by | Sep 12, 2023

In Green v. North Central Iowa Regional Solid Waste Authority, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed that the principle of issue preclusion does not bar a worker’s claim for permanent injury in a review-reopening proceeding.

Section 86.14(2) permits the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner to “reopen an award for payments or agreement for settlement ... [to inquire] into whether or not the condition of the employee warrants an end to, diminishment of, or increase of compensation so awarded or agreed upon.” This is known as a review-reopening proceeding. Section 85.26 provides a deadline to bring the claim, which is three years from the date of the last payment of weekly benefits made under the award or agreement.

In Green, the employee suffered back, right shoulder, and head injuries from a work-related accident in 2012. She received temporary disability benefits, but failed to establish that her migraines from her head injury caused permanent impairment. In 2017, the employee was awarded additional past medical expenses. In 2018, the employee filed a petition for a review-reopening, asserting that her condition had worsened over time into a permanent disability. While the Deputy Commissioner and Commissioner determined that the employee’s claim was barred by issue preclusion, and granted summary judgment to the employer, the District Court and the Court of Appeals reversed the Commission’s decision.

Issue preclusion bars the re-litigation of a finally determined issue that a party had a prior opportunity to fully and fairly litigate. The employer in Green argued that issue preclusion applied to the employee’s review-reopening proceeding, so that the Commissioner lacked the authority to reconsider whether the employee suffered a permanent injury, since he had already ruled the accident caused no permanent disability. However, the employer’s argument did not take into account that whether or not the employee’s condition had developed into a permanent injury was, in fact, a new condition that had not yet been litigated.

However, the Supreme Court determined that issue preclusion in review-opening proceedings most often applies to questions about whether a party can raise original issues, such as work-connection, employee or employer status, occurrence of a compensable accident, and degree of disability at the time of the first award. Such issues were not raised by the employee. Moreover, the purpose of review-reopening proceedings is to invite parties to adjust their relative positions—upward or downward—based on later developments. Accordingly, as long as a worker has previously received an award or settlement and acts within the statutory deadline, they may seek to reopen a case for the Commissioner to review whether the employee's condition warrants an end to, diminishment of, or increase of compensation so awarded or agreed upon.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court explained that it was not the employee’s unsuccessful petition for compensation for a permanent injury that served as the basis for her reopening, but rather the initial benefit and additional medical payments she received. Such payments satisfied the statutory reopening requirement of “an award for payments or agreement for settlement.”

Therefore, because the effect of the employee’s work-related injury on her current condition had not yet been litigated, the Supreme Court held that issue preclusion did not bar the employee’s review-reopening claim for a determination of permanent injury. Thus, the District Court and the Court of Appeals’ holdings were affirmed.

This post was drafted by Faith Kowalski, a law clerk at Baylor Evnen Wolfe & Tannehill, LLP. If you have questions regarding review-reopening proceedings in your case, please call Paul Barta or Micah Hawker-Boehnke at 402-475-1075.