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United Heartland, Inc. and Camanche Community School District v. Kathaleen Brown, Court of Appeals of Iowa, No. 14-1070

Claimant, Kathaleen Brown, taught fourth grade at the Camanche elementary school from 1998 through 2010. In the fall of 2000, Claimant developed severe bronchitis and also received treatment for multiple asthma attacks. Between March 2003 and May 2010, Claimant saw her family physician more than two dozen times for respiratory problems. After being hospitalized for pneumonia in 2007, Claimant noticed mold on the filter of a humidifier she had brought into her classroom. The school followed up with four separate indoor air quality investigations between 2008 and 2011. The 2008 study revealed ventilators in Claimant’s classroom were “covered by a layer of particulate material.” Carpet dust samples showed fungal growth. An industrial hygienist suggested the school develop a “remedial cleaning strategy.”

Following a reactive breathing attack at school in May of 2010, Claimant did not return to work. On June 2, 2010, Claimant sought an opinion from Dr. Charles Bruyntjens, a pulmonary specialist. He diagnosed Claimant with occupational environmental lung disease, hyper-reactive airways, and shortness of breath. He found the school environment either started her condition or aggravated a preexisting condition.

Claimant filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits on October 28, 2010, alleging she was exposed to contaminants in her workplace affecting her lungs, bronchial passages, and whole body. The school district filed an answer denying her allegations.

In April 2011, Claimant saw Dr. Jason Wittmer, a pulmonologist. Dr. Wittmer found no abnormal lung function and no airway obstruction. In August 2011, Claimant’s attorney arranged for an independent medical examination with Dr. Joel Kline. Dr. Kline reached an opinion that Claimant suffered from asthma, which had been substantially aggravated by exposures she received while at the school. In September 2011, the school district’s attorney sought an opinion from Dr. Laurence Fuortes. Dr. Fuortes opined “the elementary school was not grossly contaminated” at least “in the post remediation period.” Dr. Fuortes also found Claimant did not show a “chronic impairment of the respiratory system.”

On April 10, 2012, a deputy workers’ compensation commissioner issued an arbitration decision finding Claimant met her burden of proving an injury arising out of her employment. The school district appealed and the arbitration decision was affirmed on May 9, 2013. The school district sought judicial review. The district court affirmed the agency’s decision. The school district challenges the judicial review ruling on appeal.

The school district contends substantial evidence does not support the acting commissioner’s conclusion that Claimant suffered from “a pulmonary function injury” related to her work. The school district highlights the opinions of Dr. Wittmer and Dr. Fuortes and also contends the agency found Dr. Bruyntjens “was simply not credible” and asserts Dr. Kline’s opinion was based on erroneous information supplied by Claimant. Additionally, the school district argues Claimant cannot show her injury was caused by harmful conditions in the elementary building.

The Court of Appeals finds substantial evidence to back the agency’s conclusion that Claimant suffered a pulmonary function injury. The agency was entitled to rely on Dr. Kline’s assessment of Claimant’s lung injury and its nexus to the school environment, as well as accepting at least some of the opinions from Dr. Bruyntjens. The Court of Appeals also agrees with the district court that the agency record contains expert evidence establishing a causal connection between her injury and conditions in the elementary school. The record is replete with proof that water had infiltrated the roof and ceiling tiles in the fifty-year-old wing of the school building that housed the fourth grade classrooms where Claimant taught.

In summary, the Court of Appeals finds that the agency’s findings of fact were supported by substantial evidence and its application of law to the facts was not irrational, illogical or wholly unjustifiable.

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!