Updates in Iowa Workers’ Compensation

  • Sep 12, 2022

Legal Update by Attorney Alison Stewart and Law Clerk Morgan Borron

Compensability Standard for Mental-Mental Claims of Emergency Responders

In Tripp v. Scott County Emergency Communication Center, 977 N.W.2d 459 (Iowa 2022), the Iowa Supreme Court addressed whether Iowa law holds emergency workers to a separate, higher standard to be eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits for trauma-induced mental injuries, than other workers who sustain identical injuries, but work in other roles. In this case, Claimant was diagnosed with PTSD after receiving a disturbing call from a mother who was screaming about the death of an infant. Claimant had worked in that role for approximately 16 years prior, but testified the screams in this call were “beyond ‘normal’ sounds: ‘guttural, awful.’” In the days that followed, Claimant became withdrawn, unable to process emotions, wanting to sleep, and tearful. The employer approved Claimant’s treatment with a licensed mental health counselor and psychologist, both of whom diagnosed Claimant as having suffered from PTSD as the result of the September 30, 2018 call.

Claimant’s treating psychologist testified her PTSD constituted a chronic episodic condition that resulted in a permanent disability. The Deputy Commissioner denied Plaintiff’s petition for workers’ compensation benefits because 911 dispatchers “’routinely’ take calls involving death and traumatic injuries” and that Plaintiff had failed to establish that the call was “unusual” or “unexpected” as required under the court’s prior mental injury cases. The Commissioner affirmed the Deputy’s Arbitration Decision, as did the District Court. Claimant appealed, which was retained by the Iowa Supreme Court.

Psychological injuries meet the definition of personal injuries for purposes of determining workers’ compensation benefit entitlement in Iowa, but employees claiming mental injuries must prove both medical and legal causation. See Brown v. Quik Trip Corp., 641 N.W.2d 725, 727-29 (Iowa 2002). The legal causation requirement could be satisfied where an “unusual strain” led to the mental injury. The Court held that based on the evidence, Plaintiff Tripp’s PTSD arose directly from her handling of the September 30, 2018, 911 call in the course of her work as an emergency dispatcher. The Court held that focusing on an employee’s job to determine an “unexpected strain” placed emergency workers in a disfavored position when compared to other workers. It held there should be no “heightened evidentiary hurdle” for these types of employees. Rather, because Claimant was able to prove her purely mental injury (PTSD) was traceable to a readily identifiable work event (the September 30, 2018, phone call) she had proven legal causation. The likely impact of this case is that this expands the compensability of mental injuries in Iowa.

Industrial Disability Awarded in Two Cases Involving a Shoulder Injury

The Commissioner awarded industrial disability in two cases involving the shoulder.

  • In Carmer v. Nordstrom, Inc., File No. 1656062.01 (Iowa Workers’ Comm’r App. Dec. December 29, 2021), the worker sustained a right shoulder injury and then developed a left shoulder sequela injury due to overuse. The agency concluded that the two shoulder injuries cannot be compensated separately under 85.34(2)(n), as that section refers only to a singular shoulder. Further, because the legislature did not add the shoulder to the list of scheduled members to be compensated on a 500-week basis when two are injured in a single accident, the two shoulder injuries could not be compensated under 85.34(2)(t). The Commissioner therefore held that the two shoulder injuries together should be compensated industrially under “catch all” provision of 85.34(2)(v).

  • In Bridgestone Americas, Inc. v. Charles Anderson, Case No. CVCV063124, Ruling on Petition for Judicial Review (Polk Co. Dist. Ct. Aug. 3, 2022), the district court affirmed the Commissioner’s award of industrial disability under 85.34(2)(v) where the worker sustained an injury to the shoulder and separate injury to the arm arising out of the same incident. The Anderson decision stands for the principle that where an employee sustains injuries to the shoulder and any other scheduled member, the injuries will be compensated industrially.

Both Carmer and Anderson are on appeal; however, they are the current law of the Agency and should be considered when evaluating shoulder cases.

Shoulder Injuries and Second Injury Fund Benefits

In Martinez-Rivera v. Signet Builders, Inc., File No.: 5064517.01 (Arb. Dec. Sept. 16, 2021), the deputy commissioner held that the Claimant did not qualify for Second Injury Fund benefits because section 85.64(1) does not list the shoulder as an enumerated body part which may trigger Fund liability.

Impact of Termination of Employment and Industrial Disability Entitlement

The question of whether a claimant was entitled to industrial disability pursuant to 85.34(2)(v) due to her voluntary choice to transfer to a lower-paying position with Defendant/Employer was addressed in Kish v. University of Dubuque, File No.: 5066482 (Arb. Dec. July 29, 2021), affirmed on appeal, (App. Dec. Nov. 30, 2021). In Kish, claimant injured her back on May 30, 2018, while working as a lead custodian for the University (making $1.00 more per hour than regular custodians). She was released to return to work without restrictions and placed at MMI on June 19, 2019 and returned to work that same day as a lead custodian, at the same rate of pay and working the same number of hours. Claimant did not think she would be able to handle the lead custodian position when students returned to campus, and so she bid into a regular custodial position in August 2019, which reduced her pay by $1.00/hour.

The deputy held that Claimant made a voluntary choice to transfer, that the University did not request/require Claimant to change positions, and no physician had imposed permanent restrictions that would prevent her from continuing to work as a lead custodian. In light of the above, the Deputy found that the employer had offered Claimant ongoing work in a position that paid the same or more than she earned on the date of injury, limiting her recovery to the functional impairment pursuant to 85.34(2)(v). Kish is currently being appealed.

COVID-19 Death Ruled Non-Compensable

The agency addressed employer responsibility for an alleged work related COVID-19 death in Bolton v. Marcus Lumber, File No. 20015335.01, 2022 WL 1787479 (Arb. Dec. Mar. 24, 2022). To establish a compensable injury in Iowa, an employee must establish that the injury has a causal connection to the employment. The question of medical causation is “essentially within the domain of expert testimony.” Cedar Rapids Cmty. Sch. Dist. v. Pease, 807 N.W.2d 839. 844-45 (Iowa 2011). Here, both parties presented expert witnesses to opine when Bolton may have contracted COVID-19, which ultimately led to his death. The employer provided evidence they followed all CDC guidelines and precautions for their employees, including requiring masks, social distancing, temperature checks, and negative COVID tests for employees before return to work after exhibiting symptoms. In this case, multiple employees had tested positive for COVID in the weeks leading up to Bolton’s diagnosis, however, the employer was not found liable. The Claimant did not meet the burden of proof where evidence was introduced indicating Claimant was not following the CDC guidelines in his personal life where he was gathering with family outside of his household, going out to lunch, and working for the fire department all while not wearing a mask.

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