Prior to July 1, 2017 work injuries to an employee’s shoulder were treated as an unscheduled injury.  The classification of an injury as unscheduled is very important because it generally leads to a higher level of compensation.  In unscheduled injuries the standard for determining the amount of workers’ compensation is how much the injury has a negative effect on the worker’s ability to obtain a new job in the competitive job market.

In addition to unscheduled injuries, Iowa law also has a second category called scheduled injuries.  The scheduled injuries are a list of body parts consisting of the arm, hand, fingers, leg, foot, toes, eyes, and hearing.  Each body part is given a maximum value.  For instance, an index finger is worth a maximum of 35 weeks.  If an employee loses his entire index finger in a work accident, then the employee is entitled to 35 weeks of permanent partial disability benefits.  If a worker suffers an injury to his index finger that results in a 10% impairment of the index finger, then the worker is entitled to 3.5 weeks of permanent partial disability benefits.  (35 weeks x 10% = 3.5 weeks).

All injuries to body parts which are not in this schedule are considered to be unscheduled injuries.  These include injuries to the head, neck, and torso.  Under Iowa law injuries to the hip are still considered unscheduled, and injuries to the shoulder were traditionally considered as unscheduled.

In 2017 the Iowa Legislature amended the workers’ compensation statute to classify shoulders as a scheduled injury with a maximum value of 400 weeks of benefits.  If a shoulder injury is found to be a 5% impairment, then the worker is entitled to 5% of 400 weeks which is 20 weeks of permanent partial disability benefits.

Over the course of this year four Deputy Commissioners issued Arbitration Decisions which found that shoulder injuries which extended beyond the shoulder joint itself should be treated as more valuable unscheduled injuries rather than being limited to a scheduled injury.

These four Arbitration Decisions generally found that the ligaments, tendons, and muscles of the shoulder that also attach to the torso went beyond the definition of shoulder as set out in the 2017 amendments, and therefore should be treated as unscheduled injuries.

On September 29, 2020, the Commissioner filed an Appeal Decision in Deng v. Farmland Foods, Inc. and Safety National Casualty Corporation overturning one of the Deputy’s Arbitration Decision which found the shoulder injury to fall under the unscheduled classification.

The Commissioner’s Appeal Decision in the Deng case is very well reasoned and acknowledges the closeness and difficulty of the choice between scheduled and unscheduled pursuant to the new shoulder statute.

The Commissioner began his analysis by pointing out that the goal of statutory interpretation is to determine the intent of the legislature.  When the language of the statute is clear, the Court should apply the language and should not search for legislative intent beyond the expressed terms of the statute.

Next, the Commissioner reviewed the testimony of the experts in the underlying case who generally explained that in the medical field there is not a clearly accepted definition of what constitutes the shoulder.  The shoulder joint itself is technically called the glenohumeral joint, and that is clearly the shoulder.  However, there are also many ligaments, muscles, and tendons that some doctors consider to be part of the shoulder and which other doctors consider to not be part of the shoulder.

The opinions of the experts show that reasonable minds can differ concerning what constitutes a “shoulder” under the workers’ compensation statute.  Since the statutory law is not clear, the Commissioner can go beyond the statutory language to interpret the law.

The Commissioner next discussed the many Iowa cases over the years that clarified when injuries would be considered to be a finger versus a hand, a hand versus an arm, and an arm versus the torso.  These past cases consistently found that the proximal point of the injury should be used to classify the injury.  Proximal means nearer to the trunk of the body or to the point of attachment to the body.  For instance, carpal tunnel injuries involve the wrist.  A great deal of litigation occurred over whether carpal tunnel injuries were to the hand or whether they were to the arm.  Ultimately, carpal tunnel injuries were determined to be proximal to the hand, and therefore should be compensated as arm injuries.

Additionally, the legislative history of the 2017 amendment concerning shoulder injuries suggests that the legislature intended the term “shoulder” to encompass more than just the glenohumeral joint.

The glenohumeral joint and its surrounding muscles, tendons, bones, and surfaces are extremely intricate and intertwined.  The Commissioner found that the functionality of the shoulder is dependent on all these other parts.

The Commissioner also noted that the Iowa Courts have long recognized that statutes should not be interpreted in a manner that leads to absurd results.  The Commissioner found that because of the importance of the supporting of structures to the function of the shoulder joint, it would lead to absurd results to exclude all these supporting structures from the term “shoulder” as it is used in the amended statute.

The Commissioner filed a second Appeal Decision on September 30, 2020 in the case of Chavez v. MS Technologies, LLC and Westfield Insurance Company.  The Chavez case also overruled a finding that an injury to components of the shoulder was an unscheduled injury.

We can expect that the two remaining Deputy decisions involving shoulders will come up on appeal to the Commissioner and likely be reversed as well.

The Commissioner noted that the Iowa Supreme Court has reserved to itself the right to interpret statutory language such as this issue of what constitutes an injury to the “shoulder.”

Therefore, the final decision concerning the statutory meaning of “shoulder” will have to wait for one of these four cases to be appealed further to the Iowa Supreme Court.  However, unless and until the Iowa Supreme Court reverses the Commissioner, Iowa workers’ compensation law will interpret the term “shoulder” broadly and find that most injuries to workers involving the shoulder should be evaluated and compensated as scheduled injuries.