CLINTON — The Iowa Court of Appeals sided with a former Camanche teacher who was awarded benefits through workers' compensation for respiratory injury resulting from exposure to dust or mold in her classroom at Camanche Elementary School.
According to the ruling, Kathaleen Brown taught fourth grade in Camanche from 1998 through 2010. The fourth-grade classrooms were located in the original section of the school (built in 1961). The principal testified that a section of the school has a flat roof and drop metal pan ceiling tiles that become rusty and stained when water leaks into the building.
In a Wednesday phone interview, Camanche Superintendent Thomas Parker said with a flat roof, "you're occasionally going to have a leak. As soon as we discover one," professional roofing contractors are hired to repair them.
Through 2000, Brown taught in room 114, a windowless room with little ventilation, the ruling states. After developing severe bronchitis and receiving treatment for several asthma attacks which caused her to miss 13 days of school, she asked to be assigned to a different classroom. In 2001, she started teaching in room 110, where she remained until the end of her employment.
The ruling continues that Brown's testimony to the Division of Workers' Compensation showed the coinciding of her lung problems with the presence of contaminants in her classroom. She recalled having bronchial and sinus infections during the school years starting in 2000, and that her health would recover during the summer months when school was not in session.
Brown saw her family physician more than two dozen times for respiratory problems, almost exclusively during the school year.
Brown, who at the time was 57 years old, filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits on Oct. 28, 2010. A deputy workers' compensation commissioner heard the matter on Jan. 19, 2012, and in April of that year issued a decision that Brown had met her burden of proof of an injury arising out of her employment.
The school district appealed that decision, and Deputy Commissioner Larry Walshire in May 2013 affirmed the arbitration decision. The district then sought judicial review, and the district court also affirmed the agency's decision that Brown suffered a compensable injury arising out of her employment with the Camanche School District.
The school district challenged the judicial review, contending the decision was not supported by substantial evidence and represents an "irrational, illogical, or wholly unjustifiable" application of law to fact. This prompted the matter to be weighed by the Iowa Court of Appeals, which issued its decision Wednesday.
The ruling stated that the review "is fact-intensive and thorough; we do not simply 'rubber stamp' the agency's decision. But at the same time, we read the agency's findings broadly and liberally with an eye to upholding rather than defeating its decision because the purpose of the law is to benefit workers."
Between March 2003 and May 2010, Brown saw her family physician more than two dozen times for respiratory problems, and was hospitalized for six days in 2007 with pneumonia.
Between May 2008 and September 2011, Brown consulted with several physicians in the pulmonary field, including one in Davenport, one at the University of Iowa Hospitals Pulmonary Clinic, one with the University of Iowa College of Public Health, and others. The ruling details their findings, which varied. One physician diagnosed Brown with occupational environmental lung disease, hyper-reactive airways and shortness of breath; two others were unable to find abnormal lung function.
"The school district and the maintenance staff," Parker explained, "have standard cleaning and maintenance procedures in place," including daily cleaning, as well as more extensive cleaning during breaks and holidays.
"The school district has a commitment" to a safe, clean and quality learning environment, he added, "and we are confident that we provide that."
"It seemed (Brown's) intent was to say the elementary school was poorly maintained," Parker said, calling this characterization inaccurate. To support this position, he pointed to four different indoor air quality studies conducted by three different entities between 2008 and 2011.
One of the investigations, completed in September 2010 by Environmental Management Consulting, found "any minimal mold levels that are present are the same as the current outdoor environment," Parker cited.
Another study in April 2011 by Aires Consulting concluded that "fungal spore concentrations are lower in (the Camanche elementary) building than what is present in outdoor levels in Camanche, which is normal," Parker said.
Our position is "that it's a priority for us to have a safe, clean, well-maintained facility," Parker said. "It was back then, is now and will be in the future. We certainly put a lot of pride into maintaining our buildings."
"And though it's not completely relevant to this case," he added, in the last few years both the elementary and middle schools have been retro-fitted with geo-thermal. Prior to that, neither building had air conditioning. Now, each has a new HVAC system.
In the appeal, the school district contended that substantial evidence did not support the conclusion that Brown suffered a pulmonary function injury related to her work, highlighting the testimony of physicians who did not believe she had chronic impairment of the respiratory system. The district also challenged the conclusion that Brown's injury was caused by harmful conditions in the elementary building, arguing that "at least some dust, some moisture and some mold" is incident to "every workplace, everywhere."
However, the Court of Appeals agreed with the district court's ruling, writing that "the record is replete with proof that water had infiltrated the roof and ceiling tiles in the fifty-year-old wing" of the building. The district court stated "the fact that air quality tests found conditions at the school that would not be hazardous for most humans is irrelevant," because there were documented conditions, elements or substances that may afflict a susceptible individual, like Brown. The Court of Appeals concurred with these findings, and affirmed the lower court's ruling.