BENGT V. THULIN, Employee/Petitioner, v. ANDERSON LOG HOMES and HERITAGE MUTUAL INS. CO., Employer-Insurer.
WORKERS' COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
FEBRUARY 12, 2002
VACATION OF AWARD. The Award on Stipulation of April 5, 2000, was not issued in violation of Minn. Stat. ' 176.021, subd. 4, prohibiting an agreement by an employee to take as compensation an amount less than that prescribed by chapter 176, but was properly issued and approved pursuant to Minn. Stat. ' 176.521, subd. 1, which specifically permits a lump sum settlement of disputed claims. There is, accordingly, no basis for vacating the award.
Petition to vacate denied.
Determined by: Johnson, J., Wilson, J., and Pederson, J.
THOMAS, L. JOHNSON, Judge
The employee petitions to vacate and set aside an Award on Stipulation, served and filed April 5, 2000. We conclude the employee has failed to establish a sufficient basis for vacation of the award and, accordingly, deny the employee=s petition.
The employee, Bengt V. Thulin, injured his left knee on March 16, 1999, while working for Anderson Log Homes, the employer, insured by Heritage Mutual Insurance Company. The employer and insurer admitted liability for the employee=s personal injury and paid workers= compensation benefits to the employee.
On August 17, 1999, the employee, then represented by attorney James B. Peterson, filed a Claim Petition asserting a weekly wage substantially greater than that claimed by the employer and insurer, alleging an underpayment of temporary total disability benefits, and seeking permanent partial disability benefits, payment of medical transportation expenses, and retraining. The employer and insurer filed an Answer on August 20, 1999, denying liability for additional benefits. On September 1, 1999, the employee filed a Medical Request seeking approval for additional physical therapy to his left knee.
On December 1, 1999, the employer and insurer filed a Petition to Discontinue contending the employee=s left knee injury had healed with no permanent partial disability or need for restrictions, the employee had reached maximum medical improvement and had no need for further medical care, and the employee had failed to conduct a diligent job search. The employer and insurer also filed a Request for Formal Hearing, asserting additional physical therapy was neither reasonable or necessary.
On December 13, 1999 the case was certified to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) in Duluth, Minnesota. By letter dated December 15, 1999, Mr. Peterson advised OAH he was withdrawing as the employee=s attorney. A Notice of Hearing was served on January 18, 2000, assigning the case to Compensation Judge Bonovetz and scheduling an expedited hearing on the Petition to Discontinue on March 15, 2000.
By letter dated January 25, 2000, the employee requested that Aall the facts in [his] case@ be heard on March 15, 2000. The employee asserted additional claims for medical expenses, including prescriptions, doctor=s bills, and medical mileage, and alleged various criminal acts on the part of the claims agent, the employer and the employer and insurer=s attorney. In response, the compensation judge issued an order on February 1, 2000, stating the employee=s letter would be treated as an Amended Claim Petition, and consolidating all extant workers= compensation claims and issues in the case for hearing on March 15. The judge further stated that OAH had no jurisdiction over criminal claims and could not, and would not, address those issues at the hearing.
A Pretrial Conference was held by telephone on February 28, 2000. The employee and Richard Schmidt, the attorney for the employer and insurer, participated in the conference. The issues to be litigated at the March 15, 2000 hearing were clarified and included: the employee=s average weekly wage on the date of injury; whether weekly benefits had been underpaid; whether claimed medical treatment and expenses were reasonable, necessary and causally related; whether the employee was in need of further medical care; whether the employee continued to be temporarily totally disabled; whether the employee had reached MMI; whether the employee had continuing restrictions as a result of the injury; and whether the employee had failed to make a diligent search for employment.
On the morning of the hearing, Judge Jerome Arnold mediated a settlement between the pro se employee and Mr. Schmidt. The proposed settlement agreement was then put on the record in a proceeding before Judge Bonovetz. The parties agreed that Mr. Schmidt would draft a written Stipulation for Settlement to be executed by the parties. On April 4, 2000, a Stipulation for Settlement was submitted to the court in which the employee agreed to accept a lump sum payment of $14,900.00 in full, final and complete settlement of all claims arising out of the March 16, 1999 left knee injury, except claims for future medical expenses. An Award on Stipulation, approving the settlement agreement, was served and filed on April 5, 2000.
The employee filed a Petition to Vacate the Award on Stipulation on July 13, 2000, on the grounds of newly discovered evidence, fraud, and/or a substantial change in medical condition. In a decision, served and filed November 1, 2000, this court denied the employee=s petition to vacate and set aside the award. The employee then filed AAdditional Pleadings@ on December 4, 2000, asserting the compensation judge issued the April 5, 2000 Award on Stipulation in violation of Minn. Stat. 176.021, subd. 4, and was, accordingly, void. The employee again demanded that the Stipulation for Settlement be vacated, and also requested retraining benefits.
The employee asserts that the compensation judge issued the award on stipulation in violation of Minn. Stat. ' 176.021, subd. 4, which provides:
Void agreements. Any agreement by any employe or dependent to take as compensation an amount less than that prescribed by this chapter is void.
The employee argues that the $14,900.00 paid to him under the Stipulation is less than the amount he would have been entitled to under Minn. Stat. ' 176.101, the workers= compensation benefits schedule, and the stipulation is, therefore, an invalid agreement for payment of compensation in an amount less Athan [that] prescribed by law.@ (Additional Pleadings dated 12/1/00.)
If a judgment is void, it must be set aside. A void judgment is one where the court lacks jurisdiction over the subject matter or over the parties. See Sondrol v. Del Hayes & Sons, Inc., 47 W.C.D. 659, 665 (W.C.C.A. 1992). However, the Aamount . . . prescribed@ does not refer solely to the amounts set forth in the benefits schedule, but encompasses all provisions in chapter 176. The Workers= Compensation Act, since first enacted in Minnesota, has specifically permitted the compromise and settlement of disputed claims. Compensation settlements, as authorized by the act, currently Minn. Stat. ' 176.521, subd. 1, are compatible with the public welfare and Ashould be favored and not viewed with a jaundiced eye.@ Senske v. Fairmont & Waseca Canning Co., 232 Minn. 350, 45 N.W.2d 640, 648, 16 W.C.D. 242, 251 (1951). Where there is a bona fide uncertainty or doubt as to the extent or duration of the employee=s work-related disability or entitlement to benefits, a lump sum settlement may be fair and reasonable, even though the amount may be less than would otherwise be permitted or required under the benefits schedule. Senske, id.
In this case, there was clearly a bona fide dispute between the parties regarding the extent of the employee=s disability and his entitlement to workers= compensation benefits. The settlement was mediated with the assistance of Judge Arnold, and was read into the record before Judge Bonovetz. After Mr. Schmidt described the terms of the parties= compromise agreement on the record, the employee agreed that the settlement, as stated by Mr. Schmidt, was consistent with his understanding of what he had agreed to. (Transcript of March 15, 2000 hearing, pp. 4-5.) Mr. Schmidt drafted a proposed written stipulation and provided a copy to the employee. The employee made comments and requested several changes before the stipulation was executed and submitted to the court. (Letter of March 30, 2000 and attachments.) As part of the Stipulation for Settlement, the employee agreed he was aware of his right to retain an attorney, but wished to enter into the Stipulation for Settlement without the advice of counsel; that he was entering into the stipulation of his own free will and without any pressure or duress from the employer and insurer; and that he had negotiated the settlement with the employer and insurer and believed it was a fair and reasonable settlement. (Stipulation for Settlement, April 4, 2000.) Compensation Judge Bonovetz properly reviewed the terms of the Stipulation for Settlement, and concluded the stipulation was fair, reasonable and in conformity with the act. The Stipulation for Settlement was properly entered into and approved in accordance with the provisions of the Workers= Compensation Act. There is no basis for vacation of the April 5, 2000 Award on Stipulation for failure to comply with the act.
The employee also seeks retraining benefits, asserting this issue had never been raised and was not mentioned in the settlement. We disagree. A request for retraining was included in the Claim Petition filed on behalf of the employee on August 17, 1999. Moreover, the Stipulation for Settlement specifically settles and closes out any and all claims for retraining arising out of the employee=s March 16, 1999 personal injury. Since we have denied the employee=s petition to vacate the award on stipulation, any claim for retraining is foreclosed by the terms of the settlement agreement.
 See e.g., Integrity Mut. Casualty Co. of Chicago, Ill. v. Nelson, 149 Minn. 337, 183 N.W. 837, 1 W.C.D. 65 (1921)(the Workers= Compensation Act of 1913 provides the parties may settle all controversies arising under the act from injuries to employees, subject to the approval of the court, and judgment may be entered in accordance with the terms of their agreement.)
 Minn. Stat. ' 176.521, subd. 1, provides that A[a]n agreement between an employee . . . and the employer or insurer to settle any claim . . . for compensation under this chapter is valid where it has been executed in writing and signed by the parties and intervenors in the matter, and, where one or more of the parties is not represented by an attorney, the commissioner or a compensation judge has approved the settlement and made an award thereon.@
 See also, e.g., Warwa v. Minneapolis St. Ry. Co., 192 Minn. 77, 255 N.W. 250, 8 W.C.D. 164 (1934)(we can find nothing in the Workmen=s Compensation Act which prohibits or makes it unlawful for parties to a compensation proceeding from settling their claims between themselves); Hummel v. Husky Hydraulics, 36 W.C.D. 417 (W.C.C.A. 1984)(cases where primary liability has been admitted or established can be settled under proper conditions. The settlement statute, Minn. Stat. ' 176.521, does not place any limitation on the types of claims that may be settled.)