State News : Iowa

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Legal Update by Attorneys Alison Stewart and Jordan Gehlhaar

The Iowa Division of Workers’ Compensation recently released a decision assessing how settlement with the Second Injury Fund (SIF) affects an injured employee’s claim against their employer and its insurance carrier in Milbrandt v. R.R. Donnelly.

The SIF compensates injured employees who have proven a previous qualifying injury, a second compensable work injury, and permanent disability resulting from each. In effect, the current employer is responsible only for the portion of disability attributable to the injury occurring during their employ; SIF assumes responsibility for the remainder of total disability.

Claimant Nancy Milbrandt filed a petition alleging a work related cumulative injury to her left and right arms and hands as of November 26, 2019. In addition to the employer and insurance carrier, the petition stated a claim against the Second Injury Fund of Iowa. Prior to the arbitration hearing, the claimant entered into a compromise settlement agreement with SIF, which was approved by the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner.

The subject of the settlement included the November 26, 2019 injury occurring with the defendant employer. As such, the employer argued that once the settlement was approved, the Commissioner lacked jurisdiction over the case. Claimant argued that the settlement was a contract binding only the parties—her and the SIF—and the case against her employer should still proceed to hearing.

The Deputy Commissioner focused on the language of Iowa Code Section 85.35(9): “an approved compromise settlement shall constitute a final bar to any further rights arising under this chapter . . . regarding the subject matter of the compromise . . . .” The Iowa Supreme Court had previously interpreted this language broadly. Accordingly, a previous decision by the Commissioner found that as a matter of law, a settlement with the SIF operated to deprive the agency of jurisdiction, meaning a claimant cannot re-litigate the same injury against the employer that was the subject of the settlement. This is true even when the parties include language attempting to preserve further claims against other defendants.

Since the date of injury against the employer was part of the subject matter of the approved settlement with the SIF, Claimant Milbrandt had no further rights under the workers’ compensation code. Employers and their insurance carriers should be aware their liability may be affected if the SIF is a co-defendant. However, this holding may affect claimants’ willingness to enter into settlement negotiations.

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

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