“Industrial Disability Considerations and the Importance of Return to Work”

Why is it important to make efforts to return injured workers to gainful employment? Should the court consider accommodations made by the employer in an award of industrial disability benefits? The Iowa Court of Appeals recently answered these questions in the case Norton v. Hy-Vee, Inc.

In 2009, Norton injured her neck and back at work. Hy-Vee, her employer, accepted the injury, but disputed certain aspects, causing Norton to file a Petition. The deputy commissioner determined that Norton reached MMI in November 2011, that her work injury contributed to anxiety and depression issues, and that she sustained a 70 percent industrial disability. Both parties appealed the decision, with Norton seeking permanent total disability benefits and Hy-Vee seeking a 25 percent industrial disability. The commissioner largely affirmed the deputy’s determination and both parties sought judicial review of the commissioner’s decision. The district court affirmed the commissioner’s decision. Norton appealed, claiming that the district court incorrectly interpreted Iowa case law regarding employer accommodation by making a “downward adjustment” when awarding a 70 percent industrial disability and that she was entitled to permanent total disability. Norton’s contention was based upon her claim that she was incapable of returning to gainful employment due to the injury and was therefore entitled to the permanent total disability benefits. She believed that the injury detrimentally influenced her ability to find a new job because of her work restrictions.

The Court of Appeals, in its determination, reiterated that an industrial disability rating is to be based on the earning capacity of the injured worker, which is the workers’ current ability in the competitive job market to earn money without regard to accommodation furnished by the present employer. The Court agreed with Norton’s argument that an injured worker’s accommodated work performance by itself could not be used to reduce a worker’s industrial disability rating. However, it did determine that the injured worker’s accommodated work performance could be considered in assessing the industrial disability rating if the work performed is transferable in the competitive job market and shows the worker has a discerned earning capacity.

As such, the Court of Appeals agreed with the commissioner’s determination that the accommodated work was suitable and stable, that Norton would probably find new employment even with work restrictions, and that her 30 hours of work per week would be considered full time and gainful at many places in the current labor market. The district court’s decision was affirmed. Such a determination shows that the court considers an employer’s accommodations in its award of industrial disability and demonstrates the importance of returning injured employees to gainful employment.

If you have questions regarding workers’ compensation cases, please contact Iowa Workers’ Compensation attorneys, Zach Anderson, at ZAnderson@baylorevnen.com, or Paul Barta, at PBarta@Baylorevnen.com, or (402) 475-1075.

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