The Commissioner's Focus on Location and Function Relative to the Glenohumeral Joint
RE: Shoulder Injuries – Deng v. Farmland Foods, Inc. & Chavez v. MS Technology, LLC
The Commissioner recently issued two appeal decisions clarifying what constitutes a “shoulder” injury under Iowa Code section 85.34(2)(n). In early 2020, a line of arbitration decisions developed where the analysis turned on whether or not the injury was “proximal to the glenohumeral joint” (i.e., towards the neck side of the ball-and-socket joint). If the injury was proximal to the glenohumeral joint, the deputies ruled that the injury was not to the “shoulder” but was an injury to the whole person such that industrial disability benefits were owed.
In a pair of recent decisions, Commissioner Cortese held that an employee’s injury to the muscles of the rotator cuff (infraspinatus, supraspinatus, subscapularis), the labrum, and the acromion were all injuries to the “shoulder” under section 85.34(2)(n), regardless of whether the situs of the injury was proximal to the glenohumeral joint. Deng v. Farmland Foods, Inc., File No. 5061883 (App. Sept. 29, 2020); Chavez v. MS Technology, LLC, File No. 5066270 (App. Sept. 30, 2020). The analysis in both cases focused on how the injured muscles, tendons, and ligaments surrounding the glenohumeral joint were closely entwined both in location and in function to the joint such that they were within the definition of “shoulder” under section 85.34(2)(n). For example, the infraspinatus muscle of the rotator cuff stabilizes the ball-and-socket joint. Deng. The labrum broadens and deepens the glenoid cavity and keeps the ball of the joint in place. Chavez. The acromion forms part of the shoulder socket and protects the glenoid cavity. Chavez. Because these structures are all closely interconnected both in location and function with the ball-and-socket joint, injuries to these body parts are all injuries to the “shoulder” under section 85.34(2)(n).
We believe these holdings will be helpful to employers and insurance carriers in the sense that the word “shoulder” in section 85.34(2)(n) now extends beyond just the ball-and-socket joint itself and encompasses other structures surrounding the joint that are involved in the joint’s function. The Commissioner acknowledged his expansion of the definition of “shoulder” to parts other than the glenohumeral joint will necessarily result in temporary uncertainty as parties litigate whether injuries to the different muscles, tendons, bones, and surfaces surrounding the joint are shoulder injuries or whole person injuries. Nevertheless, these decisions make clear that the structures that are both close in proximity to the ball-and-socket joint and help the joint function will likely be included within the definition of “shoulder” under section 85.34(2)(n).
Of course, the Commissioner’s decision was based on his interpretation of section 85.34(2)(n). The Iowa appellate courts will still have the final say as to what constitutes a shoulder injury.
As always, you are receiving this letter because we want you to be well-informed of the most important and impactful cases being issued by the Commissioner’s office. We are prepared to answer any questions you may have about this decision and any other issues related to workers’ compensation benefits in Iowa.
Please feel free to contact us if you have any additional questions.
Chuck Cutler (Cell 515-240-7309)
Steve Brown (Cell 515-321-4300)
Bob Gainer (Cell 515-423-9293)
Greg Taylor (Cell 309-264-1767)
John Cutler (Cell 303-912-6838)
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