Opinion Summary: Westling v. Hormel Foods Corp.

By: Administrator on February 20th, 2012

By Matthew Eslick

In Westling v. Hormel Foods Corporation, the Supreme Court of Iowa affirmed the denial of a claimant’s claim of entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits for a partial permanent disability arising from an unscheduled injury because the claimant failed to prove the existence of a permanent impairment under the industrial disability standard or that the impairment resulted in a reduction in earning capacity.

 

The claimant was a thirty-year veteran of Hormel Foods Corporation when he voluntarily retired in November 2006. In January 2006 the claimant experienced a sharp pain in his right shoulder while removing casings at work. He also experienced a burning sensation and could not lift his hands above his head. A physician diagnosed the claimant with a rotator cuff strain in February 2006, and a March 2006 MRI suggested a partial rotator cuff tear.

The claimant underwent arthroscopic surgery in July 2006. During the surgery, a surgeon discovered that the claimant did not have a torn rotator cuff, but instead suffered from other structural defects. The surgeon repaired the damaged parts of the claimant’s shoulder. The claimant steadily improved, and by mid-September 2006 had returned to work with no restrictions. Nevertheless, the claimant reported a continued burning sensation and pain when he extended his right arm over his head or performed pushing or pulling motions. In October 2006 the surgeon wrote to Hormel and opined that the surgery did not cause the claimant to have a permanent impairment. After his retirement in November 2006, the claimant did not look for other permanent employment, but sometimes painted houses or mowed yards.

In March 2007, the claimant filed a petition with the workers’ compensation commissioner alleging that he injured his shoulder at Hormel, and that overuse syndrome developed into an impingement syndrome which resulted in permanent disability. Hormel admitted that the claimant sustained a work-related injury, but denied that the injury caused a permanent disability.

In April 2008, another physician performed an independent medical examination. The IME physician attributed the right shoulder pain to arthritis (not overuse), and opined that any left shoulder pain was also related to arthritis (not overuse). Using range of motion as the criteria, the IME physician assigned a whole person impairment of 2% for the left shoulder and 3% for the right shoulder, both caused by arthritis. The impairment was rated in accordance with the American Medical Association’s Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment (the “Guides”).

Following a September 2008 arbitration hearing, a deputy workers’ compensation commissioner determined that the claimant failed to establish a causal relationship between his January 2006 injury and his claimed permanent disability. The deputy commissioner relied on the surgeon’s and physicians’ opinions that the claimant did not sustain a permanent impairment to his right shoulder as a result of the surgery or from overuse. On appeal, the commissioner affirmed and adopted the deputy commissioner’s decision.

The claimant sought a rehearing, asserting that the commissioner needed to determine whether the definition of “permanent impairment” found in the Guides was identical to the judicial definition of “functional disability.” The commissioner again concluded the claimant failed to establish either a permanent physical impairment or disability caused by the January 2006 injury.

The district court affirmed, holding that while there was some merit in the claimant’s argument that the surgery may have resulted in some permanent impairment under the Guides’ definition of impairment, the commissioner did not make an error of law in concluding to the contrary. Like the commissioner, the district court placed emphasis on the surgeon’s and physicians’ opinions that the work-related injury and resulting surgery were not a cause of a permanent impairment or disability. The Court of Appeals agreed; so, too, did the Supreme Court.

On appeal, the claimant asserted that the definition of “permanent impairment” in the Guides included a permanent derangement of bodily structures. The claimant argued that since it was indisputable that the agency record established that his shoulder surgery resulted in a permanent derangement of structures in and around his shoulder, the commissioner could not find that no permanent physical impairment resulted from the injury.

The Court noted that Iowa Code sections 85.34(2)(a) through (t) govern permanent partial disability payments for scheduled injuries. For scheduled injuries, the commissioner determines compensation based on the impairment of an injured worker’s body function. A state regulation—Iowa Administrative Code rule 876—2.4—permits the commissioner to use the Guides to support that determination. The commissioner is also permitted to consider other competent medical evidence, but cannot consider a worker’s earning capacity. As a result, in a case involving a scheduled injury, if there is a causal connection between a work-related injury and a functional impairment, Iowa Code section 85.34(2) permits the commissioner to find a partial permanent disability.

The analysis differs for unscheduled injuries. When determining the extent of a partial permanent disability for unscheduled injuries, Iowa Code section 85.34(2)(u) requires the commissioner to assess whether the alleged injury diminished the claimant’s earning capacity. The Court equated the term “reduction in . . . earning capacity” with the term “industrial disability.” When determining an industrial disability, the commissioner must consider factors such as the claimant’s age, functional impairment, education, qualifications, experience, and the inability—because of the injury—to engage in employment. As a result, proof of an unscheduled work-related injury alone is insufficient to recover; the claimant must prove the worker-related injury also caused an industrial disability.

The Court held that the record did not conclusively establish that the shoulder surgery caused a permanent physical impairment. While the surgeon did remove and alter the structure of the claimant’s shoulder, the record contained the surgeon’s opinion that the surgery did not cause any type or permanent impairment and various physicians’ opinions that the claimant suffered no permanent impairment because of overuse while at Hormel. Since the Guides are not conclusive evidence of impairment, the commissioner did not err by finding that the claimant failed to prove a permanent physical impairment.

The Court also held that the claimant failed to prove the commissioner erred in holding that the work-related injury did not cause an industrial disability. The Court observed that the commissioner’s determination that the injury produced no loss of earning capacity was supported by substantial evidence. As a result, the Court affirmed the commissioners’ denial of benefits.

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