Posted on: May 17th, 2022

On February 5, 2018, the claimant, Rosa Chavez, sustained a work injury in the course of her employment as a lab technician at MS Technology, LLC. An MRI revealed Chavez had sustained a “full thickness rotator cuff tear that has retracted to the level of the glenoid, severe AC arthrosis, tendonitis and tearing of the biceps tendon.” Chavez brought a workers’ compensation claim seeking partial disability benefits for the injury.

Under Iowa Code Section 85.34, a workers’ compensation injury is classified as either scheduled or unscheduled. Whether the claimant’s injury is scheduled or unscheduled determines the extent of the claimant’s entitlement to permanent partial disability benefits. Section 85.34 provides a list of specific members of the body and gives a correlating schedule of benefits for injuries occurring to those specific members. On the other hand, disabilities resulting from injuries other than to those listed members are considered unscheduled injuries and benefits are based on an injury to the body as a whole. Generally, claimants receive greater compensation for unscheduled whole-body injuries than they would for scheduled member injuries. Under Iowa Code Section 85.34(2)(n), a “shoulder” is listed as a scheduled injury.

Chavez argued her rotator cuff injury was not a scheduled injury to the shoulder, but rather qualified as an unscheduled injury to the body as a whole. Specifically, Chavez contended that “shoulder,” under section 85.34(2)(n), is narrowly defined to only include injury within the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint. The workers’ compensation commissioner disagreed, concluding Chavez’s rotator cuff injury was a scheduled shoulder injury. The district court affirmed on review.

The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s ruling, finding that “shoulder” under Section 85.34(2)(n) must be defined in the functional sense to include the glenohumeral joint as well as all of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that are essential for the shoulder to function. The Court stated that the Iowa legislature did not intend to limit the definition of “shoulder” solely to the glenohumeral joint. Notably, the legislature refers to the joints of certain body parts in other subsections of 85.34, including the “shoulder joint,” yet it chose not to include the term “joint” when adding “shoulder” to the list of scheduled injuries. If the legislature only wanted to encompass the glenohumeral joint under Section 85.34(2)(n), it could have expressly stated so as it did when referring to joints in other subsections. Moreover, the Court explained that “loss” referenced in Section 85.34(2) includes the “loss of the use of a scheduled member” or, in other words, the loss of function. Without the muscles that comprise the rotator cuff, the shoulder cannot function to its fullest extent. As a result, Chavez’s rotator cuff injury was a scheduled injury to the shoulder under Iowa workers’ compensation law.

Rosa Chavez v. MS Technology, LLC and Westfield Insurance Company, No. 21-0777 (Iowa April 1, 2022).

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