IOWA SUPREME COURT DEFINES WHAT A SHOULDER IS UNDER SECTION 85.34(2)(n).
On April 1, 2022, the Iowa Supreme Court handed down two opinions that significantly impact how shoulder injuries will be treated in Iowa for years to come. These are the much anticipated opinions in Chavez v. MS Technologies, LLC and Deng v. Farmland Foods, Inc. The Supreme Court’s primary opinion is contained in the Chavez v. MS Technologies, LLC decision. The employee in Chavez argued that her rotator cuff injury should not be classified as a ‘shoulder’ under Section 85.34(2)(n) limited to scheduled member indemnity and should instead be a body as a whole injury allowing for assessment of industrial disability and creating much greater exposure. The employee argued that a ‘shoulder’ as used in the section applies only to the parts of the body that make up the glenohumeral joint. According to the employee, the rotator cuff tendons are not part of the glenohumeral joint because they do not connect to that specific joint or run through it. As such, the rotator cuff tendons were argued to be part of the body as a whole. The Iowa Supreme Court found that a rotator cuff injury is part of the ‘shoulder’, as the term is used in Section 85.34(2)(n). In coming to this conclusion, the Iowa Supreme Court relied primarily upon old principles of statutory interpretation. In so doing, the Court held that the term ‘shoulder’, as used in section 85.34(2)(n), is defined in a functional sense rather than an anatomical sense. In other words, the definition of the ‘shoulder’ goes beyond only those tendons and muscles that comprise the glenohumeral joint itself. The Iowa legislature has used the term ‘shoulder joint’ in other sections, but deliberately used the word ‘shoulder’ alone when it classified the ‘shoulder’ as a scheduled member injury. Principles of statutory interpretation led the Iowa Supreme Court to find that, as it has done in the past, it should give meaning to not only the words used, but also the words not used by the legislature to interpret the meaning of the statute. The Iowa Supreme Court also found that, while a rotator cuff injury is not located in nor connected to the glenohumeral joint itself, injuries to the rotator cuff do cause a loss of functional use in the joint. The Court said, “Simply put, the shoulder cannot function to its fullest extent without the muscles that comprise the rotator cuff.” Additionally, the Commission has adopted the AMA Guidelines 5th Edition to measure impairment and the amount of compensation owed under Section 85.34(2). The Iowa Supreme Court observed that under the Guidelines, impairment in the shoulder is measured in terms of loss in functional use. As such, the Court found that it is impossible to evaluate shoulder impairment without some evaluation of the muscles, tendons, etc. that enable the shoulder to function. This finding is consistent with the Commissioner’s reasoning below in which he held that a rotator cuff is integral to the function of what we traditionally think of as a shoulder. To read more about the Commissioner’s analysis of what a ‘shoulder’ is under Section 85.34(2)(n), click here. The Iowa Supreme Court recognized that additional litigation would be needed in the short term to determine what is and what is not part of the shoulder, as encompassed within the Act. However, that was not a reason for the Court to ignore the clear legislative intent behind the statute. The Iowa Supreme Court authored essentially a redundant opinion in Deng v. Farmland Foods, Inc., in which it affirmed the findings in Chavez. If you have questions about a specific case and whether or not the injury involved is a shoulder injury or another injury, please contact Paul Barta or Micah Hawker Boehnke at 402-475-1075, for more information.