Rojas v. Pine Ridge Farms, LLC

Decision Date05 March 2010
Docket NumberNo. 08-0554.,08-0554.
Citation779 NW 2d 223
PartiesJody Perez ROJAS, Alleged Spouse, Samuel David Perez, Minor Child, Yolanda Carreras Narvaez, Alleged Spouse, and Raul Perez Carreras, Juan Carlos Perez Carreras, Vinicio Perez Carreras, Yolanda Perez Carreras, and Mercedes Perez Carreras, Alleged Minor Children of Raul Perez Rojas, Deceased, Appellants, v. PINE RIDGE FARMS, L.L.C., Employer and Commerce & Industry Ins. Co., Insurance Carrier, Appellees.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Thomas J. Reilly of Thomas J. Reilly Law Firm, P.C., Des Moines, for appellants Jody Perez Rojas and her dependent.

Randall P. Schueller of Hopkins & Huebner, P.C., Des Moines, for appellants Yolanda Carreras Narvaez and her dependents.

Jean Z. Dickson of Betty, Neuman & McMahon, P.L.C., Davenport, for appellees.

WIGGINS, Justice.

The workers' compensation commissioner awarded benefits to the dependents of a deceased employee. The dependents included the spouse, a child residing in the United States, five children born in Mexico, and the mother of those children who resides in Mexico. The commissioner equitably, rather than equally, allocated the benefits between all the dependents. In allocating the benefits between the dependents, the commissioner also considered a statute requiring benefits payable to nonresident aliens be reduced by fifty percent, with the remaining fifty percent payable to the Second Injury Fund. See Iowa Code § 85.31(5) (2003). All of the dependents filed petitions for judicial review. The district court affirmed the decision of the workers' compensation commissioner. All of the dependents filed notices of appeal.

We transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals affirmed the commissioner's decision. All of the dependents then requested further review, which we granted. On further review, we find that the statute requiring a reduction in benefits for nonresident aliens is neither unconstitutional nor does it conflict with other statutory provisions. We also conclude the commissioner erred when he allocated a portion of the benefits to the mother of the children residing in Mexico. We further conclude that the allocation of the benefits should be equitable rather than equal. Finally, we conclude that the commissioner should not have considered the reduction in benefits for nonresident aliens when it allocated the benefits between the dependents. Accordingly, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals, reverse the judgment of the district court, and remand the case to the district court to enter an order reversing the decision of the workers' compensation commissioner and remanding the case to the commissioner to reallocate the benefits between the dependents entitled to receive compensation in a manner consistent with our decision.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Raul Perez Rojas died in a work-related accident on February 15, 2004, while working for Pine Ridge Farms, L.L.C. ("Pine Ridge"). In the summer of 1987, Raul married Yolanda Carreras Narvaez in a religious ceremony in Mexico. Although religious ceremonies are common in Mexico, they have no legal effect under Mexican law. In Mexico only a civil marriage is legally recognized. The commissioner determined that because Mexico does not recognize Raul and Yolanda as legally married, Iowa's workers' compensation laws do not recognize their marriage.1

Yolanda claims she and Raul had five children: Raul Perez Carreras born June 18, 1987, Juan Carlos Perez Carreras born May 19, 1989, Vinicio Perez Carreras born February 1, 1995, Yolanda Perez Carreras born October 16, 1996, and Mercedes Perez Carreras born February 12, 1998. The parties disagree on whether Mercedes is Raul's child. Raul is not listed on Mercedes' birth registry in Mexico; however, he is listed on her baptism announcement. The commissioner determined Mercedes is Raul's child. Jody Perez Rojas, Raul's spouse does not argue paternity in her application for further review, and we believe substantial evidence supports the commissioner's finding that Mercedes is Raul's child.

After his marriage to Yolanda, Raul worked and lived in the United States and returned to Mexico periodically. During his stays in the United States, he sent money to Yolanda to support her and the children. While living in Polk County, Raul met Jody Prock, and in May 1999, they married. Jody and Raul have one son, Samuel David Perez, born February 4, 2002.

Raul initiated proceedings with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to become a documented worker. He returned to Mexico during this time and was living with Yolanda and the children. Neither Jody nor Yolanda knew about Raul's other marriage or family. After his marriage to Jody, Raul continued to regularly send money to Yolanda and the children. Jody believed this money was for his ailing mother. Raul sent Yolanda an average of $91.54 per week when he was working in the United States.

Yolanda relies on her oldest sons for her current source of income. They contribute roughly $40 to $60 per week. Yolanda's oldest sons were living with her sister in Juan Leon, Mexico, but her seventeen-year-old son, Juan Carlos, is currently working in Texas. Yolanda's monthly expenses for herself and the children are approximately $325 to $425. Yolanda has never worked outside the home and stopped attending school at age eleven. The children own the family home. Yolanda's economic position is meager, and most families in her town receive economic remittances from people working in the United States.

Jody's monthly living expenditure for herself and her son is approximately $2,064. She has received some death benefits from Pine Ridge. Jody has received money from a life insurance policy, retirement benefits, and social security, all due to her husband's death. The social security amount she receives will end once she has completed school and starts working full-time, but her son will continue to receive these benefits. However, Jody still has debts stemming from a car accident, medical bills, and a school loan. Jody worked outside the home throughout the marriage except when she was pregnant and for a short period after the birth of her son.

Due to the misunderstanding concerning Raul's dependents, Jody received some death benefits from Pine Ridge. Pine Ridge terminated those payments on August 26, 2004. Pine Ridge's insurance carrier hired investigators to determine the validity of Yolanda's claim. Pine Ridge filed a petition with the workers' compensation commissioner to determine the equitable apportionment of the death benefits. Nine months later, Pine Ridge dismissed its petition. Then, in spring 2005 Jody and Yolanda both filed separate petitions for equitable apportionment of the death benefits with the workers' compensation commissioner on behalf of themselves and their children.

The deputy commissioner filed an equitable apportionment decision. The deputy determined that Jody, Samuel, Yolanda, and Yolanda's five children were all dependents to be included in the equitable apportionment of benefits. The decision found Yolanda was an actual dependent under Iowa Code section 85.44 and the children were presumed dependents. The deputy found, at the time of Raul's death, his weekly rate of compensation was $360.79. Of that amount, the deputy determined Jody would receive fifty percent as the surviving spouse, Samuel would receive twenty percent during his dependency, and Yolanda and the five children would receive the remaining thirty percent. The decision also stated that fifty percent of the share of benefits that Yolanda and the five children were apportioned must be paid to the Second Injury Fund pursuant to Iowa Code section 85.31(5).

Jody and Yolanda separately appealed from the deputy commissioner's equitable apportionment decision. Another deputy commissioner, sitting pursuant to an order of delegation under Iowa Code section 86.3, affirmed the equitable apportionment decision and adopted it as the commissioner's final decision. In doing so, the second deputy added some additional analysis to the prior equitable apportionment decision. The final decision stated Yolanda and the five children were actual dependents pursuant to Iowa Code section 85.44 because they depended on Raul's income. It also stated Yolanda and the five children received roughly fifteen percent of Raul's gross wages; therefore, they should receive fifteen percent of the death benefits. However, the final decision goes on to state because fifty percent of the benefits Yolanda and the five children receive must be paid into the Second Injury Fund, the deputy correctly considered this factor when he apportioned thirty percent of the death benefits to them. Thus, the final decision upheld the deputy's equitable apportionment award.

In summer 2007 Jody and Yolanda separately filed petitions for judicial review. The district court consolidated these cases. The district court affirmed the workers' compensation commissioner in all respects. The court affirmed the allocation of benefits and stated the commissioner could consider the Second Injury Fund deduction when apportioning benefits. The court also found Iowa Code section 85.31(5), imposing the Second Injury Fund deduction, was constitutional under both the Federal and Iowa Constitutions. The court further concluded that if section 85.31(5) conflicted with Iowa Code section 85.51, which the court questioned, section 85.31(5) would still govern because the Second Injury Fund statute was the more specific of the two statutes.

Jody and Yolanda separately appealed this decision. We transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals affirmed the commissioner.

Both Yolanda and Jody filed applications for further review, which we granted.

II. Issues.

In this appeal, we must first decide whether Iowa Code section 85.31(5) violates equal protection of the law under the Federal and Iowa Constitutions by...

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