John Walter Podgorniak v. Asplundh Tree Expert Company and Lumbermen’s Mutual Insurance Company,Court of Appeals of Iowa,No. 2-943 / 12-0644

 

The claimant injured his left shoulder, neck and head while working for the employer. He filed a workers’ compensation proceeding which ultimately awarded him alternate medical care and running healing period benefits. The Claimant was referred to a treating physician who opined the claimant was at maximum medical improvement; based upon this, the employer terminated the claimant’s healing period benefits.

 

The Claimant subsequently filed a review reopening petition which raised several issues including a request for penalty benefits based upon the termination of healing period benefits. The deputy awarded a penalty of 50% of all healing period benefits that the claimant asserted were not timely paid based upon the determination that the employer unreasonably delayed the payment of weekly benefits to the claimant. On appeal to the commissioner, the designated deputy reversed the decision reasoning that the decision to terminate healing period benefits was fairly debatable. The decision was affirmed by the district court.

 

The decision was appealed to the Court of Appeals which took up review of the issue based upon the substantial evidence standard of review. The claimant asserted that the appeal deputy erred by applying a non-statutory ‘fairly debatable’ standard as a per se defense to a penalty claim. The Court however stated that established case law supported the ‘fairly debatable’ language and that there was no material difference between the judicially created standard of ‘fairly debatable’ and the statutory standard set forth in the Iowa Code requiring a reasonable or probable excuse for delay in payment of benefits. The Court then stated that the deputy did not ignore the requirements of the Iowa Code by relying upon the judicial opinions which discussed those requirements.

 

The Court then discussed the issue as to whether substantial evidence supported the finding made by the commissioner. The Court found substantial evidence in the opinions of three doctors that the claimant was at maximum medical improvement. The claimant attempted to claim that these opinions carried no weight as they were rendered before the claimant completed his alternate care, but the Court found no case law to support this proposition. The Court then affirmed the finding of the commissioner based upon substantial evidence.

 

Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation and Zurich North American v. Johnie M. Eakins,Court of Appeals of Iowa,No 2-1016 / 12-0901

 

The employer appealed the district court’s ruling which affirmed the commutation decision of the workers’ compensation commissioner. The deputy had granted the claimant’s request for a partial commutation, giving him a lump amount rather than weekly benefit payments.

 

The Court first discussed that partial commutations may be awarded when it is found to be in the worker’s best interests based upon a number of factors, which include: age, education, mental and physical condition, life expectancy, family circumstances, living arrangements, responsibilities for dependents, financial condition, debt, living expenses, and reasonableness of plan for investing lump sum proceeds and ability to manage the invested funds.

 

The employer contended that the agency failed to consider the claimant’s lack of financial sophistication, the tax consequences of the commutation decision and the claimant’s lifelong interest instead of just his current financial situation. The Court stated that the agency’s decision did in fact clearly consider these issues. The Court then noted that the agency was particularly concerned with the claimant’s ability to find adequate housing should he not receive a commutation. The agency also considered the fact that the claimant would only draw down interest and principal of the lump sum until his wife completed nursing school and obtained employment. The claimant also intended to conserve the principal to provide an estate for his wife should she survive him. Based upon these factors the agency determined that the commutation was in the claimant’s best interest long term and the Court could find no error in the agency’s application of law to these facts.

 

The employer also attempted to argue that substantial evidence did not support the awarding of the commutation as the claimant had a lack of income to pay day to day expenses and his desire to spend the benefits on other family members. The employer also indicated that the claimant’s history of spending money indicated that he would spend the money rather than invest it, which would leave him destitute. The Court acknowledged that there was evidence to support the conclusion that the commutation was not in the claimant’s best interests, but stated that it was not the job of the appellate court to determine whether the evidence supports a different finding but rather whether the finding made was supported by substantial evidence. The Court ultimately found substantial evidence supported the award of the commutation. The evidence relied upon was the claimant’s desire to obtain adequate housing and his indication that he would employ the services of a financial advisor.

 

The next issue taken up by the court was what was the correct date to commute the award from. The Court found that the correct date to be used to calculate the interest rate for the purposes of the commutation was the date the agency decision became final. This was based upon Iowa Code Section 85.48, which sets the rate to be paid based upon the interest at the time judgment is entered. The Court held that a workers’ compensation decision becomes a final judgment when there is a final decision without further proceeding, unless there is an appeal to the agency. As there was an appeal to the commissioner in this case, a final judgment was not entered until the decision of the commissioner. The Court then ordered that the commutation be revised to reflect the value of the commuted weeks and that any weekly payments made after the date of the commissioner’s decision while the case was on appeal should be credited to that value.

 

Ottumwa Manufacturing d/b/a Cadbury Schweppes Holding, Inc., v. Carl Boyd Sr.,Court of Appeals of Iowa,No. 2-813 / 12-0889

 

The claimant sustained an injury to his feet on August 22, 2008 when they were run over by a forklift while at work. This caused crush injuries to both of his feet. The claimant began to treat with podiatrist, Dr. Scott King. An MRI revealed a bony contusion of the metatarsal joints. The claimant claimed to have reported hip pain since he was injured, but Dr. King did not note any right sided hip pain until March of 2009. Dr. King associated this pain with the claimant’s work injury and assigned restrictions. Later, he signed a letter deferring to the claimant’s other physicians in regards to work restrictions and the cause of his hip injury.

 

The claimant was also seen by Dr. Kenneth Pollack, a pain management specialist. The claimant complained of pain in his low back and right hip, which Dr. Pollack theorized was likely caused by altered body mechanics stemming from his crush injury. In March of 2009, Dr. Pollack opined that the claimant’s left knee and right hip pain were a direct result of his work related injury. This was based on the claimant having no symptoms prior to his injury. However, in January 2010, Dr. Pollack signed a letter which stated he was unable to state that the claimant’s right hip complaints were a result of the claimant’s 2008 work injury.

 

The Claimant was seen by Dr. Nettrour, a hip specialist, in November of 2009. He opined that the claimant had a right hip injury with unclear etiology. He subsequently signed a letter which stated the claimant suffered no identifiable hip injury and any hip pain could not be related to his work injury. The Claimant was also seen by Dr. Friedgood, a neurologist, who opined the claimant did not need permanent restrictions based upon his right hip injury.

 

The Claimant was seen by Dr. Stoken for an independent medical exam in November of 2009. Dr. Stoken related the claimant’s complaints of pain in his feet, right hip and low back to his work injury. He was placed at maximum medical improvement as of September 21, 2009 and given an impairment rating of 28% to the whole body. He was given permanent work restrictions to avoid prolonged standing and walking and to avoid repetitive bending, twisting and lifting.

 

 

The Claimant was next seen by Dr. Eric Barp. Dr. Barp believed the claimant to likely be at maximum medical improvement. His work was restricted to sit down work only. Late Dr. Barp indicated the document assigned this restriction was in error and that the claimant could return to work without restrictions from a foot and ankle standpoint. The claimant was then given a permanent impairment rating of 4% to the body as a whole.

 

At hearing, the deputy found the claimant’s injury extended beyond his lower extremities into his right hip. The deputy then found the claimant to have suffered an 80% industrial disability. On intra-agency appeal, the claimant argued he should have been given an award of total permanent disability. The decision of the deputy was affirmed by the commissioner; which was subsequently affirmed by the district court.

 

Both parties appealed to the court of appeals. The employer argued that the commissioner erred in determining the claimant sustained a whole body injury rather than an injury to the bilateral lower extremities as there was insubstantial evidence to support the finding. Ultimately the Court found substantial evidence supported the finding made by the commissioner. The Court focused on the fact that the commissioner gave greater weight to the opinions of Dr. Stoken as well as the opinions of Dr. Pollack indicating the hip pain was related to claimant’s work injury. The Court indicated it was not their duty to re-weigh the evidence or to question the weight given to expert opinion, as such the court found substantial evidence supported the finding made by the agency.

 

The Court then turned its attention to the assignment of 80% industrial disability awarded by the agency. The employer contended that substantial evidence did not support the award. The claimant on the other hand argued that he should have been awarded permanent total disability. The Court found that substantial evidence supported the award made by the agency. The Court looked to the factors that the agency considered such as claimant’s use of a wheel chair – which while self imposed – the court found necessary, a vocational evaluation showing the claimant could only perform sedentary work, his inability to perform part time employment and the opinion of the claimant’s vocational expert indicating there were no jobs available to the claimant in the current job market. However, the Court noted that the agency did not award permanent total disability as the claimant’s physicians had not imposed work restrictions which would keep him from being able to perform seated work.

 

Based upon the factors above the court found the award of 80% industrial disability was supported by substantial evidence and the decision of the agency was affirmed.

 

Jose Sanchez v. Celadon Trucking Services, No 2-1091 / 12-0895, Court of Appeals of Iowa

 

The Claimant was injured in a motor vehicle accident in the course and scope of his employment with the employer. He settled a third party suit against the drive at fault for $200,000. The employer was reimbursed on its lien for workers’ compensation benefits already pain. As there were funds remaining after payments of this lien, the employer retained a lien for future workers’ compensation payments it would become liable to pay. After hearing, the Claimant was awarded 25% industrial disability.

 

The Claimant filed a review reopening proceeding seeking additional compensation alleged that his physical condition had worsened and his industrial disability had increased. The Claimant also sought an adjudication on the issue of the employer’s remaining lien.

 

At hearing, the deputy found the claimant lacked credibility and that factor combined with the conflicting medical opinions in regards to his physical condition, led the deputy to conclude that the Claimant had not suffered any change of condition and there was no worsening of his earning capacity. The amount of the lien asserted by the employer was also adjudged to be correct. These findings were affirmed by the commissioner.

 

The Claimant then appealed the decision to the district court, who concluded that substantial evidence supported the finding that the claimant had no sustained a worsening of his physical condition. The district court also agreed that the calculation of the employer’s lien was correct. The Claimant then appealed to the Court of Appeals.

 

The Court affirmed the decision of the district court stating that substantial evidence supported the agency’s determination. In so doing the Court opined that their review waslimited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the decision the agency made and they would no reweigh the evidence to see if supported a different decision.

 

Debra Cooper v. Kirkwood Community College, No. 2-1080 / 11-1755, Court of Appeals of Iowa

 

This was the second time that this case had been on appeal for the Court of Appeals. The Claimant had filed a petition on March 4, 2003 alleging a work related injury on March 18, 2001. The employer answered raising the affirmative defenses that the claimants’ claims were barred as she did not give 90 days notice and that the statute of limitations had passed. After hearing in 2005, the deputy concluded that the claimant had failed to sustain her burden of proof that she suffered an injury arising out of and in the course of her employment. As such, the deputy did not address the affirmative defenses raised by the employer.

 

Both parties filed for rehearing as the employer wanted the deputy to address its affirmative defenses. Rehearing was granted and the deputy ultimately affirmed the prior decision. On appeal to the commissioner, the decision was affirmed as well. The case was appealed to the district court which remanded the case to the agency for fact finding regarding the employer’s affirmative defenses. On remand to the agency, a decision was entered finding that the claimant’s claim was barred by the 90 day notice provision but not the statute of limitations.

 

The decision was then appealed to the district court which found it had subject matter to hear the case as it was found to be appealed from a final agency decision. The district court then found that substantial evidence supported the finding of the agency. The district court also affirmed the agency’s findings regarding the claim being barred by notice provisions but not the statute of limitations.

 

This case was appealed to the Court of Appeals which found the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case as the Claimant had to wait for a resolution of the employer’s filing for rehearing prior to filing for judicial review. The case was remanded for dismissal of the district court petition.

 

The district court dismissed the Claimant’s petition for judicial review on April 26, 2010. Following inaction by the agency on the employer’s motion for rehearing, Claimant filed a second petition for judicial review of the agency decision twenty-eight days later, on May 24, 2010. The employer filed a motion to dismiss asserting the petition for judicial review was not timely filed. The court denied the employer’s motion and affirmed the agency decision, finding the claimant failed to prove an injury arising out of and in the course of her employment. The court also found that the claimant did not provide the employer timely notice of her injury. This decision was appealed to the Court of Appeals.

 

The employer first argued that the Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case as the Claimant filed her petition for judicial review more than two and a half years after the time limit set forth in the Iowa Code. The Court noted that failure to file within the manner proscribed by statute deprives the Court of subject matter jurisdiction. The employer arguedthat the second petition for judicial review was untimely since the application for rehearing was filed in 2007, and the petition for judicial review was not filed until 2010, after dismissal of the first petition by the district court. The Court of Appeals did not agree with this argument.

 

The Court indicated that because the initial petition for judicial review was taken filed before a final agency decision was issued, the claimant’s appeal was provisional or conditional—i.e., interlocutory in nature. The Court went on to note that Iowa Code 17A.19(3) requires the thirty-day time limit to file an appeal to begin from the issuance of an “agency’s final decision.” The Court pointed out that previous Iowa Supreme Court precedent held that the 30 day time limit did not apply to petitions for judicial review from interlocutory actions. The Court held that the twenty-day window until an application for rehearing is “deemed to have been denied” was tolled and the thirty-day time limit to petition for judicial review was stayed pending the decision by our court and subsequent dismissal by the district court. Ultimately the Court found the Claimant’s second petition for judicial review was filed after the application for rehearing was deemed denied and twenty-eight days after dismissal by the district court and agreed with the district court that the petition for judicial review was timely; thus the Court had subject matter jurisdiction.

 

After finding subject matter jurisdiction existed, the Court proceeded to the merits of the Claimant’s appeal. The Court first noted that as the Claimant had alleged that the Commissioner applied the improper legal standard, that the decision would only be disturbed if the application of the law was irrational, illogical or wholly unjustifiable. The claimant contended that the words “claimant must prove that her work was the probable cause,” used in the decision applied the wrong legal standard to her case—a tort causation standard—and thereby reversible legal error was committed.

 

The Court first noted that the standard for an injury to be connected to employment is that the injury must be caused by or related to the working environment or the conditions of the employment. The Court stated that whether an injury has a direct causal connection with the employment or arose independently thereof is essentially within the domain of expert testimony; and the Commissioner may accept or reject expert opinion on the matter.

 

The Court then examined this particular case and found that the commissioner carefully weighed the expert testimony, noting “[n]o doctor has specifically opined that claimant’s work activities as of March 2001 were a substantial factor in causing her underlying condition to become symptomatic” and that “[n]o doctor has opined that [the claimant’s myofacial pain, depression, and fibromyalgia] standing by themselves were caused by or aggravated by claimant’s work.” The commissioner concluded evidence of causation was lacking. The commissioner, applying the law to the facts, found no connection between Cooper’s work at Kirkwood and her injuries. Due to this, the Court could not find that the agency’s application of law to the facts was not irrational, illogical or wholly unjustifiable.

 

Ultimately the Court found that the finding made by the agency was supported by substantial evidence and affirmed the decision.

 

 

Call Mark Bosscher or Lee Hook with any questions @ 515-243-2100.  We’d be happy to help, whether it be a quick or a complex issue!