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Dubinovic v. Des Moines Public Schools

Court of Appeals of Iowa

May 15, 2019

IZUDIN DUBINOVIC, Plaintiff-Appellant,

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

         Izudin Dubinovic appeals the district court judicial review decision affirming the final agency action of the workers' compensation commissioner.

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

          Anne L. Clark of Hopkins & Huebner, PC, Des Moines, for appellee.

          Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Doyle and Mullins, JJ. Tabor, J., takes no part.


         Izudin Dubinovic sustained a mental injury while employed as a custodian by the Des Moines Public Schools. Dubinovic filed a workers' compensation petition, claiming, "Cumulatively and progressively over a period of time employer's actions and inactions caused the development of an adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood." Following an arbitration hearing, a deputy workers' compensation commissioner denied the petition. The workers' compensation commissioner affirmed the decision, as did the district court on judicial review.

         On appeal, Dubinovic contends (1) the supreme court erred in adopting a legal causation standard in cases involving a purely mental injury, and the district court erred in affirming the commissioner's application of the standard, and (2) the commissioner should have applied a modified standard applicable to mental injuries arising from sudden traumatic events.

         I. Legal-Causation Standard/Application of Standard

         In Dunlavey v. Economy Fire & Casualty Co., 526 N.W.2d 845, 853-58 (Iowa 1995), the supreme court recognized that a purely mental injury may be compensable under the workers' compensation laws even in the absence of an accompanying physical injury. The court required a claimant to prove both factual causation and legal causation. Id. at 853. According to the court, "[F]actual causation means medical causation, that is whether the employee's injury is causally connected to the employee's employment." Id. Turning to legal causation, the court stated, "[F]or an employee to establish legal causation for a non-traumatic mental injury caused only by mental stimuli, the employee must show that the mental injury 'was caused by workplace stress of greater magnitude than the day-to-day mental stresses experienced by other workers employed in the same or similar jobs,' regardless of their employer." Id. at 857 (citation omitted).

         Dubinovic asks the court to overrule the supreme court's holding in Dunlavey. In his view, the court made a policy choice to apply two causation standards where the injury is purely mental despite the statutory reference to a single-causation standard: whether the injury "arises out of employment. He argues the choice of an appropriate standard is one for the legislature rather than the judicial branch. He further argues the policy choice was "clearly erroneous" because it unduly heightened the claimant's burden.

         We are not at liberty to overrule controlling precedent. Bd. of Water Works Trs. v. Sac Cty. Bd. of Supervisors, 890 N.W.2d 50, 57 (Iowa 2017) ("Revisiting our state law precedent is our prerogative."); State v. Eichler, 83 N.W.2d 576, 578 (Iowa 1957) ("If our previous holdings are to be overruled, we should ordinarily prefer to do it ourselves."). Accordingly, we decline Dubinovic's invitation to revisit Dunlavey.

         We turn to Dubinovic's argument that the commissioner misapplied the legal causation standard and the district court erred in affirming the agency. The issue he raises is not one of law. As the Iowa Supreme Court stated, "Although the standard of legal causation involves an issue of law, the application of that standard to a particular setting requires the commissioner to render an outcome determinative finding of fact. A court on judicial review is bound by that fact-finding if it is supported by substantial evidence." Asmus v. Waterloo Cmty. Sch. Dist, 722 N.W.2d 653, 657 (Iowa 2006).

         The deputy commissioner considered the testimony of three witnesses who performed housekeeping duties for other employers. The deputy found "no evidence that claimant's work expectations were greater or unusual, just that a quota of work to be done within a given time was stressful but common to all such positions." The deputy's findings, ...

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