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Vitti v. City of Milford

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

June 4, 2019

ANTONIO VITTI
v.
CITY OF MILFORD ET AL.

          Argued October 12, 2018

         Procedural History

         Appeal from the decision of the Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Third District ordering the defendants to pay workers' compensation benefits to the plaintiff, brought to the Compensation Review Board, which affirmed the commissioner's decision, and the named defendant appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Scott W. Williams, with whom, on the brief, were James D. Moran, Jr., and Maribeth M. McGloin, for the appellant (named defendant).

          David J. Morrissey, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Sheldon, Keller and Moll, Js.

          OPINION

          MOLL, J.

         The principal issue in this appeal is whether the plaintiffs claim for heart and hypertension benefits under General Statutes § 7-433c is governed by the version of the statute in effect on the date of the plaintiffs hire or the date of his injury. The named defendant, the city of Milford (defendant), [1] appeals from the decision of the Compensation Review Board (board) affirming the finding and award rendered by the Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Third District (commissioner) of the Workers' Compensation Commission (commission), ordering the defendant to pay to the plaintiff, Antonio Vitti, all benefits required by the Workers' Compensation Act (act), General Statutes § 31-275 et seq.[2] On appeal, the defendant claims that the board erred, as a matter of law, by (1) applying to the plaintiffs claim the version of § 7-433c that was in effect on the date of the plaintiffs injury in 2010 (2010 version), [3]rather than the version of § 7-433c that was in effect on the date of the plaintiffs hire in 1993 (1993 version), [4]and (2) affirming the commissioner's finding that the plaintiffs giant cell myocarditis qualifies as heart disease under § 7-433c.[5] We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the decision of the board.

         The following procedural history and facts, as found by the commissioner in his finding and award, dated December 3, 2015, are relevant to our resolution of this appeal. On February 12, 1993, the defendant hired the plaintiff as a police officer after the plaintiff underwent a preemployment physical examination and was deemed suitable for employment. On August 17, 2010, the plaintiff consulted a doctor after experiencing nausea, abdominal pain, and shortness of breath for several days. At his wife's urging, the plaintiff also consulted a cardiologist, who performed an electrocardiogram that supported a differential diagnosis of coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathy. The plaintiff was later transferred to the Hospital of Saint Raphael, where he underwent a cardiac catheterization that revealed that he had mild coronary artery disease and severe systolic dysfunction. On August 20, 2010, a magnetic resonance imaging scan confirmed the electrocardiogram results and raised the possibility that the plaintiff had myocarditis. On August 23, 2010, the plaintiff was put on an intra-aortic balloon pump for cardiac support. Diagnostic tests indicated a progression of heart failure. The plaintiff was prescribed prednisone, a drug used as an immunosuppressive therapy. On August 24, 2010, he was admitted to Hartford Hospital with a diagnosis of acute myocarditis and cardiogenic shock and began to receive treatment from a cardiologist, Detlef Wencker. Dr. Wencker performed a number of tests and determined that the plaintiff needed a heart transplant. On September 29, 2010, the plaintiff underwent successful heart transplant surgery. A specimen of the plaintiffs heart that was harvested and analyzed showed evidence of giant cell myocarditis; Dr. Wencker, thus, determined that the plaintiff was suffering from giant cell myocarditis. The plaintiff later returned to employment with the defendant's police department.

         Meanwhile, on September 10, 2010, the plaintiff filed a timely notice of claim with the commission, noting August 19, 2010, as the date of his injury. On August 14, 2013, after holding formal hearings on the matter, the commissioner, then acting for the fourth district of the commission, issued a finding and award in favor of the plaintiff. The commissioner found, inter alia, that the plaintiffs giant cell myocarditis constituted heart disease pursuant to the 1993 version of § 7-433c[6] and that the defendant had failed to rebut the statutory presumption that the plaintiffs health condition or impairment caused by heart disease was causally related to his employment with the defendant. Accordingly, the commissioner ordered the defendant to pay all benefits due to the plaintiff as required by the act. Thereafter, the defendant filed a petition for review with the board.

         On September 16, 2014, the board rendered its decision, concluding that (1) some of the commissioner's factual findings were inconsistent with his other findings, and (2) the commissioner had committed plain error by applying the 1993 version of § 7-433c rather than the 2010 version that was in effect on the date of the plaintiffs injury. Thereupon, the board vacated the commissioner's August 14, 2013 finding and award and remanded the matter for additional proceedings.

         On December 3, 2015, after holding additional formal hearings on the matter, the commissioner, acting for the third district of the commission, issued a finding and award in favor of the plaintiff.[7] The commissioner found, inter alia, that the plaintiffs giant cell myocarditis constituted heart disease pursuant to the 2010 version of § 7-433c and ordered the defendant to pay all benefits due to the plaintiff under the act. Thereafter, the defendant filed a petition for review with the board.[8]

         On appeal before the board, the defendant claimed that the commissioner's conclusion was legally inconsistent with his factual findings and that the commissioner erred as a matter of law by failing to apply the 1993 version of § 7-433c to his claim. On April 21, 2017, the board affirmed the commissioner's December 3, 2015 finding and award. This appeal followed.

         At the outset, we set forth the standard of review and corresponding legal principles applicable to the defendant's claims. "[T]he principles [governing] our standard of review in workers' compensation appeals are well established. . . . The board sits as an appellate tribunal reviewing the decision of the commissioner. . . . [T]he review ... of an appeal from the commissioner is not a de novo hearing of the facts. . . . [Rather, the] power and duty of determining the facts rests on the commissioner [and] . . . [t]he commissioner is the sole arbiter of the weight of the evidence and the credibility of witnesses .... Where the subordinate facts allow for diverse inferences, the commissioner's selection of the inference to be drawn must stand unless it is based on an incorrect application of the law to the subordinate facts or from an inference illegally or unreasonably drawn from them. . . .

         "This court's review of [the board's] decisions . . . is similarly limited. . . . The conclusions drawn by [the commissioner] from the facts found must stand unless they result from an incorrect application of the law to the subordinate facts or from an inference illegally or unreasonably drawn from them. . . . [W]e must interpret [the commissioner's finding] with the goal of sustaining that conclusion in light of all of the other supporting evidence. . . . Once the commissioner makes a factual finding, [we are] bound by that finding if there is evidence in the record to support it." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Melendez v. Fresh Start General Remodeling & Contracting, LLC, 180 Conn.App. 355, 362, 183 A.3d 670 (2018).

         "It is well established that [although not dispositive, we accord great weight to the construction given to the workers' compensation statutes by the commissioner and [the] board. ... A state agency is not entitled, however, to special deference when its determination of a question of law has not previously been subject to judicial scrutiny. . . . Where ... [a workers' compensation] appeal involves an issue of statutory construction that has not yet been subjected to judicial scrutiny, this court has plenary power to review the administrative decision." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Lafayette v. General Dynamics Corp., 255 Conn. 762, 770-71, 770 A.2d 1 (2001). Mindful of the foregoing, we now address the defendant's claims.

         I

         The defendant first claims that the board erred as a matter of law by applying the 2010 version of § 7-433c to the plaintiffs claim. Specifically, the defendant argues that the board should have applied the 1993 version of § 7-433c, containing a rebuttable presumption, in order to effectuate the legislative purpose underlying such legislation, namely, to provide financial relief to municipalities required to pay heart and hypertension benefits to eligible police officers and firefighters. The plaintiff argues, to the ...


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