An Overview of the Trial and Appeal Process in Iowa Workers’ Compensation Cases

Today I am going to write about the trial and appeal process in Iowa work comp cases. In doing this I am going to talk about how long the various steps take, and the main issues at each stage.

TRIAL LEVEL. This is the first stage in the process. Take a look at my blog post of December 28, 2012 which gives an overview of what goes on in an Iowa Workers’ Compensation trial.

After the trial, and depending on the complexity of the case, and the workload of the Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioner who heard the case, an arbitration decision will usually be issued within one to four months after the trial date. The decision will explain which side wins and what benefits the worker is entitled to receive.

In deciding the case at this stage the Deputy Commissioner is free to make whatever decisions they think is correct based on the applicable law and the facts submitted at trial.

REHEARING LEVEL. If one or both of the parties thinks that the Deputy Commissioner who issued the arbitration decision overlooked an issue or made an obvious mistake that can be easily corrected they can file what is called a Motion for Rehearing. A Motion for Rehearing asks the Deputy Commissioner to look at a specific part of their own arbitration decision and correct it. The rehearing rules are set up so that this process moves relatively quickly, and it is usually decided within 40 days of when the trial decision was issued.

APPEAL TO THE IOWA WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COMMISSIONER. If either party is unhappy with the trial decision they can appeal the case to the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner.

Generally, no new evidence is allowed in the appeal, and the witnesses do not testify again. Instead, the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner decides the appeal based on the exhibits that were submitted at the trial level and a written transcript of the testimony that was given at the trial level. Additionally, the parties submit written briefs explaining why they think they should win.

The briefs are submitted under a structured order and time schedule. There are usually three total briefs. The order of the briefs is that the losing party goes first, the winning party responds, and the losing party then gets to submit the final brief.

In most cases there are numerous factual disputes. For example, the parties might disagree whether a worker developed a shoulder injury from repetitive factory work, or whether it was because of a non-work factor. Each side would usually present evidence supporting their position including expert medical opinions.

A crucial part of the appeal process is that the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner does not have to follow or agree with the findings of the Deputy Commissioner who issued the first decision. The Workers’ Compensation Commissioner can decide all of the factual disputes however he or she sees fit and the factual findings of the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner will generally control in all of the following appeal stages.

Therefore, in many ways the appeal decision of the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner is even more important than the trial decision of the Deputy Commissioner.

It generally takes about a year from the time of the trial level decision to the issuing of the appeal decision from the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner.

If either party is unhappy with the appeal decision of the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner the next step in the process is to appeal to the District Court. In Iowa each of the 99 counties has a courthouse in the county seat. The District Court is this county level of the court system.

At this level the District Court is deciding the case based on the evidence previously submitted. The parties again file briefs to argue their case.

Starting at this level of the appeal process the reviewing court can change the lower decision if they think there was a legal error, but the reviewing court is no longer free to reach different factual conclusions as long as there is substantial evidence to support the factual findings of the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner.

An example of a legal dispute would be the burden of proof. In Iowa Workers’ Compensation cases the worker has the burden of proof to show their injury and extent of damages. The injured worker has to carry their burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence which is often described as 51% of the evidence. If the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner said that he was deciding the case based on the worker only having to show that the evidence was 50% in favor of each party that would be a legal error that the reviewing courts could correct.

By contrast, a factual issue would be something like the dispute I mentioned above about whether a shoulder injury was caused by work or non-work activities. Each side presumably presented the evidence that favored their interpretation, and the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner decided which position was correct. The District Court (and the higher reviewing courts) might feel differently than the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner, but as long as the Commissioner’s decision was at least a reasonable conclusion, it will not be second guessed.

The District Court appeal process usually takes about six to nine months.

APPEAL TO THE IOWA COURT OF APPEALS. If one side is unhappy with the District Court decision, the next step is to appeal to the appellate courts in Des Moines. At this stage I am going to simplify the actual process a little bit. When a party appeals from the District Court level the appeal is technically to the Iowa Supreme Court. All appeals to the Iowa Supreme Court are initially screened and either assigned to the Iowa Court of Appeals or to the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Iowa Supreme Court usually only takes the appeals that raise new or important issues. All the other appeals that can be resolved by applying established law are sent to the Iowa Court of Appeals. As a general matter most workers’ compensation appeals end up being directed to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

Again at the Iowa Court of Appeals’ level no new evidence is permitted, and the case is decided based on the evidence previously presented. Again, the legal conclusions of the lower level deciders can be changed, but the factual findings of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner will be followed.

An appeal to the Iowa Court of Appeals usually takes about six to nine months.

APPLICATION FOR FURTHER REVIEW TO THE IOWA SUPREME COURT. If one of the parties feels that the Iowa Court of Appeals was incorrect, they can ask for the Iowa Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision. The Supreme Court will generally deny about 90% of the requests for further review without substantial analysis. Of the remaining 10% of the cases that the Supreme Court looks at closely, it usually ends up reversing the Court of Appeals in the majority.

CONCLUSION. The nature of Iowa work comp litigation leads to a lot of appeals. In 2011 a total of 640 Iowa Workers’ Compensation cases were tried at the arbitration level in front of Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioners. Meanwhile, 339 cases were appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner.

I am not aware of any statistics on the number of appeals beyond the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner level, but my experience is that there are fewer appeals at each of the next levels. However, it is clear that appeals are a big part of Iowa Workers’ Compensation litigation, and it is important that lawyers in this area have skills in both trying cases, and writing appellate briefs.