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Coccidioidomycosis, commonly known as Valley Fever, is a fungal infection caused by the fungus Coccidioides. It primarily affects the lungs but can also spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones, skin, and central nervous system.

Coccidioides fungi are found in soil in certain arid and semiarid regions, particularly in the southwestern United States, Mexico, and parts of Central and South America. When the soil is disturbed, such as through construction, farming, or wind, the fungal spores can become airborne and be inhaled by humans and animals.

Ernest Sanchez was a correctional officer for the State of California. He filed a claim for injury to the respiratory system and musculoskeletal system in the form of coccidioidomycosis. The WCJ issued a Findings and Order of March 30, 2021 finding that he did not sustain the injury as alleged.

The WCAB granted reconsideration, rescinded the WCJ’s decision, and return this matter to the trial level for further development of the medical record and analysis in order for the parties, the reporting physician(s), and the WCJ to consider the applicability of Labor Code section 3212.10 in the panel decision of Sanchez-I v State of California – ADJ12021219 (June 2021).

After further proceedings, the WCJ again issued another Findings and Order on March 3, 2023 finding that the valley fever was again not industrial. And again the WCAB panel granted reconsideration, rescinded the WCJ’s decision and issued a new decision reflecting that applicant sustained presumptive industrial injury in the form of coccidioidomycosis in Sanchez-II v State of California ADJ12021219 (May 2023)

The panel cited Labor Code section 3212.10 as authority for this decision which states: “In the case of a peace officer of the Department of Corrections who has custodial or supervisory duties of inmates or parolees … the term “injury” as used in this division includes … pneumonia, … that develops or manifests itself during a period in which any peace officer covered under this section is in the service of the department or unit.” And that “the … pneumonia … so developing or manifesting itself shall be presumed to arise out of and in the course of employment.

The panel then cited Lee v. State of California (2017) 2017 Cal. Wrk. Comp. P.D. LEXIS 543 [Appeals Bd. panel]; and Thomas v. State of California (2021) 2021 Cal. Wrk. Comp. P.D. LEXIS 62 [Appeals Bd. panel]),as “previous cases in which valley fever has been found to constitute pneumonia.”

In Lee v State of California the panel noted that “The statutory language in section 3212.10 does not identify or designate a specific type of pneumonia nor does it limit the applicability of the presumption to a specific type of pneumonia. If the Legislature had intended to limit the presumption, it would have done so.”

It then quoted from the AME report from AME Gerald Markovitz, M.D. that stated “”Mr. Lee presented today for AME evaluation in the field of internal medicine. He developed a case of primary pulmonary coccidiomycosis [coccidioidomycosis] (Valley Fever). There is a Presumption for pneumonias in Correctional Officers and he developed a pneumonia, so there is no reason to deny industrial responsibility for his Valley Fever.” From this reporting the panel commenced this trilogy of cases equating valley fever as within the definition of “pneumonia” for purposes of the presumption in Labor Code 3212.10 .

In Thomas v State of California, the second case of the trilogy, PQME Paul J. Grodan, M.D., testified that valley fever constitutes pneumonia. “Therefore, applicant had pneumonia that developed or manifested itself during his service in a custodial role at CDCR. The burden thus shifted to defendant to show that applicant did not develop industrial pneumonia.”

Turning then to Sanchez II v State of California, the third case in the trilogy, after citing Lee and Thomas as authority for application of the “pneumonia” presumption in valley fever cases, the panel noted that the burden of proof shifted to the employer.

The record was developed with two short supplemental reports from qualified medical evaluator Jeffery M. Freesemann, M.D. “However, Dr. Freesemann never states, let alone provides substantial medical evidence, that applicant’s valley fever was probably not contracted at work. Rather, he states that the cause of the injury is “impossible to determine.” Defendant thus did not meet its burden of overcoming the statutory presumption.”