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Iowa Workers’ Compensation Symposium Highlights Agency Case Law Updates (Part 1 of 4)

22 Jun, 2023 Claire Muselman

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Part One: Apportionment, Penalties, and Method of Compensation

Des Moines, IA -- The 61st Annual Iowa Workers' Compensation Symposium commenced yesterday with an informative session on agency case law updates. The session featured presentations by Jordan Gehlhaar from Peddicord Wharton and Bryant Engbers from Spaulding & Shaull, two prominent legal professionals specializing in workers' compensation law. The event occurred at the Downtown Des Moines Marriott in Des Moines, Iowa, and attracted a diverse audience of legal professionals, policymakers, and industry experts.

The session delved into several key topics, including apportionment, penalties, and the compensation method. These areas are critical in workers' compensation cases, as they directly impact the allocation of benefits and the determination of the injured worker's rights.

One of the cases discussed during the session was Murray v. City of Missouri Valley, which raised questions about apportioning preexisting disabilities unrelated to employment. The case involved a police chief who suffered injuries in altercations with suspects while working for the city of Missouri Valley. The defendants sought apportionment of the industrial disability award based on a non-work-related motor vehicle accident the claimant had in 2015. The Commissioner previously found that legislative changes did not affect the "fresh start" rule for successive injuries. In this case, the claimant did not have a labor market "fresh start" through a change in employment. Consequently, apportionment was deemed appropriate, and the reduction in earning capacity following the injury was divided by the earning capacity possessed at the time the injury occurred.

Another case that drew significant attention was Small v. Lennox Indus., Inc., which addressed the issue of apportioning successive disabilities. In this case, the claimant sustained several injuries over his 27-year employment with the defendant. The employer sought apportionment for a prior disability in a subsequent settlement. The Deputy Commissioner ruled in favor of the employer, stating that the employer should only provide compensation for the injury being litigated, not prior injuries. The amended section 85.34(7) was interpreted as a "straightforward approach," limiting the employer's responsibility to the injury under consideration.

The session also discussed the applicability of apportionment to unrelated successive injuries to the same scheduled member, as highlighted in the case of Phipps v. MidAmerican Energy Co. The defendant, on appeal, asserted that apportionment should apply to two separate injuries, one to the claimant's right elbow in 2012 and the other to his right wrist in 2019. However, the Commissioner reversed, emphasizing that no language in the statute states that apportionment does not apply when the successive injury is to the same member. The functional loss from the 2019 injury was not more significant than the loss awarded for the 2012 injury, resulting in no additional permanent partial disability (PPD) benefits for the claimant. However, the Commissioner did award an additional five percent industrial disability due to the claimant's inability to perform job duties and retirement.

In the realm of penalties, the case of Walton v. Compass Group USA, Inc. examined whether a penalty is appropriate when a treating physician delays issuing a rating for more than three months. The claimant was placed at maximum medical improvement (MMI) on May 6, 2019. The defendants requested an impairment rating from the treating physician on May 24, 2019, but the physician did not issue a rating until September 4, 2019. The Deputy Commissioner initially awarded a thirty percent penalty between MMI and the commencement of permanent partial disability (PPD) payments. However, on appeal, the Commissioner reversed this decision, considering the defendants' reasonable actions in timely requesting the impairment rating and promptly initiating PPD payments.

The compensation method for functional mental disabilities was another important topic discussed during the session. In Clark v. Arconic, Inc., the Commissioner affirmed the finding of a mental injury (PTSD) due to a work-related incident. The claimant had returned to work with the same or greater earnings, limiting the compensation to functional impairment. The amended section 85.34(2)(x) specifies that functional impairment should be determined based solely upon the American Medical Association (AMA) Guides, without considering lay testimony or agency expertise. During the hearing, a disability rating of 100 percent was admitted by the claimant, and the defendants presented an expert report without a numerical impairment rating. The Deputy Commissioner initially ruled that the claimant was limited to adopting the 100 percent impairment rating as per Iowa Code section 85.34(2)(x), but the Commissioner reversed this finding. The Commissioner highlighted that Chapter Four of the AMA Guides addresses mental and behavioral disorders, guiding assessing areas of function such as daily living activities, social functioning, concentration, and deterioration in work or work-like settings. The Commissioner concluded that mental disorders should not be treated differently from other body parts and determined a 30 percent functional loss based on the evidence presented.

Another significant case discussed during the session was Dungan v. Den Hartog Indus., which addressed the entitlement to functional or industrial compensation when a claimant voluntarily resigns after returning to work with the same or greater earnings. In this case, the claimant sustained a back injury while working for the defendant. The claimant then returned to work at the same hourly wage and rate of pay as at the time of the injury, subsequently receiving a raise. After approximately eleven months of returning to work for the employer, the claimant voluntarily resigned and obtained employment with higher earnings. The defendant argued that Iowa Code section 85.34(2)(v) limited the claimant to functional impairment compensation since the claimant had returned to work or was offered employment with the same or greater earnings. However, the Deputy Commissioner ruled in favor of the claimant, awarding industrial disability compensation. The Deputy referred to a "mandatory bifurcated litigation process," which applies only when the employer terminates a claimant. As the claimant had voluntarily resigned before the hearing, the Deputy determined that the text of this section did not apply. The Commissioner upheld the decision on appeal, and the case is currently on Judicial Review.

Lastly, the session examined Clickner v. Prairie Farms Dairy, Inc., which focused on whether the claimant's injury extended beyond the shoulder due to trapezius pain. The claimant suffered a shoulder injury and complained of neck and shoulder blade pain as well. However, the Deputy Commissioner determined that the claimant did not provide evidence of a separate, specific injury to the neck. No physician had diagnosed a neck injury, and the Commissioner found that the trapezius pain alone did not extend the injury beyond the shoulder. Similarly, the distal clavicle resection was considered a measure to improve the glenohumeral joint function rather than extending the injury to the body as a whole.

The Agency Case Law Update session at the 61st Annual Iowa Workers' Compensation Symposium gave attendees valuable insights into recent developments in apportionment, penalties, and the compensation method within the Iowa workers' compensation system. The thorough discussion of relevant cases offered legal professionals, policymakers, and industry experts a comprehensive understanding of how these issues are currently addressed in workers' compensation proceedings. The knowledge gained from these discussions will undoubtedly assist legal professionals and stakeholders navigate workers' compensation cases more effectively. The symposium will continue with further sessions addressing critical issues in the field, ensuring the dissemination of crucial information, and fostering collaboration among the participants.


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    • Claire Muselman

      Meet Dr. Claire C. Muselman, the Chief Operating Officer at WorkersCompensation.com, where she blends her vast academic insight and professional innovation with a uniquely positive energy. As the President of DCM, Dr. Muselman is renowned for her dynamic approach that reshapes and energizes the workers' compensation industry. Dr. Muselman's academic credentials are as remarkable as her professional achievements. Holding a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership from Grand Canyon University, she specializes in employee engagement, human behavior, and the science of leadership. Her diverse background in educational leadership, public policy, political science, and dance epitomizes a multifaceted approach to leadership and learning. At Drake University, Dr. Muselman excels as an Assistant Professor of Practice and Co-Director of the Master of Science in Leadership Program. Her passion for teaching and commitment to innovative pedagogy demonstrate her dedication to cultivating future leaders in management, leadership, and business strategy. In the industry, Dr. Muselman actively contributes as an Ambassador for the Alliance of Women in Workers’ Compensation and plays key roles in organizations such as Kids Chance of Iowa, WorkCompBlitz, and the Claims and Litigation Management Alliance, underscoring her leadership and advocacy in workers’ compensation. A highly sought-after speaker, Dr. Muselman inspires professionals with her engaging talks on leadership, self-development, and risk management. Her philosophy of empathetic and emotionally intelligent leadership is at the heart of her message, encouraging innovation and progressive change in the industry. "Empowerment is key to progress. By nurturing today's professionals with empathy and intelligence, we're crafting tomorrow's leaders." - Dr. Claire C. Muselman

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