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Roberts Dairy v. Billick

Supreme Court of Iowa

April 3, 2015


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Christopher L. McDonald, Judge. A workers' compensation claimant appeals the district court's ruling on judicial review of a decision of the Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner.


Thomas J. Currie of Currie & Liabo Law Firm, P.L.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

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


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HECHT, Justice.

An employee sought workers' compensation benefits for a series of work-related injuries. His current employer contends its liability for industrial disability benefits must be apportioned because the employee previously suffered disability as a consequence of two separate injuries sustained while working for other employers. The workers' compensation commissioner concluded apportionment of industrial disability is not mandated by law under the circumstances of this case. On judicial review, the district court concluded the commissioner's decision was based on a misinterpretation of amendments to our workers' compensation statutes passed in 2004. The district court reversed the commissioner's decision and remanded the case to the agency for further findings relevant to the apportionment issue. Finding no error in the commissioner's interpretation of the relevant statutes, we reverse the district court's ruling and remand with instructions.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

The following facts are supported by substantial evidence in the agency record for this case. In 1985, Grady Billick sustained a back injury while working for Squealer Feed Company in Iowa. He later settled his workers' compensation claim against that company for payment based on an eighty-five percent industrial disability.

In 1993, Billick was again injured while working for Milky Way Transport. On that occasion, he lost control of a tanker

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truck he was driving in inclement weather. The truck crashed and Billick sustained injuries to his head, neck, left shoulder, ribs, back, and left arm. His workers' compensation claim for these injuries was settled under Missouri law for an amount representing 18.5% permanent partial disability of the body as a whole.

Billick began working for Roberts Dairy (Roberts) in 2001. The employment required Billick to drive a semi-truck and deliver milk products from Iowa City to various retail stores across the state. The trucks were generally loaded by others, but Billick was required to unload them himself upon arrival at points of delivery.

Billick suffered four work-related injuries while working for Roberts. In March 2004, a dolly carrying milk crates struck Billick's left ankle and trapped it against a dock plate. Despite treatment, including an arthroscopic surgery, Billick was left with permanent impairment and experiences residual pain and swelling in his left lower extremity.

In June 2004, shelving in a Wal-Mart store collapsed while Billick was making a delivery there for Roberts. The shelving struck Billick's head, neck, and left shoulder, and knocked him to the ground. He received treatment for left shoulder and neck pain which led to shoulder surgery. Billick was assigned a partial permanent physical impairment rating for this injury.

In 2006, rusty bolts on a trailer strap came loose when Billick used the strap while pulling a truck door shut. He lost his balance, fell out of the truck, and injured his left arm and elbow. An MRI study performed on the day of this injury revealed a thoracic compression fracture. Billick lost no work as a consequence of this injury.

In 2007, a misaligned loading dock at a store in Altoona caused several milk crates to fall off a dolly. The crates struck Billick in the chest and shoulder. While driving back to Iowa City after sustaining this injury in Altoona, another vehicle's erratic movement caused Billick to steer his truck off the road. The emotional trauma resulting from the near-crash combined with and superimposed on the chest injury he suffered earlier that day made Billick quite distraught and produced a physical--mental injury.

Billick filed four workers' compensation petitions against Roberts. The claims were consolidated for hearing. The commissioner's appeal decision awarded Billick healing period benefits for various periods of temporary total disability, permanent partial disability benefits for a loss of twelve percent of his left lower extremity, and permanent partial disability benefits for the loss of thirty-five percent of his earning capacity for the unscheduled components of injury.

The commissioner rejected Roberts's contention that its liability for Billick's industrial disability should be apportioned because Billick was previously compensated for his losses of earning capacity arising from the 1985 and 1993 injuries through settlements in Iowa with Squealer Feed and with Milky Way in Missouri. Both parties sought judicial review of the commissioner's appeal decision.

Although the parties' petitions for judicial review challenged--and the district court's decision addressed--numerous aspects of the agency decision, the only issue before us on appeal is whether the commissioner's ruling on the apportionment issue based upon his interpretation of the legislature's 2004 amendments to Iowa Code chapter 85 was correct. The district court concluded the commissioner misapprehended the relevant statutes and therefore reversed and remanded the case to

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the agency for further findings of fact relevant to the apportionment issue.

Billick appeals from the district court's decision on judicial review. We retained the appeal to interpret the 2004 amendments and decide whether the commissioner erred in concluding Roberts's liability for permanent partial disability benefits cannot be apportioned under the circumstances of this case.

II. Scope of Review.

" Iowa Code chapter 17A governs judicial review of the decisions of the workers' compensation commissioner." Mycogen Seeds v. Sands, 686 N.W.2d 457, 463 (Iowa 2004). Under chapter 17A, we are free to substitute our own interpretation of statutes " whose interpretation[s] ha[ve] not clearly been vested" in the agency. Iowa Code § 17A.19(10)( c ) (2007); see also Mycogen Seeds, 686 N.W.2d at 464. To determine whether the legislature clearly vested an agency with authority to interpret particular statutes, we consider " the phrases or statutory provisions to be interpreted, their context, the purpose of the statute, and other practical considerations ...

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