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Debra Cooper v. Kirkwood Community College and Impac

February 13, 2013

DEBRA COOPER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
KIRKWOOD COMMUNITY COLLEGE AND IMPAC, DEFENDANT-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Douglas S. Russell, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Potterfield, P.J.

Debra Cooper appeals from the district court's ruling on judicial review affirming the workers' compensation commissioner's determination that she is ineligible for workers' compensation benefits. AFFIRMED.

Considered by Potterfield, P.J., and Danilson and Tabor, JJ.

Debra Cooper appeals from the district court's ruling on judicial review affirming the workers' compensation commissioner's determination that she is ineligible for workers' compensation benefits. She contends the agency and district court (by way of affirmation) erred by applying the wrong legal standard in finding her injury did not arise out of and in the course of her employment, and by not adopting the opinion of her expert. She also argues, with regard to the procedural issue of her notice of injury, that the agency and district court erred by finding her employer did not have sufficient notice of her injuries, by imputing her knowledge of her injuries prior to manifestation, by establishing a date imputing knowledge regarding work-relation, by finding an affirmative defense was raised by the employer, by failing to follow agency precedents, and by engaging in independent fact finding during judicial review. Kirkwood asserts we lack subject matter jurisdiction to hear Cooper's claims. We affirm, finding we have subject matter jurisdiction, the agency did not err in finding Cooper's injuries did not arise out of her employment and we therefore do not reach the notice issue.

I. Facts and Proceedings

This is the second time we have heard this case on appeal. Cooper v. Kirkwood Cmty. Coll., 782 N.W.2d 160 (Iowa Ct. App. 2010). We incorporate the facts as set forth in that appeal here.

As the deputy commissioner detailed, Cooper has had a variety of health problems beginning in 1987. In 1992, Cooper began working for Kirkwood Community College (Kirkwood) as a custodian, at which she earned $9.16 per hour. Her job duties required her to dust, empty trash, mop, vacuum, clean blinds, and change light bulbs. Cooper's last day of work was March 15, 2001.

On March 4, 2003, Cooper filed a petition with the Workers' Compensation Commissioner alleging she sustained a work-related injury March 18, 2001. On March 18, 2003, Kirkwood filed an answer raising two affirmative defenses-that Cooper's claims were barred by her failure to comply with Iowa Code section 85.23 (employee must give employer notice of injury within ninety days of occurrence of injury unless employer has actual knowledge of the injury) and Iowa Code section 85.26 (two-year statute of limitations). A hearing was held on February 15, 2005. On March 16, 2005, the deputy commissioner filed an arbitration decision, which thoroughly discussed the medical evidence and testimony presented and found that Cooper failed to carry her burden of proof that she sustained an injury to either her knees or right shoulder that arose out of and in the course of her employment. Additionally, no doctor had opined that Cooper's other health conditions- depression, myofascial pain syndrome, and fibromyalgia-were caused by or aggravated by Cooper's work. Therefore, the deputy found it was unnecessary to reach Kirkwood's affirmative defenses.

On April 4, 2005, Cooper filed an application for a rehearing. The following day, Kirkwood filed a resistance to Cooper's application and an application for a rehearing requesting the deputy rule on its affirmative defenses. After granting both parties' applications for rehearing, the deputy issued a ruling on June 6, 2005. The deputy carefully considered and discussed the parties' arguments, and ultimately affirmed the decision filed March 16, 2005. On intra-agency appeal on May 16, 2006, the commissioner adopted the deputy's decision.

On June 5, 2006, Cooper petitioned for judicial review asserting that the agency incorrectly found her injuries were not work related and failed to award her benefits. Kirkwood answered, resisting Cooper's claims. Both parties briefed their arguments, with Kirkwood reasserting its two affirmative defenses. On November 15, 2006, Cooper filed a motion to dismiss Kirkwood's affirmative defense arguments. On January 26, 2007, the district court denied Cooper's motion to dismiss. The district court found that a ruling on Kirkwood's affirmative defenses would require certain fact-finding by the agency and remanded the case to the agency for a ruling on Kirkwood's affirmative defenses.

On remand, the commissioner entered an order stating that the deputy "is delegated authority to take final agency action" and the decision issued by the deputy "will be the final agency decision and will not be subject to intra-agency appeal to the workers' compensation commissioner." On August 23, 2007, the deputy entered a remand decision finding that Cooper's claims were barred by the notice provisions of Iowa Code section 85.23, but were not barred by the two-year period of limitations of Iowa Code section 85.26.

On August 31, 2007, Kirkwood filed an application for rehearing requesting the deputy reconsider its statute of limitations defense. Cooper did not respond to the application, but on September 12, 2007, petitioned for judicial review of the remand decision. On September 14, 2007, the deputy ruled on Kirkwood's application finding that Cooper's filing of a petition for judicial review deprived the agency of jurisdiction to rule on Kirkwood's application for rehearing and therefore, denied Kirkwood's application.

On June 5, 2008, the district court issued its ruling. Although Kirkwood had asserted that the district court did not have subject matter jurisdiction because Cooper did not petition for judicial review from a final agency decision, the district court found it did have subject matter jurisdiction to hear Cooper's petition. Next, the district court found that "the medical records and opinions provided by Dr. Coates, Dr. Bahls, and Dr. Riggins provide substantial evidence" for the agency's decision that Cooper did not establish she sustained a cumulative injury as a result of her work activities as custodian for Kirkwood on March 18, 2001, and that the agency applied the proper ...


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