On April 1, 2022, the Iowa Supreme Court issued opinions in Deng v. Farmland Food, Inc. and Chavez v. MS Tech., LLC; shedding some light on a longstanding dispute among Iowa Workers’ Compensation practitioners on what constitutes a “shoulder” under Iowa law. Practitioners dispute, for example, whether the clavicle is part of the shoulder, is a rotator cuff tear a shoulder injury, is a SLAP tear a shoulder injury and is the biceps tendon part of the shoulder?
This highly contentious dispute arose from 2017 changes to the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Statutes when the Iowa Legislature added the term “shoulder” to the list of “scheduled members”. Under Iowa law, permanent disability recovery for scheduled members is limited to an impairment rating, which is assigned by a doctor based upon functional loss. The shoulder is limited to a maximum 400 weeks of compensation. If an injured worker’s injury, however, is not within a defined “scheduled member,” then he or she is entitled to an industrial award (or body-as-a-whole award) up to 500 weeks. An industrial award is based upon an evaluation which includes functional loss (i.e., an impairment rating) in addition to a number of other factors, such as, in part, loss of earning capacity, age, education, and work experience. See the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commission’s website, under “FAQ: TYPES OF DISABILITY UNDER IOWA WORKERS’ COMPENSATION LAW” for a list of factors.
Typically, an injured worker will want an injury to fall outside the definition of “shoulder” to be eligible for an industrial award; the insurance company will want a workers’ injury to fall within a scheduled member injury in order to reduce costs and expenses.
In Chavez, the Iowa Supreme Court addressed whether a common shoulder injury—a rotator cuff tear—is a “shoulder” injury. In this case, the injured worker argued her rotator cuff was an unscheduled injury entitling her to an industrial award because “shoulder” is limited to the glenohumeral joint (the “ball-and-socket joint”) and not the areas around the joint. The employer, and insurance carrier, disagreed. Before the Workers’ Compensation Commission, Commissioner Cortese agreed with the employer/insurance carrier and held a rotator cuff tear constituted a scheduled “shoulder” injury.
On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the Commissioner. Relying upon basic principles of statutory construction, the Iowa Supreme Court indicated the term “shoulder” is defined in its functional sense, rather than anatomically, and includes “the glenohumeral joint as well as all of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments essential for the shoulder to function.”
Accordingly, while a rotator cuff tear is not located or connected to the ball-and-socket joint itself, such injuries cause a functional loss of use to the joint. The Court stated, “Simply put, the shoulder cannot function to its fullest extent without the muscles that comprise the rotator cuff.”
The Court recognized that additional litigation will be needed to develop the exact parameters of a scheduled shoulder injury. Chavez and Deng, for now, are conclusive that rotator cuff tears are scheduled shoulder injuries. In the future, more litigation will be necessary to resolve whether other specific injuries around the upper torso are “shoulder” injuries or industrial disabilities.
For any questions regarding your specific case, or whether your injury may be to the shoulder, please contact one of our Iowa workers’ compensation attorneys, Michael R. Faz or Dennis R. Riekenberg.
Michael R. Faz