Iowa Supreme Court Interprets “Shoulder” as a Scheduled Member

  • Apr 07, 2022

Legal Update by Attorneys Alison Stewart and Tyler Smith, and Law Clerk Jordan Gehlhaar

Significant debate has stemmed from the legislature’s addition of the “shoulder” to Iowa Code Section 85.34(2). The Iowa Supreme Court settled this debate, in part, in their recent decisions, Chavez v. M.S. Technology and Deng v. Farmland Foods.

Prior to the 2017 amendment, shoulder injuries were considered a “whole person” or “body as a whole” injury, which result in industrial disability analysis. In contrast, for scheduled injuries, claimants receive a rating of their functional impairment to the body part; this is multiplied by the number of weeks provided by the legislature (400 weeks for the shoulder) to ascertain the number of weeks in which compensation is due. However, since the amendments, claimants have consistently argued industrial disability analysis is still appropriate for shoulder injuries despite the legislative change—focusing on the anatomy of the shoulder. This created an issue of statutory interpretation for the Agency and courts because the legislature did not define what constituted the “shoulder.”

Originally, the Agency determined “shoulder” was limited to the ball and socket joint, and did not include other connected anatomical parts. See Smidt v. JKB Restaurant, LC, File No. 5067766 (May 6, 2020, Arb. Dec.). Slowly, through various opinions, the definition of “shoulder” has expanded to include anatomical parts that are essential to the functioning of the shoulder joint, such as the rotator cuff muscles, labrum, and acromion.

Claimants Chavez and Deng both sustained tears of their rotator cuff muscles. The lower courts determined these were scheduled shoulder injuries, and both claimants appealed. Each claimant argued that the shoulder was limited to the ball and socket joint, whereas the employers and insurers argued a broader interpretation including “the tendons, ligaments, muscles, and articular surfaces connected to the glenohumeral joint.”

The Iowa Supreme Court first determined that “shoulder” is ambiguous, and that statutes should be interpreted reasonably in accordance with the legislature’s intent. Accordingly, the Court held:

These rules of statutory construction guide our conclusion that “shoulder” under section 85.34(2)(n) must be defined in the functional sense to include the glenohumeral joint as well as all of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that are essential for the shoulder to function. . . Viewing section 85.34(2) in its entirety, it is apparent that the legislature did not intend to limit the definition of “shoulder” solely to the glenohumeral joint.

Under this functional analysis, the Court determined rotator cuff injuries are injuries to the shoulder because those muscles are essential for the shoulder to remain stable and work properly. The Court also looked to the language contained in medical records, the AMA Guides, and the treating physicians’ interpretation of the injury.

The Court recognized that more litigation “may be needed in the short term to develop the exact parameters of a scheduled shoulder injury.” Although these opinions provide some clarity, we can expect some additional litigation regarding specific parts in the shoulder area. Ultimately, absent legislative change, this determination will likely be based upon medical opinions regarding what is essential to the functioning of the shoulder.

Peddicord Wharton will continue to monitor this issue and provide updates.

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