Iowa Supreme Court Clarifies Scope of Review-Reopening Proceedings

Posted on: May 3rd, 2023

Under Iowa’s workers’ compensation law, injured workers can ask for an updated review of their injuries to determine whether their condition has worsened and thus entitles them to additional payments. In the present case, an injured worker filed a review-reopening proceeding which was dismissed by the workers’ compensation commissioner after a finding that the worker had suffered only a temporary, and not permanent, injury. The question in this case was whether the worker can pursue a claim for a permanent injury in a review-reopening proceeding despite an earlier adjudication that her injury was not permanent?

Alevia Green worked at a recycling plant in Fort Dodge in 2012 when she was injured after being struck by a large door on a recycling dumpster. She suffered a concussion and brain injury from the impact. After receiving temporary disability benefits for three months, Green’s doctor found that she had reached full maximum medical improvement and Green returned to her job at the recycling center. However, after Green’s symptoms continued, she filed a petition seeking workers’ compensation for a permanent disability. The deputy commissioner and the workers’ compensation commissioner denied her petition after determining that Green had failed to establish her injury caused permanent injury in the original proceeding.

Green then sought judicial review asserting that her condition had worsened over time into a permanent disability. Her employer argued that Green could not relitigate the extent of her injuries in a review-reopening proceeding because the issue of permanent disability had already been presented and decided against her. The deputy commissioner had determined that Green’s claim was barred by the principles of res judicata – in other words, that the issue of whether she suffered a permanent disability could not be reopened since it had already been raised and ruled on in her original petition.

The Supreme Court found that res judicata principles certainly apply to issues such as work-connection, employee or employer status, and occurrence of a compensable injury. However, Green’s original petition dealt with her condition at an earlier date, and a change in a condition that results in an award in an entirely different category, such as temporary to permanent, is not barred from reopening. For the res judicata or “issue preclusion” concept to apply, the first issue must “have been actually litigated.” The effect of Green’s work injury on her current condition had not yet been litigated.

Alevia Green v. North Central Iowa Regional Solid Waste Authority and IMWCA, No. 21-0490 (Iowa April 14, 2023).

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