State News : Iowa

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Legal Update by Attorneys Alison Stewart and Jordan Gehlhaar and Law Clerk Darbi Spellman

The issues in Bryan Barry v. John Deere Dubuque Works of Deere & Company were (1) whether the Commissioner abused his discretion when he rejected an expert opinion for lack of credibility, and (2) whether the Commissioner could determine the AMA Guides were misapplied. The Claimant, Bryan Barry, suffered from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome that arose out of and in the course of his employment with John Deere Dubuque Works. In the arbitration decision in 2017, the Deputy Commissioner determined that Barry sustained permanent partial disability of 11% to the body as a whole due to bilateral arm injuries. In 2019, Barry filed a review-reopening petition, claiming that his carpal tunnel syndrome had worsened since the arbitration decision. His petition was denied, and he appealed.

Following the arbitration award, Barry received medical care for shoulder pain he began to experience and reported some hand numbness. To support his review-reopening, Claimant had an IME with Dr. Stanley Matthew. He used Table 16-18 of the AMA Guides to evaluate Barry’s injuries and concluded that Barry had permanent impairment at “a 10% upper extremity rating to each of his elbows, a 15% upper extremity impairment of his wrists, and a 15% impairment rating as a result of loss of function of his finger joints.” Dr. Matthew further determined that Barry’s shoulder pain was separate from his other diagnoses, and he added further permanent restrictions.

Barry’s review-reopening petition was denied for failure to meet the burden of proof. The Deputy Commissioner specifically found that Dr. Matthew was not credible because he used “incorrect” sections of the AMA Guides to determine Barry’s impairment. On appeal, Barry argued the Commissioner abused his discretion by rejecting Dr. Matthew’s opinion.

Claimant first argued that the opinion should not have been rejected because it was the only opinion in the record. The Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that expert testimony may be rejected in whole or in part—even if the only opinion in the record—and the Commissioner as trier of fact is tasked with credibility determinations. However, it was found that the opinion of Dr. Sassman from the Arbitration Hearing was considered part of the record.

Barry also relied on Iowa Code Section 85.35(2)(x), which provides:

[W]hen determining functional disability and not loss of earning capacity, the extent of loss or percentage of permanent impairment shall be determined solely by utilizing the [AMA Guides], as adopted by the workers’ compensation commissioner by rule pursuant to chapter 17A. Lay testimony or agency expertise shall not be utilized in determining loss or percentage of permanent impairment pursuant to paragraph “a” through “u”, or paragraph “v” when determining functional disability and loss of earning capacity.

Claimant Barry argued this section prevents the Commissioner from finding a physician misapplied the AMA Guides. The Court of Appeals again disagreed. Dr. Matthews provided no explanation of how he reached his figures or why he relied on the portion of the AMA Guides he did. The Commissioner comparing this to Dr. Sassman’s detailed explanation, and weighing credibility, did not “run afoul of the statutory prohibition on determining ‘the extent of loss or percentage of permanent impairment’” in 85.34(2)(x).

Finally, it was found that Barry’s shoulder injury is new, and under Iowa Code § 86.14(2) for reopening an award, new injuries cannot increase the original impairment rating. New injuries are not to be deemed as a worsening of old injuries and are to be pursued in a separate proceeding.

Peddicord Wharton will continue to monitor case law on this issue.

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Peddicord Wharton Legal Updates are intended to provide information on current developments in legislation impacting our clients. Readers should not rely solely upon this information as legal advice. Peddicord Wharton attorneys would be pleased to answer any questions you may have about this update. ©2023 Peddicord Wharton. All Rights Reserved.