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Brinck v. Siouxland Mental Health Center

Court of Appeals of Iowa

September 12, 2018

RONALD WILLIAM BRINCK, Plaintiff-Appellant,

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Rustin T. Davenport, Judge.

         Ronald Brinck appeals the dismissal of his petition for judicial review affirming the Workers' Compensation Commissioner's denial of his petition to review-reopen a prior action.

          Mark S. Soldat of Soldat & Parrish-Sams, PLC, West Des Moines, for appellant.

          Kathleen Roe of Rawlings, Ellwanger, Mohrhauser, Nelson & Roe, LLP, Sioux City, for appellees.

          Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Doyle and Mullins, JJ.

          DOYLE, Judge.

         After the Workers' Compensation Commissioner denied Dr. Ronald Brinck's petition to reopen his prior workers' compensation settlement agreement with his former employer, Brinck filed a petition for judicial review in district court challenging the denial. The district court affirmed the commissioner's determination that Brinck failed to establish his mental disorder was caused by his earlier work injury, finding substantial evidence supported the commissioner's decision. The district court also affirmed the commission's conclusion that, even if Brinck had demonstrated his psychosis was related to his earlier work injury, Brinck's claim was barred by res judicata. Brinck now appeals the district court's denial of his petition for judicial review. Upon our review, we affirm.

         I. Applicable Law.

         Generally speaking, after an employee is awarded workers' compensation benefits for an injury sustained at work, the case is closed, whether the award came at the end of exhausting administrative remedies or by way of a settlement agreement. See generally Kohlhaas v. Hog Slat, Inc., 777 N.W.2d 387, 391-93 (Iowa 2009) (discussing workers' compensation review-reopening proceedings); U.S. W. Commc'ns., Inc. v. Overholser, 566 N.W.2d 873, 875 (Iowa 1997) (same). However, if the employee's condition changes after the award or settlement related to the prior injury, such as "the worsening of a physical condition or a reduction in earning capacity," the employee may seek additional or increased compensation from the employer by way of a review-reopening proceeding under Iowa Code section 86.14(2) (2011). See Kohlhaas, 777 N.W.2d at 391-93. At such proceeding, the employee must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the employee's current condition is "proximately caused by the original injury." Id. at 392.

         One way to satisfy this proximate-cause requirement is for the employee to demonstrate his or her physical condition has worsened. See id. Nevertheless, this is not the only way to establish that the employee's current condition is "proximately caused by the original injury." Id. Importantly, the employee "need not prove, as an element of his claim, that the current extent of disability was not contemplated by the commissioner (in the arbitration award) or the parties (in their agreement for settlement)." Id. Thus, the employee does not have "to demonstrate his current condition was not contemplated at the time of the original settlement." See id. at 393. However, "section 86.14(2) does not provide an opportunity to relitigate causation issues that were determined in the initial award or settlement agreement." Id. "[T]he principles of res judicata still apply." Id. Thus, the commissioner, in a review-reopening proceeding, "should not reevaluate an employee's level of physical impairment or earning capacity if all of the facts and circumstances were known or knowable at the time of the original action." Id. (emphasis added).

         II. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         In 2009, Dr. Ronald Brinck "sustained an injury arising out of and in the course of his employment" with Siouxland Mental Health Center ("the Center").[1]He filed a petition seeking workers' compensation for the injury, which stated: "While walking down the [Center's] hallway, his cane became stuck in the carpet and he tripped and fell forward, thereby hitting his head at the right side of the door." The petition stated Brinck's "whole body" was affected or disabled. The expenses incurred that were listed on the petition included the psychological services of a hospital. Brinck returned to work full-time in February 2010.

         In November 2012, Siouxland and Brinck subsequently entered into a settlement agreement for workers' compensation benefits that was approved by the workers' compensation commissioner. The agreement stated Brinck sustained a "permanent partial disability for 50% loss of BAW/earning capacity . . . resulting in 250 weeks of compensation under Iowa Code section 85.34(2)(U) payable commencing February 15, 2010." The agreement stated Brinck "is entitled to medical care for the injury, including care in the future," citing sections 85.26(2) and 85.27. The agreement further provided that evidence corroborating "this settlement is attached." Attached thereto were numerous hospital records, including the November 2010 report of Dr. Douglas Martin. Dr. Martin's report included his review of another medical professional's May 2009 report following that doctor's neuropsychological assessment of Brinck. Dr. Martin's report stated:

We spent a considerable amount of time . . . reviewing the Neurological Assessment of Dr. Meyers, which is a rather interesting report, from the standpoint that Dr. Meyers was unable to specifically identify a pattern consistent with a closed head injury or postconcussion situation. He suggested that sleep apnea, seizures and depression may be interference with that; however, upon my review, it is also just as likely that seizure disorders and emotional and behavioral disturbances can also be created by traumatic brain injuries, so it is a bit difficult to interpret. It is certainly a possibility that this gentleman had a substantial issue with preexisting depression and that may also be clouding the picture here, with respect to the situation. However, I cannot dismiss Dr. Meyers' conclusions that, based upon his Neurological testing and data, the pattern and score was, indeed, unusual. There seemed to be some inconsistency in performance as to what would be expected. However, I would also state that it might be true here that, with respect to a significantly high level I.Q. functioning individual prior to the incident, often times professional show sometimes bizarre findings on Neuropsychological profiles that are performed after incidents such as this.
After a review of the clinical data and my interview with Dr. Brinck, I felt that his situation was consistent with mild cognitive residuals from a closed head injury/traumatic brain incident.
(1) History of closed head injury/traumatic brain incident ...

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