IOWA GUIDANCE ON TEMPORARY TOTAL DISABILITY AND THE GEOGRAPHIC AREA OF A LABOR MARKET
In Annett Holdings, Inc. v. Roberts, the Court of Appeals of Iowa affirmed a decision from the Commission on two issues: (1) When does a period of temporary total disability benefits end; and (2) when determining an employee’s access to labor, what are the limits of the geographic area? On November 15, 2010, while the employee was working as an over-the-road flatbed truck driver, he suffered an injury to his back that led to a herniated disc and significant degenerative disc disease. Shortly thereafter, he was terminated. In March 2012, the employee found new work in another state. Then on July 11, 2015, he lost this job due to reasons unrelated to his injury. Later that year, an MRI was taken of his back, and on December 29, 2015, he was diagnosed with advanced degenerative disc disease, but was released for light duty work. Then, in February 2016, the employee was declared to have reached MMI with a 9% functional impairment. The Commission awarded temporary total disability from July 11, 2015, through December 29, 2015. The employer appealed this decision. The employer argued that the employee had returned to work before July 11, 2015, with a new employer. As such, the employer argued that this return to work showed that the employee was capable of returning to work, and thus, was not entitled to temporary total disability benefits. To address the issue of entitlement to temporary total disability benefits, the Court of Appeals first observed that entitlement to temporary total disability benefits stops when one of three things occur:
(1) the employee returns to work;
(2) the employee is medically capable of returning to work; or
(3) the employee reaches maximum medical improvement (MMI).The Court of Appeals observed that while the employee had returned to work with a different employer, the employee still had work restrictions, and had not reached MMI. When the employee was fired on July 11, 2015, the employee had no longer returned to work. The Court of Appeals held that since the employee had work restrictions that prevented him from working most jobs, had not reached MMI, and, after being fired, had not returned to work, the employee was entitled to temporary total disability benefits. As such, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission’s Award of temporary total disability benefits from July 11, 2015, through December 29, 2015. The employer also argued that the employee should have been found to have had a lower industrial disability than what was awarded, because the employee had access to the labor market. The employer argued that because the employee had found another job, with a different employer, the evidence submitted at the hearing showed that the employee was hirable in the competitive labor market. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument as well. The Court of Appeals first recognized that one factor for industrial disability is the health and strength of the labor market in the geographic area which the employee is in. Evidence that the employee found another job, would be evidence that the employee has access to the labor market. However, in this case, the new job the employee was able to get, was in a different state. The Court of Appeals held that this new job, in a different state, was not in the same geographic area. Since the employee was only able to find work outside of the geographic area he had been in, the Court of Appeals found that this set of facts supported a greater industrial disability, not a smaller one. Now, this is not to say that any time an employee finds a new job out of state, the new job will not be considered part of the same geographic area of the labor market the employee had been in. Instead, it is a reminder that the geographic area of the labor market has limits. If the employee had been working on the edge of Iowa, and had found a job in an adjacent state, just on the other side of the state line, the result of this case might have been different. Industrial disability is an extremely fact specific question.
This post was drafted by Emily Fehringer, a law student and law clerk at Baylor Evnen. If you have questions about when temporary total benefits end, or questions about the geographic area of a labor market, please contact Paul Barta or Micah C. Hawker-Boehnke at 402-475-1075 for more information.