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Allen v. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Iowa

February 21, 2018

CLIFFORD S. ALLEN, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
TYSON FRESH MEATS, INC., Respondent-Appellee.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Scott D. Rosenberg, Judge.

         An employee appeals from the district court ruling affirming the worker's compensation commissioner's award of ten percent industrial disability and denial of penalty benefits.

          John R. Walker Jr. of Beecher, Field, Walker, Morris, Hoffman & Johnson, P.C., Waterloo, for appellant.

          Brian L. Yung of Klass Law Firm, L.L.P., Sioux City, for appellee.

          Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Potterfield and McDonald, JJ.

          POTTERFIELD, Judge.

         Clifford Allen appeals from the district court ruling affirming the worker's compensation commissioner's award of ten percent industrial disability and the denial of penalty benefits. Allen maintains the district court applied the incorrect standards when reviewing the commissioner's interpretation of Iowa Administrative Code rule 876-4.2(86) and the commissioner's award of ten percent industrial disability.

         Penalty Benefits. Allen maintains the commissioner erred in refusing to consider his claim for penalty benefits.[1] In doing so, the commissioner interpreted rule 876-4.2(86) as requiring the claimant to plead entitlement to penalty benefits before such benefits may be awarded.[2] In its review of the commissioner's interpretation of the rule, the district court considered whether it was an "irrational, illogical, or wholly unjustifiable" interpretation. See Iowa Code § 17A.19(10)(l) ("The court shall reverse, modify, or grant other appropriate relief from agency action . . . if it determines that substantial rights of the person seeking judicial relief have been prejudiced because the agency action [was] . . . l: Based upon an irrational, illogical, or wholly unjustifiable interpretation of a provision of law whose interpretation has clearly been vested by a provision of law in the discretion of the agency."). On appeal, Allen maintains the district court employed the wrong standard of review.

         "[T]he level of deference we afford the agency is dependent upon whether the legislature has clearly vested the agency with the decision to interpret the particular provision of law." Democko v. Iowa Dep't of Natural Resources, 840 N.W.2d 281, 287 (Iowa 2013). In cases where the legislature clearly vested the agency with the authority to interpret the provision at issue, "we defer to the agency and may only reverse if the agency's interpretation is 'irrational, illogical, or wholly unjustifiable.'" Id. (citing Iowa Code § 17A.19(10)(l)). However, if the legislature did not clearly vest the agency with the authority to interpret the particular statute, "then we do not defer to the agency and our review is for correction of errors at law." Id. (citing Iowa Code § 17A.19(10)(c), requiring the court to "reverse, modify or grant other appropriate relief from agency action . . . if it determines that substantial rights of the person seeking judicial relief have been prejudiced because the agency action [was] . . . c: Based upon an erroneous interpretation of a provision of law whose interpretation has not been clearly vested by a provision of law in the discretion of the agency").

         We need not determine if the agency has been vested with the authority to interpret rule 876-4.2(86) because even if we apply the less deferential review-correction of errors at law-we cannot say the district court was wrong to affirm the commissioner's interpretation.

         Rule 876-4.2(86) states, in pertinent part:

Entitlement to denial or delay benefits provided in Iowa Code section 86.13 shall be pled, and if pled, discovery shall be limited to matters discoverable in the absence of such pleading unless it is bifurcated. The claimant may bifurcate the denial or delay issue by filing and serving a notice of bifurcation at any time before a case is assigned for hearing, in which case discovery on that issue may proceed only after the final decision of the agency on all other issues.

(Emphasis added.)

         The commissioner interpreted the word "shall" to mean a necessity or a requirement, determining that Allen's failure to plead entitlement to penalty benefits defeated any claim to them. Statutory interpretation supports this-and only this- reading. See Iowa Code § 4.1(3)(1) (providing the word "shall, " in statutes enacted after July 1971, "imposes a duty"); In re Det. of Fowler, 784 N.W.2d 184, 187 (Iowa 2010) ("[T]he word 'shall' generally connotes a mandatory duty."); Berent v. City of Iowa City, 738 N.W.2d 193, 209 (Iowa 2007) ("The term 'shall' is mandatory."); State v. Klawonn, 609 N.W.2d 515, 521-22 (Iowa 2000) ("The word 'may' can mean 'shall, ' but the word 'shall' does not mean 'may.'"). Allen claims this interpretation is in error because it "is completely at odds with the primary purpose of the workers' compensation statute"-to benefit the worker. But there is no need to consider the purpose of the statute or rule where, as here, the language is unambiguous. See McGill v. Fish, 790 N.W.2d 113, 118 (Iowa 2010) ("We do not ...


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