Usoro Nkanta v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and American Home Assurance, No. 2-871 / 12-0475, Court of Appeals of Iowa

 

The Claimant was hired by the employer in 1999. He was employed unloading trucks. On November 15, 2008, the Claimant sustained a low back injury arising out of and in the course of his employment. He went to the doctor the next day and was diagnosed with a back strain. On November 19, the Claimant was seen by Dr. Boyett who diagnosed left lower back pain and spasm and took the Claimant off work. An x-ray on November 24 revealed mild degenerative spondylosis. The Claimant was then returned to work, sit down duties only.

 

The Claimant continued to describe pain in his lower back and weakness in his left leg to Dr. Boyett. Dr. Boyett noted symptom magnification and nonphysiologic findings. He was continued on restricted duty and physical therapy. He was also given a referral to Dr. Nelson, an ortho spine specialist. After an MRI on January 22, 2009, Dr. Nelson opined he could not attribute the Claimant’s complaints to his lumbar spine. He was then referred to physiatrist Dr. William Koenig.

 

After his exam on January 28, 2009, Dr. Koenig found the Claimant to have normal results from an EMG of the left back and left lower extremity. He opined the Claimant was not a surgical candidate and kept him off work until February 10, 2009. Based on the appointment with Dr. Koenig, the employer ceased payment for the Claimant’s medical care and scheduled him for an IME with Dr. McCaughey. Dr. McCaughey spoke with Dr. Koenig prior to his IME of the Claimant. After the IME, Dr. McCaughey opined that he could not contribute the Claimant’s complaints to “organic pathology” as a result of work activities on November 15, 2008 and was unable to identify a compensable injury. He further opined that he further treatment would be under the Claimant’s personal healthcare provider.

 

In May 2009, the Claimant of his own volition was seen by Dr. Chen. Dr. Chen found the Claimant suffered from myofacial pain with no MRI or EMG evidence of nerve root pathology and recommended physical therapy and a home exercise program. The Claimant then underwent a second IME of his choosing with Dr. Jones, who found the Claimant to have a low back strain and some depression. He assigned the Claimant 5% impairment to the body as a whole.

 

After hearing on the matter, the deputy concluded that the Claimant had failed to prove his November 2008 injury was a cause of permanent impairment. The deputy did not accept Dr. Jones’ opinion as convincing as he gave no analysis, nor did he address other experts’ discrepancies with his opinions. In contrast, there were three experts who had opined that there were no organic explanations for the Claimant’s continued pain complaints.

 

In its decision, the deputy also noted that prior to the hearing, the employer had filed a confidential sealed envelope with the commission that included an offer to confess judgment. The deputy determined the agency did not have the authority to accept sealed documents as all documents filed in a contested case are public unless specially made confidential by law. The deputy also stated he did not view the contents of the offer to judgment as it was not material to awarding costs in this case and that there were no procedures under the statutes and rules of the agency for awarding costs under an offer of judgment.

 

On appeal, the commissioner adopted the ruling of the deputy. The commissioner also expressly stated that pursuant to chapter 677 of the Iowa Code, offers to confess judgment are not available in workers’ compensation proceedings. The employer then sought to enlarge the appeal and avoid paying costs on the action as it was the successful party. However, the commissioner denied this request noting that the Claimant was partially successful as he won his claim for reimbursement of an IME fee. These rulings were affirmed on judicial review by the district court.

 

On appeal, the Court of Appeals found that the commissioner’s ruling that the Claimant had no sustained permanent impairment due to a work injury was supported by substantial evidence. Thus this finding was not disturbed on appeal. The Court next took up the issue as to whether chapter 676 or 677 allows for an offer to confess judgment in workers’ compensation proceedings. The Court first noted that the Commissioner’s finding in this regard would be given no deference as he had not been given the authority to interpret this particular statute.

 

Chapter 677 provides that a defendant may make an offer to confess judgment for a specific sum. If a plaintiff rejects the offer and subsequently does not recover a greater amount than that offered, the plaintiff is taxed with the Defendant’s costs following the offer to confess judgment. The Court took up the issue as to whether or not Chapter 677 was applicable to workers’ compensation proceedings. In finding that Chapter 677, and the offer to confess judgment, is inapplicable in workers’ compensation proceedings the court conducted a comprehensive review of the applicable Iowa statutes. More specifically, the Court examined the Iowa Administrative Procedure Act and the Workers’ Compensation Act to determine if Chapter 677 was applicable.

 

The Court held that the language of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act provided that no party may settle a controversy without the approval of the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner. The Court stated that settlements, which included the offer to confess judgment, were governed by the specific administrative provisions of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. As these Acts did not provide for the applicability of offers to confess judgment to workers’ compensation proceedings, the Court found that the consequences for failing to adopt an offer of judgment, mainly the taxing of costs, directly conflicted with the discretion given to the Commissioner to approve settlements per the Workers’ Compensation Act. Based upon this interpretation, and the finding that the Commissioner did not abuse his discretion in awarding costs, the ruling that each party was to pay its own costs was affirmed.


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