This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).






Lake of the Woods County, et al.,


Paul Fish, through his conservator, Patrick Fish,

Strata Corporation, et al.,

Robert Sutherland,

Blue Cross/Blue Shield of MN, et al.,

Minnesota Department of Human Services,



Special Compensation Fund,



Filed September 26, 2006


Parker, Judge*


Ramsey County District Court

File No. C6-04-8712

James B. Peterson, Tanna B. Schwarz, Falsani, Balmer, Peterson, Quinn & Beyer, 1200 Alworth Building, 306 West Superior Street, Duluth, MN  55802-1800 (for appellant Fish)


John H. Guthmann, Joseph G. Twomey, Hansen, Dordell, Bradt, Odlaug & Bradt, P.L.L.P., 3900 Northwoods Drive, Suite 250, St. Paul, MN  55112-6973 (for appellants Strata Corporation and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company)


Robert E. Kuderer, Stacey A. Nilsen, Johnson & Condon, P.A., 7401 Metro Boulevard, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN  55439-3034 (for respondents Lakes of the Woods County and Roseau County)


Brian T. Hardwick, Brian T. Hardwick, P.A., 116 Wabasha Avenue Northeast, P.O. Box 102, Warroad, MN  56763 (for respondent Sutherland)


Mark A. Fredrickson, Rider Bennett, L.L.P., 33 South Sixth Street, Suite 4900, Minneapolis, MN  55402 (for respondent Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota and Blue Plus)


Mike Hatch, Attorney General, Erika Schneller Sullivan, Assistant Attorney General, 445 Minnesota Street, Suite 900, St. Paul, MN  55101 (for respondent Minnesota Department of Human Services)


Mike Hatch, Attorney General, Rory H. Foley, Assistant Attorney General, 445 Minnesota Street, Suite 900, St. Paul, MN  55101 (for respondent Special Compensation Fund)


            Considered and decided by Hudson, Presiding Judge; Peterson, Judge; and Parker, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N




In this appeal from a grant of summary judgment, (a) appellants Strata Corporation, Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., and Paul Fish argue that the issue of whether Fish was an employee of respondents Roseau County and Lake of the Woods County and therefore entitled to workers’ compensation benefits is within the exclusive jurisdiction of the workers’ compensation courts; (b) Strata Corporation and Liberty Mutual argue that the declaratory judgment action did not present a justiciable controversy because the district court did not have jurisdiction over the underlying claim; and (c) appellant Fish argues that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether Fish was a volunteer at the time of his injury and qualified as an employee under Minn. Stat. § 12.22, subd. 2a (2004) (describing conditions for determining the employment status of volunteers during emergencies and disasters).  We vacate the district court’s judgment.



Whether summary judgment was properly granted is a question of law, which we review de novo.  Prior Lake Am. v. Mader, 642 N.W.2d 729, 735 (Minn. 2002).  In doing so, we must consider whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court erred in its application of the law.  State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990).

The instant case began as a workers’ compensation claim filed by Paul Fish after his injury while removing some flood-damaged insulation from the home of respondent Robert Sutherland.  The workers’ compensation statute is meant “to assure the quick and efficient delivery of indemnity and medical benefits to injured workers at a reasonable cost to the employers.”  Minn. Stat. § 176.001 (2004).  Contrary to this expressed legislative intent, the workers’ compensation claim underlying this declaratory-judgment action has been stayed pending the outcome of the instant case.

After Fish filed his workers’ compensation claim, Roseau County and Lake of the Woods County filed a declaratory judgment action against Fish, Sutherland, Strata, Liberty Mutual, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota and Blue Plus, the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Special Compensation Fund, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMMS).  In response to the filing of the complaint, defendant CMMS filed a notice of removal of the action to federal district court.  On January 14, 2005, the federal district court dismissed CMMS from the lawsuit and remanded the remainder of the lawsuit to the state district court.

After remand, the parties submitted cross-motions for summary judgment.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the counties, concluding that the workers’ compensation hearing officers lacked jurisdiction to interpret Minn. Stat. § 12.22, subd. 2a (2004),[1] for the purpose of determining whether Fish was an employee.  The district court also concluded that Fish was not an employee of the counties at the time of his injury. 

The threshold question for both the district court and the workers’ compensation claim petition filed with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry is whether Fish was an employee of the counties at the time of his injury.  Appellants Strata and Liberty Mutual contend that the counties’ declaratory judgment action was improper because the complaint did not present a justiciable controversy in light of the pending workers’ compensation claim.  We agree.  Minnesota’s declaratory judgment act gives courts the “power to declare rights, status, and other legal relations whether or not further relief is or could be claimed.”  Minn. Stat. § 555.01 (2004).  “The only prerequisite for a court’s exercise of jurisdiction in declaratory judgment actions is the presence of a ‘justiciable controversy.’”  Rice Lake Contracting Corp. v. Rust Env’t & Infrastructure, Inc., 549 N.W.2d 96, 99 (Minn. App. 1996), review denied (Minn. Aug. 20, 1996).

In the context of declaratory judgment actions, justiciability requires that a controversy “(a) involve definite and concrete assertions of right by parties with adverse interests, (b) involve a genuine conflict in tangible interests of opposing litigants, and (c) be capable of relief by a decree or judgment.”  Graham v. Crow Wing County Bd. of Comm’rs, 515 N.W.2d 81, 84 (Minn. App. 1994), review denied (Minn. June 2, 1994).  “In declaratory judgment actions, the ‘present controversy’ requirement of justiciability is viewed leniently and is satisfied if there is a controversy of ‘sufficient immediacy and reality’ to warrant issuance of a judgment.”  Rice Lake Contracting, 549 N.W.2d at 99 (quoting Holiday Acres No. 3 v. Midwest Fed. Sav. & Loan, 271 N.W.2d 445, 448 (Minn. 1978) (quotation omitted)).

Based on the facts in this case, the present-controversy requirement is not satisfied.  It is the intent of the legislature that these claims be decided under the workers’ compensation statute.  Minn. Stat. § 176.001.  Although the jurisdiction of a workers’ compensation court is limited to the construction and application of the Workers’ Compensation Act, for the class of cases that arise under the act, the court may “determine all questions of law and fact.”  Hagen v. Venem, 366 N.W.2d 280, 283 (Minn. 1985) (quotation omitted).  Workers’ compensation judges lack jurisdiction in “any case that does not arise under the workers’ compensation laws.”  Freeman v. Armour Food Co., 380 N.W.2d 816, 820 (Minn. 1986) (quotation omitted).

The dispositive issue here is not whether workers’ compensation courts or district courts have exclusive jurisdiction.  Before the declaratory-judgment action was filed, Fish filed his workers’ compensation claim and that claim arose under the Workers’ Compensation Act.  The workers’ compensation court, therefore, is the proper forum for determining whether he is an employee of the counties for purposes of section 12.22.  Accordingly, it was an error for the district court to determine that question.

The counties argue that because Minn. Stat. § 12.22, subd. 2a, arises outside the workers’ compensation statute, workers’ compensation judges lack the authority to interpret that statute as it applies to Fish.  But workers’ compensation courts have frequently looked to other statutory and common-law authority for determining an employee’s right to benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act.  See, e.g., Sundby v. City of St. Peter, 693 N.W.2d 206, 215-16 (Minn. 2005) (federal Social Security Act); Freeman, 380 N.W.2d at 820 (no-fault insurance).  Here, a workers’ compensation judge would not be interpreting section 12.22, subdivision 2a, but for the fact that Fish’s workers’ compensation benefits claim arises under that statutory provision.  Moreover, the workers’ compensation courts have the authority to determine the extent of their subject-matter jurisdiction subject to appellate review.  See Taft v. Advance United Expressways, 464 N.W.2d 725, 727 (Minn. 1991) (approving of the workers’ compensation court of appeals determination that its jurisdiction did not extend to claims against insolvent insurance companies).  Finally, the legislature recently amended Minn. Stat. § 12.22, subd. 2a, to specifically state that it applies for the purpose of workers’ compensation.  2005 Minn. Laws ch. 150, § 3 (codified atMinn. Stat. § 12.22, subd. 2a(a) (Supp. 2005) (adding language to the statute at footnote 1, “for purposes of workers’ compensation and tort claim defense and indemnification”)).

The district court erred in deciding the cross-motions for summary judgment. Because we conclude that no justiciable controversy exists, we vacate the judgment and do not reach the issue of whether Paul Fish was an employee of the counties under Minn. Stat. § 12.22, subd. 2a.


* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.

[1]  Subdivision 2a, addressing volunteer assistance, provides:


                                    Individuals who volunteer to assist a local political subdivision during an emergency or disaster, who register with that subdivision, and who are under the direction and control of that subdivision, are considered an employee of that subdivision.