Chavez v. MS Tech. LLC, 21-0777

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtCHRISTENSEN, Chief Justice.
Parties Rosa CHAVEZ, Appellant, v. MS TECHNOLOGY LLC and Westfield Insurance Company, Appellees.
Docket Number21-0777
Decision Date01 April 2022

972 N.W.2d 662

Rosa CHAVEZ, Appellant,
v.
MS TECHNOLOGY LLC and Westfield Insurance Company, Appellees.

No. 21-0777

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Submitted February 23, 2022
Filed April 1, 2022


Erin M. Tucker (argued) of Tucker Law Office, Des Moines, for appellant.

Lori N. Scardina Utsinger (argued) of Betty, Neuman & McMahon, P.L.C., Davenport, for appellee.

Jay M. Smith of Smith & McElwain Law Office, Sioux City, for amicus curiae Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.

Andrew W. Bribriesco, Bettendorf, for amicus curiae League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa.

Jason D. Neifert of Neifert, Byrne & Ozga, P.C., West Des Moines, for amicus curiae Workers’ Compensation Core Group of the Iowa Association for Justice.

Christensen, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which all participating justices joined. Mansfield and McDermott, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

CHRISTENSEN, Chief Justice.

This case presents our first opportunity to interpret the legislature's 2017 amendment to Iowa Code section 85.34(2), which added "shoulder" to the list of scheduled member injuries for determining the award amount for permanent partial disability in a workers’ compensation proceeding. See Iowa Code § 85.34(2)(n ) (2018). In the course of her employment, the claimant sustained a "full thickness rotator cuff tear that has retracted to the level of the glenoid, severe AC arthrosis, tendonitis and tearing of the biceps tendon." She sought permanent partial disability benefits for this injury, arguing her rotator cuff injury qualified as an unscheduled

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injury to the body as a whole, thereby entitling her to industrial disability benefits, instead of a scheduled injury to the shoulder.

The workers’ compensation commissioner disagreed, concluding the claimant's rotator cuff injury was a scheduled shoulder injury under Iowa Code section 85.34(2)(n ), and the district court affirmed on judicial review. We retained the claimant's appeal. For the reasons explained below, we affirm the district court decision that claimant's rotator cuff injury is a scheduled shoulder injury under section 85.34(2)(n ). We also affirm the district court decision that substantial evidence supports the commissioner's finding that Chavez failed to prove her biceps tear resulted in a permanent disability to her arm under section 85.34(2)(m ).

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

On February 5, 2018, Rosa Chavez sustained a work injury in the course of her employment as a lab technician at MS Technology, LLC. Chavez performed a variety of tasks in this position, including mopping. At the time of her injury, Chavez was wringing out a mop by pushing it down in a mop bucket when she heard a pop and felt immediate pain in her right shoulder. She sought treatment for the pain on February 8, and her medical provider referred her to Dr. Todd Peterson, an orthopedic surgeon, for further evaluation.

Dr. Peterson evaluated Chavez on April 12, and Chavez reported experiencing pain on both the anterior and posterior aspect of her right shoulder and pain radiating down her right arm. Dr. Peterson ordered an MRI, which revealed "a large full thickness tear of the rotator cuff with retraction to around the level of the glenoid," "[s]evere AC arthrosis," "[b]iceps tendonitis and tearing," "mild supraspinatus atrophy," and "acromial spurring." Her primary injury was a rotator cuff tear. Consequently, Dr. Peterson recommended Chavez undergo "shoulder arthroscopy with rotator cuff repair, biceps tenotomy, subacromial decompression, and distal claviculectomy." He also modified Chavez's work restrictions to include no overhead work or lifting over ten pounds. Chavez underwent the following procedures on July 11: "[r]ight shoulder arthroscopy with arthroscopic repair of the rotator cuff tendon of the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and subscapularis tendons; extensive debridement of the labrum, biceps tendon, and subacromial space with biceps tenotomy, subacromial depression."

On November 8, Dr. Peterson placed Chavez on maximum medical improvement, allowing her to continue working with no restrictions. He also concluded Chavez had a six percent partial permanent impairment to her right upper extremity. Chavez obtained an independent medical evaluation from Dr. Sunil Bansal on May 13, 2019. Dr. Bansal opined that Chavez "incurred an acute injury of her right shoulder" that "result[ed] in an acute injury to the labrum, rotator cuff and attached muscles." Dr. Bansal agreed with Dr. Peterson's identification of November 8, 2018, as the date of maximum medical improvement and placed Chavez at a ten percent upper extremity impairment, which he stated is equal to a six percent impairment of the body as a whole.

Chavez filed a petition for arbitration before the Workers’ Compensation Commission on September 28, 2018, seeking workers’ compensation benefits for injuries to her "right shoulder, neck and right upper extremity." The case went to hearing on October 1, 2019, where the parties primarily disputed whether Chavez's injury resulted in an unscheduled industrial disability

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or a scheduled member injury to her shoulder in light of 2017 amendments to the Iowa Code that identify the "shoulder" as a scheduled member for workers’ compensation purposes. At the time of the hearing, Chavez continued to work for MS Technology, LLC, without restrictions and had received a raise since her injury.

The deputy commissioner issued her arbitration decision on February 5, 2020, concluding Chavez incurred an unscheduled injury to the body as a whole. Nevertheless, the deputy commissioner limited Chavez's recovery to a functional impairment rating because Chavez had returned to work for the same or greater pay. MS Technology, LLC, and its insurance carrier, Westfield Insurance Company, (hereinafter Appellees) appealed, and Chavez cross-appealed to the commissioner. On September 30, the commissioner issued a decision concluding Chavez's injury was compensable as a scheduled shoulder injury rather than an unscheduled whole body injury and applied Dr. Bansal's ten percent extremity impairment rating. Chavez petitioned for judicial review, and the district court issued a decision affirming the commissioner's appeal decision that Chavez's injury was compensable as a scheduled shoulder injury on April 29, 2021. Chavez filed a timely appeal, which we retained.

II. Standard of Review.

The standards set forth in Iowa Code chapter 17A guide "our judicial review of agency decision-making to determine whether our conclusion is the same as the district court." Brewer-Strong v. HNI Corp. , 913 N.W.2d 235, 242 (Iowa 2018). Further, "we review the commissioner's interpretation of Iowa Code chapter 85 for correction of errors at law instead of deferring to the agency's interpretation" because the legislature has not clearly vested the commissioner with authority to interpret that chapter. Id. Nevertheless, "[w]e accept the commissioner's factual findings when supported by substantial evidence." Gumm v. Easter Seal Soc. of Iowa, Inc. , 943 N.W.2d 23, 28 (Iowa 2020) (quoting Bluml v. Dee Jay's Inc. , 920 N.W.2d 82, 84 (Iowa 2018) ).

III. Analysis.

Chavez argues the district court erred by finding her injury was a scheduled member injury to her shoulder rather than an unscheduled whole body injury under Iowa Code section 85.34(2). She also maintains that she is entitled to an industrial disability analysis if her injury is an unscheduled whole body injury. Alternatively, if we conclude that Chavez's injury constitutes a scheduled shoulder injury, Chavez claims she is entitled to an industrial disability analysis because she incurred simultaneous injuries to her shoulder and arm. We address these claims in turn as necessary.

A. Defining Shoulder Injuries Under Chapter 85. The dispositive issue in this case is the definition of "shoulder" under Iowa Code section 85.34(2)(n ). Under section 85.34, the classification of a workers’ compensation claimant's injury as either scheduled or unscheduled determines the extent of the claimant's entitlement to permanent partial disability benefits. Floyd v. Quaker Oats , 646 N.W.2d 105, 109 (Iowa 2002). Paragraphs (a ) through (u ) of section 85.34 govern permanent partial disability payments for injuries to specific members of the body and provide a schedule of benefits for injuries to those specific members. Second Inj. Fund of Iowa v. Nelson , 544 N.W.2d 258, 269 (Iowa 1995) ; see also Iowa Code § 85.34(2)(a )–(u ). Disabilities resulting from injuries other than those listed in paragraphs (a ) through (u ) of section 85.34

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are considered unscheduled injuries that allow for benefits based on the injury to the body as a whole and are evaluated according to the industrial method. Second Inj. Fund of Iowa , 544 N.W.2d at 269 ; see also Iowa Code § 85.34(2)(v ).

If an injury is classified as a scheduled member injury to her shoulder under Iowa Code section 85.34(2)(n ), the claimant is eligible for a percentage of 400 weeks of pay based on the impairment rating of the injury. In...

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