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Mike Brooks, Inc. v. House

Court of Appeal of Iowa

August 21, 2013

MIKE BROOKS, INC. and GREAT WEST CASUALTY CO., Plaintiff-Appellants,
v.
JAMES DAVID HOUSE, Defendant-Appellee.

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Christopher L. McDonald, Judge.

Mike Brooks, Inc. and Great West Casualty Insurance Company appeal from the district court's affirmance of the Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner's award of permanent total disability benefits to James House.

Stephen W. Spencer and Joseph M. Barron of Peddicord, Wharton, Spencer, Hook, Barron & Wegman, L.L.P., West Des Moines, for appellants.

Martin Ozga of Neifert, Byrne & Ozga, P.C., West Des Moines, for appellee.

Considered by Vogel, P.J., and Vaitheswaran and Bower, JJ.

VOGEL, P.J.

This appeal arises from James House's petition filed with the Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner for benefits relating to a back injury that occurred on March 7, 2007, while he was working for Mike Brooks, Inc. Mike Brooks, Inc. and Great West Casualty Company (Brooks) appeal the district court's order affirming the agency's award of permanent total disability benefits to House. Brooks asserts on appeal that substantial evidence does not support the agency's decision House suffered an industrial disability causally related to the work injury and also that the evidence does not support a finding of permanent total disability.

Upon our review of the record, we agree the agency's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. The medical experts who made the causal connection lacked critical information, and the sequence of events of this case do not support the agency's conclusion based on our review of the totality of the circumstances. Because we find substantial evidence does not support the causation decision, we need not address the issues relating to the award of permanent total disability.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

House began to work for Brooks on July 26, 2005, driving a commercial truck. On March 7, 2007, House suffered an injury to his back after slipping on ice in the truck loading area. Orthopedic surgeon David Hatfield, M.D., prescribed rehabilitation and physical therapy. After two and one-half months, House underwent and passed a Department of Transportation (DOT) physical and returned to work, though he later testified his back "hurt all the time." On January 31, 2008, House underwent back surgery performed by Dr. Hatfield and returned to work six to eight weeks later. After just a few days of work and continuing to feel pain in his back, House heeded Dr. Hatfield's advice and ceased working. On November 13, 2008, Dr. Hatfield performed an anterior fusion, and then a posterior back fusion the following day.

House filed the workers' compensation claim relating to the March 7, 2007 injury on December 16, 2009. His claim proceeded to a hearing on December 8, 2012.[1] House testified at the hearing about an incident on January 4, 2008, where he pushed open a heavy door and had a burning sensation "like somebody stuck a red hot poker in my back."[2]

The deputy commissioner issued an arbitration decision on May 16, 2011, awarding House permanent total disability benefits at the rate of $569.64 per week. The arbitration decision found the record did not support Brooks's position the January 2008 injury was distinct from the March 7, 2007 injury. As to the conclusion House is permanently and totally disabled, the deputy noted House could no longer drive a truck, and various physical restrictions preclude him from returning to work as a millwright or welder. The deputy also observed House does not have the education, experience, or training to work in an office setting. The deputy found the disability benefits commenced on February 1, 2008, and Brooks should be given credit for its payment of temporary benefits during a few weeks after House's January 31, 2008 surgery. Brooks was directed to pay all of House's medical expenses relating to the March 2007 injury, as well as the costs of the proceedings.

Brooks appealed this decision, asserting several bases of error. First, it claimed the deputy erred in finding a causal connection between House's March 7, 2007 injury and his disability. Second, Brooks alleged the evidence does not support the deputy's finding of permanent total disability. Finally, it asserted February 1, 2008, is not the correct commencement date for the disability award, and the award should be suspended for 74.429 weeks to avoid overlapping payments with House's award from C&C Distribution.[3]

The commissioner issued a decision affirming the award "without additional comment." Brooks then filed a petition for judicial review, and the agency's decision was affirmed by the district court.

II. Standard of Review

Our review is governed by the Iowa Administrative Procedure Act, as set forth in Iowa Code chapter 17A. See Iowa Code § 17A.19 (2011). We apply the standards of this section to the commissioner's decision and then decide whether the district court correctly applied the law in exercising its function of judicial review. Lakeside Casino v. Blue, 743 N.W.2d 169, 172–73 (Iowa 2007). To ...


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