Iowa District Court Affirms Agency Shoulder Decision

  • May 24, 2021

Legal Update by Attorneys Nick Cooling, Alison Stewart, and Law Clerk Jordan Gehlhaar

On April 29, 2021, an Iowa District Court affirmed a final decision of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commission relating to interpretation of the shoulder under amended section 85.34. You can view our briefing of the Agency appeal decision here. The court affirmed that “shoulder” as a scheduled member includes the “complex and intertwined structure of the shoulder and not just the joint.”

Following an injury to her shoulder, Claimant Chavez was diagnosed with a full thickness rotator cuff tear, severe AC arthrosis, and tendonitis and tearing of the biceps tendon. She underwent a right shoulder arthroscopy with repair of the rotator cuff tendon (including supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and subscapularis tendons), debridement of the labrum, biceps tendon, and subacromial space, a biceps tenotomy, and subacromial decompression.

The primary dispute in the case was whether Claimant Chavez’s injury resulted in an unscheduled industrial disability or a scheduled member injury to her shoulder, in light of the Iowa Legislature’s 2017 addition of “shoulder” as a scheduled member under Iowa Code section 85.34(2)(n). The Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner concluded this was a shoulder injury and therefore limited recovery based on her 10% upper extremity impairment rating. The Commissioner incorporated analysis from the Deng v. Farmland Foods ruling on the intricacies of the shoulder and legislative intent.

Claimant Chavez sought judicial review, asserting the injury should be unscheduled, or alternatively a combination of two injuries resulting in a body as a whole injury. On review, the district court agreed that “shoulder” was ambiguous in that it could mean just the shoulder joint, or it could include the tendons and muscles connected to the joint. Utilizing dictionary definitions and legislative history, the court concluded the ordinary interpretation of shoulder is the “complex structure that includes the joint, tendons, and muscles.” Therefore, it was not error for the Commissioner to find Chavez’s injury to her rotator cuff, labrum, and other tendons and muscles established a scheduled member injury under section 85.34(2)(n). Additionally, the court affirmed denial of industrial disability based on injury to two scheduled members: the shoulder and the arm. Claimant failed to meet her burden to establish an arm injury.

Consistent with prior decisions on this issue, the court noted that the exact parameters of a scheduled shoulder injury under section 85.34(2)(n) will need further exploration and development. Peddicord Wharton will continue to monitor case law on this issue.

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