Wendy Leavens vs. Second Injury Fund, No 2-376 / 11-1636 (Iowa Court of Appeal)

The Claimant, Wendy Leavens, began working for Maytag in 1994. In October of 2007, the Claimant filed a petition with the Commissioner for a December 20, 2006 injury. The Claimant alleged she had sustained bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome stemming from cumulative and repetitive employment duties. This petition was ultimately resolved through settlement which was approved by the agency in May of 2008. This settlement stated the Claimant suffered a permanent disability of six percent of the body.

 

In June of 2008, the Claimant filed a Second Injury petition which alleged a first injury to her right hand in 2000 and second injury of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome on December 20, 2006. After hearing, the deputy found the approved settlement from May of 2008 was valid and due to the issues being of mutuality of interest between the employer and the Fund, that the Fund was without recourse. The deputy found the hand and wrist losses equaled a twenty percent disability of the whole person and awarded Second Injury benefits.

 

The Claimant applied for rehearing asserting that the deputy did not appropriately consider all her injuries. An amended decision was issued which stated that subsequent to the original arbitration decision, the controlling authority on the preclusive effect of settlement agreements had been expressly reversed. The deputy noted that under the new authority, “the only preclusive effect of an agreement for settlement between worker and employer is upon the parties who entered into that agreement, and the settlement does not establish the compensability of any injury or the extent of entitlement to disability benefits in a subsequent claim against the Second Injury Fund.”

 

The deputy then found that the Claimant had the burden of proving that the injury was a proximate cause of the disability on which her claim was based. The deputy held that the Claimant failed to meet the burden of proof and was not entitled to an award of benefits from the Fund. On appeal to the commissioner, it was held that the deputy appropriately relied on the new authority. The ruling was subsequently upheld by the District Court. The Claimant then sought review with the Court of Appeals.

 

The Court first noted that they would only reverse in this case if it was found the agency decision was based on an erroneous interpretation of Iowa law. The Court next stated that the Claimant had entered into a settlement in regards to her December 20, 2006 injury under Section 85.32(2) and stated that under this code section, “The parties may enter into an agreement for settlement that establishes the employer’s liability, fixes the nature and extent of the employee’s current right to accrued benefits, and establishes the employee’s right to statutory benefits that accrue in the future.”

 

The Court then found in this case that the Claimant sought to use issue preclusions offensively because in the second action with the Second Injury Fund, the Claimant relied upon a former judgment as conclusively establishing in her favor an issue which she must prove as an essential element of her cause of action. The Court then stated that Iowa law was clear that issue preclusion required the issue be actually litigated in the prior proceeding. The Court further found that in this case, the employer and the Claimant stipulated to a compensable injury to the Claimant’s bilateral arms arising out of her employment but that the issue of liability was never actually raised and litigated before the agency. The Court then stated the Claimant would still have to establish that the party sought to be precluded (the Fund) was afforded a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the action. The Court finally found that the Fund was not a party to the settlement and did not have an opportunity to fully and fairly litigate the issue of liability. The Court found the agency’s decision was not based on an erroneous interpretation of the law, and therefore affirmed the decision of the district court.

 

The Court next turned its attention to the issue raised by the Claimant as to the weight the commissioner gave to certain medical reports. The Court ultimately found that working backward in this case from the commissioner’s appeal decision to the deputy’s amended and substituted arbitration decision, the Court was able to “deduce what must have been the agency’s legal conclusions and findings of fact.” The deputy considered the evidence before him and concluded the opinion provided by Dr. Jones did not outweigh the opinions of Drs. Formanek and Quenzer. Further, he noted that he considered the record as a whole. The court noted that the Claimant asserted the deputy improperly relied on reports wherein Drs. Formanek and Quenzer responded to defense inquiries. The Claimant alleged she was “winning her case until the deputy came to the summary, leading, wish-list reports.” The Court found that while the Claimant is correct that the deputy analyzed Dr. Formanek’s and Dr. Quenzer’s responses to the defense inquiries, there is nothing in the record to indicate these inquiries and responses constituted the entire basis on which the deputy’s decision was founded. Ultimately the Court the denial of the rehearing was not unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion.

 

The Court finally turned its attention to the finding of that the Claimant did not sustain a permanent disability as a result of her December 20, 2006 injury. The Court agreed with the district court that substantial evidence supports the agency’s denial of Fund liability because the Claimant failed to prove before the agency an impairment to a second qualifying scheduled member. The Court further recognized that the evidence relied on by the agency was “not insubstantial merely because a contrary inference is supported by the record.” Factual findings were vested in the discretion of the agency, and the Court found that because the findings in this case are supported by substantial evidence, they were bound by these findings.

 

The decision of the district court was then affirmed.

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