From the Summer 2022 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter. The PP is funded entirely by reader subscription, available only in hard copy for $15/yr. Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244. Click here for archived issues.
by David Leshtz
A sixteen-year veteran of Scott County’s emergency dispatch system answered a 911 call from a woman screaming over and over, “Help me, my baby is dead.” The woman’s high-pitched screams continued for more than two minutes.
The dispatcher eventually got the woman’s address and dispatched first responders. She soon heard a report from a police officer who arrived on the scene and found a dead infant that appeared to have been attacked with a claw hammer. In the months that followed, the
dispatcher couldn’t shake the mother’s screams from her mind or her ears. Loud noises, especially, would trigger debilitating anxiety. She sought medical help. A counselor and two doctors diagnosed her with PTSD resulting from the call.
Demonstrating the new knife’s edge of the Iowa Supreme Court, its judges ruled by a single vote in early June that this dispatcher had suffered a workers’ compensation injury.
Iowa’s workers’ compensation system is a hundred years old. It has, however imperfectly, evolved with the times. About forty years ago, Iowa recognized that a person who suffers a physical injury at work might reasonably suffer depression, anxiety, or other mental health diagnoses stemming from the work injury. Mental health injuries were recognized to be part of the work injury deserving of treatment and, potentially, compensation.
In the 1990’s, the Iowa Supreme Court recognized that a mental work injury can occur even without physical trauma. In the Dunlavey decision, the Court found that cumulative workplace stress can be a workers’ compensation injury if it leads to a mental health diagnosis and the stressful experience was of a “greater magnitude” than a person in that job should reasonably expect.
Several years later, in the Brown decision, the Court addressed a single traumatic workplace situation – an employee being held up at gunpoint. Brown indicated that, though the injured worker must demonstrate a connection between the workplace
trauma and their mental health, they do not have to demonstrate their highly stressful incident was more stressful than one would expect.
In the recent Scott County decision, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the law – barely. Conservative Justice McDermott ably described the facts and the evolution of the law,
concluding that the Brown decision applied in this case; mental illness linked to one workplace event is a valid Iowa workers’ compensation claim. The Scott County dispatcher
need not demonstrate that calls received by other dispatchers were less stressful. Justice McDermott was joined by two other Governor Reynolds appointees and the lone remaining Democrat, Justice Appel. Unfortunately, there was caustic dissent from Scott County’s own Justice Waterman. In what might be described as judicial gaslighting,
Waterman accused McDermott and the other justices of making a “radical break with existing law.”
Waterman falsely argued that mental injury claims stemming from single traumatic incidents have always had to demonstrate that the stress experienced was greater than the dayto- day stressors of similarly situated employees. At times, Waterman’s opinion reads like an older lawyer trying to put the younger lawyer – McDermott – in his place. Waterman was joined in his dissent by Justices Mansfield and McDonald.
Iowa law requires Supreme Court justices to retire at age 72. This means Justice Appel will soon be stepping down from the Court, which means that soon every justice will be a Governor Branstad or Reynolds appointee. With just six Republican appointees, this case
shows a balance between three reasonably conservative justices who still believe in the value of precedent and following the law, and three who are focused on a far-right outcome without letting the facts or the law get in their way.
PP Editor’s note: Alas, shortly after this article was written in which Justice McDermott was complimented for respecting judicial precedent, he voted to overturn precedent and find that there is no fundamental right to an abortion in Iowa.