek disputes claimant's contention that his current disability is caused by the 1980 injury and argues that he is collaterally stopped from pursuing his present petition.

         The collateral estoppel doctrine applies in workers' compensation cases. See Martelli v. Anaconda-Deer Lodge Co., 258 Mont. 166, 852 P.2d 579. The doctrine precludes relitigation of issues already litigated in a prior suit, provided the following three elements are met:

1. The issue has been decided in a prior adjudication and is identical to the one presented.
2. A final judgment on the merits was issued.
3. The party against whom the plea is asserted was either a party or in privity with a party to the prior adjudication.

Id. at 168. It applies to litigation conducted in the administrative forum, including contested matters determined by the DLI. Id.

         In this case the second and third criteria are clearly met. A final decision was issued by the DLI and later affirmed by this Court. Motichka v. Plum Creek Timber Co., WCC No. 9301-6685 (February 14, 1994). The parties are the same. Thus, the focus of the parties' arguments is on the first criteria.

         Plum Creek strenuously urges that the issue decided in the DLI hearing is identical to the one presented by Motichka's present petition, to wit: "What is the cause of Petitioner's disability." Respondent's Reply Brief. Plum Creek argues that the DLI determined that Motichka's disability is caused by his occupational ...


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