State News : Iowa

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Merivic, Inc. and Zurich North America v. Enrique Gutierrez, Court of Appeals of Iowa, No. 2-722 / 12-0240


The Claimant was a 48 year old with a ninth grade education and a limited knowledge of English. His past job history included working as a mechanic, manual laborer and a welder.


While on the job, the Claimant fell from 10-12 feet and landed on a steel table injuring his left right and left rotator cuff. Both required surgery. He returned to light duty work in between the two surgeries; however following the second surgery the Claimant was only able to work three hours before he was told the work did not fit his restrictions. He never worked for the employer again and was unable to find other employment.


At hearing of the Claimant’s workers’ compensation case, the Claimant was found to have sustained a permanent and total loss of earning capacity as a result of his work injury. The deputy partially relied upon a report of a vocational expert who cited the Claimant’s limited fluency in English as an adverse effect upon his employability. The employer had urged the deputy to reduce the Claimant’s benefits due to an alleged lack of motivation to learn English. The deputy stated that the agency no longer penalized Claimants who failed to learn English while working for a U.S. employer.


On appeal to the commissioner, the employer urged that prior precedent regarding learning English be set aside; but the commissioner refused to do so. The commissioner affirmed the deputy’s decision and clarified that the disability determination was primarily based on factors other than lack of English fluency. The district court did not address the issue of overruling prior precedent with regard to learning English as they found substantial evidence supported the determination of total disability even without considering the language deficiency.


On appeal to the Court of Appeals, the employer again reiterated that prior case law with regard to a claimant’s inability to speak English should be overturned. The Court refused to address the issue as they found the assertion to be an impermissible collateral attack on an unappealed agency decision. The Court then stated that the issue was whether the finding by the commissioner of permanent total disability was supported by substantial evidence.


The Court found the finding by the commissioner was supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, the Court highlighted the opinion of the vocational expert retained by the Claimant which highlighted such factors as the Claimant’s advanced age, past work history of physically demanding jobs which his restrictions now prevent him from performing, limited education and his severe physical limitations. The Court noted the Commissioner’s finding of this vocational opinion as more convincing than the opinion of the Defendants’ vocational expert, and the underlying analysis distinguishing between the two based upon the use of a labor market survey.  

The Court then turned its attention to the consideration of the claimant’s limited proficiency with the English language. While noting the Commissioner’s assertion that this factor was not determinative in his decision, the Court confirmed that it had, in fact, been considered. They then went on to formally find that the inclusion of English proficiency in the industrial disability analysis was appropriate.  They also noted that substantial evidence did support the Commissioner’s finding that Claimant was deficient in his capacity to speak English, and his finding as to the impact of the deficiency on Claimant’s ability to find employment. 


Ultimately, the Court affirmed the decision of the Commissioner as supported by substantial evidence.


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!