RONALD G. KUBAT, Employee, v. ST. LOUIS COUNTY, SELF-INSURED, Employer/Appellant, and OWATONNA HOSP., Intervenor, and SPECIAL COMPENSATION FUND.
WORKERS= COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
SEPTEMBER 5, 2003
PRACTICE & PROCEDURE. The compensation judge erred in issuing amended findings reflecting the parties= purported stipulation as to permanent total disability, where the employer objected to the request for amended findings and where there was no evidence in the record definitively establishing that the parties had in fact agreed to permanent total disability.
Reversed and remanded.
Determined by Wilson, J., Johnson, C.J., and Pederson, J.
Compensation Judge: Gary P. Mesna.
DEBRA A. WILSON, Judge
St. Louis County, self-insured, appeals from the judge=s amended decision awarding permanent total disability benefits, arguing that the judge lacked authority to amend his decision as to the employee=s permanent total disability status in the absence of agreement by both parties. We reverse and remand the matter to the compensation judge for rehearing in accordance with this decision.
On March 25, 1985, the employee sustained work-related injuries to his left leg, ribs, right shoulder, and back while employed by St. Louis County [the County]. The County, which was self-insured for workers= compensation purposes, accepted liability for the employee=s injuries and paid various benefits, including wage loss benefits, medical expenses, and permanent partial disability benefits.
On October 8, 1996, the employee sustained a work-related brain injury, apparently in a fall from a truck, while employed by B. H. Heselton. A few years later, in February of 2000, the employee and B. H. Heselton entered into a stipulation for settlement, wherein those parties agreed, in part, that the employee had been permanently and totally disabled as a result of his October 8, 1996, work injury since October 9, 1996, and that the wage loss benefits paid to the employee since that date were to be characterized as permanent total disability benefits. The employee agreed to accept $79,000, less attorney fees, in full, final, and complete settlement of all claims relating to the 1996 injury, except for medical expense claims. The stipulation further provided that the employee was reserving his right to claim benefits from the County related to the 1985 injury, and B. H. Heselton agreed to waive any claim for contribution or reimbursement from the County.
The employee subsequently filed a claim petition alleging entitlement to permanent total disability benefits from the County, as a result of the 1985 injury. A hearing on the employee=s claim petition was held before Compensation Judge Gary Mesna on January 16, 2003. At that time, the employee was claiming entitlement to permanent total disability benefits from the County from and after January 1, 2000. Issues discussed at the beginning of the hearing included whether the employee=s permanent total disability claim was barred by the employee=s prior settlement with B. H. Heselton, which of the employee=s two work injuries was the Acontrolling event@ for purposes of the employee=s entitlement to supplementary benefits, and apportionment of liability between the two injuries. Counsel for the County stated, after the preliminary discussion of the issues, that she wished to Aclarify@ that it was the employer=s position that Athe 1996 injury was the substantial contributing factor to [the employee=s] disability status,@ that it was the 1996 injury that was Acausing [the employee] to seek these benefits,@ and that the 1985 injury was Anot a substantial contributing cause.@ Evidence submitted at this hearing included medical records relating to the 1985 and 1996 work injuries, the employee=s testimony as to his symptoms, employment, and job search efforts after each injury, and reports from Dr. Nolan Segal, the County=s independent medical examiner.
The compensation judge issued a decision on February 6, 2003, denying the employee=s claim for benefits on grounds that the employee had Anot met his burden of proving that he is permanently and totally disabled.@ In light of his denial of the employee=s claim, the judge did not make findings on the remaining issues raised by the parties.
In a letter to the compensation judge dated February 11, 2003, the employee=s attorney wrote in part as follows:
I have received and reviewed your Findings and Order served and filed on February 6, 2003 in the above-entitled matter. I have also been in contact with Jessica Sterle, the attorney for St. Louis County. I write at this time to clarify the findings and address an issue that stems from them.
* * *
Please note the posture of this case coming to trial. At the pretrial conference all parties agreed and stipulated that Mr. Kubat was permanently and totally disabled. The dispute centered on what injury or injuries caused his permanent total disability. Therefore, the evidence at hearing focused on the accident of March 25, 1985 and its contribution to his limitations. Had it not been stipulated that Mr. Kubat was permanently and totally disabled at the pre-trial conference, the Employee certainly would have tried this case differently and presented vocational evidence as well as more evidence related to the head injury of 1996. However, because that was not an issue, the Employee focused his evidence on the medical issues and limitations stemming from the March 25, 1985 injury to better allow the Court to determine its causal relation to his permanent total disability and assist the Court in apportioning responsibility between the 1985 and 1996 injuries.
Because of this misunderstanding over the issues at trial, the Employee moves the Court to reconsider the evidence presented or moves the Court to grant a new trial so that the Employee has a full opportunity to address the issues the Court wishes to consider.
Please accept the above as a motion for a new trial or motion for reconsideration.
In response, by letter dated February 19, 2003, the compensation judge replied,
Thank you for your letter of February 11, 2003, in which you notify me that all parties had agreed and stipulated, prior to hearing, that the employee was permanently and totally disabled. I could find no such stipulation in the file. As I am sure you are aware, I did not conduct the pretrial in this matter. At the start of the hearing, however, I went over the claims and issues to be determined. Because I did not recall, and my notes did not reflect, that there had been a stipulation that the employee was permanently totally disabled, I listened to the tape recording of the hearing and found no mention of such a stipulation.
In any event, in the interest of justice, I believe my Findings and Order should be modified to reflect the agreement of the parties that the employee is permanently totally disabled and to address the remaining issues. I believe I have jurisdiction over this matter only until the matter is appealed or the appeal period expires. Consequently, I will do my best to issue an amended Findings and Order before March 10, 2003, the date that the appeal period expires.
In a letter dated February 21, 2003, two days after the date of the compensation judge=s letter, counsel for the County wrote to the judge as follows:
I am writing to respond to attorney Ross Leuning=s February 11, 2003, letter regarding the Findings and Order in this case. I must first respectfully object to attorney Ross Leuning=s request that the court accept his letter as a motion for a new trial or motion for reconsideration. The proper course, if he should wish to do so, is to formally appeal this case per the workers= compensation statutes.
According to my notes, employee stated at the pretrial that he was seeking permanent total disability benefits in relation to the March 25, 1985 injury. The Special Compensation Fund and St. Louis County countered with the defense that the 1996 injury was the substantial contributing cause of employee=s permanent total status. St. Louis County introduced as an exhibit the stipulation reached between B.H. Heselton and employee in relation to the 1996 injury. In it, the parties agree that employee is permanently totally disabled because of the head injury.
St. Louis County respectfully requests that the court find that attorney Leuning=s request for a motion for a new trial or motion for reconsideration be denied and that the appropriate measure is a formal appeal to the Minnesota Workers= Compensation Court of Appeals.
Despite the County=s objection, the compensation judge issued an amended findings and order on February 26, 2003. In that decision, the judge indicated again that it was necessary to amend his prior findings and order to Areflect the stipulation@ of the parties as to permanent total disability and to address issues that were not previously addressed due to his denial of the employee=s permanent total disability claim. The judge went on to determine that the employee=s claim against the County was not barred by the prior settlement with B. H. Heselton, that the 1996 injury was the controlling event for purposes of the employee=s entitlement to supplementary benefits, and that the employee=s 1985 injury was responsible for 75% of the employee=s permanent total disability from January 1, 2000, through the date of hearing and continuing. The County was therefore ordered to pay permanent total disability benefits, in accordance with its apportioned share of liability. The County appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A[A] decision which rests upon the application of a statute or rule to essentially undisputed facts generally involves a question of law which [the Workers= Compensation Court of Appeals] may consider de novo.@ Krovchuk v. Koch Oil Refinery, 48 W.C.D. 607, 608 (W.C.C.A. 1993).
The County argues that the compensation judge erred as a matter of law in issuing amended findings and order to reflect the purported Aagreement@ of the parties as to the employee=s permanent total disability status. We agree.
Minn. R. 1415.3100 provides as follows:
When a compensation judge has issued the findings, conclusions, and decision, the judge=s jurisdiction over the case ends, except for taxation of disbursements or awarding of attorney=s fees, unless the case is referred to the compensation judge by the court of appeals and the chief administrative law judge for supplemental findings, taking of additional testimony, rehearing, or other action. Compensation judges may correct clerical or mathematical errors in decisions any time before appeal.
The amended findings issued here simply cannot be construed as a correction of any clerical error. The County=s post-hearing letter to the compensation judge is ambiguous, at best, no other evidence of record definitively establishes that the parties had agreed that the employee was permanently and totally disabled, and the County expressly objected to the employee=s request for amended findings. Under the circumstances, the compensation judge committed an error of law in issuing the disputed amended findings.
Given that the amended findings were improperly issued, the question becomes one of determining the appropriate remedy. The County argued, particularly at oral argument, that the compensation judge=s original findings and order, denying the employee=s claim, should be reinstated. This argument is not entirely without merit. Parties have the responsibility to make sure that stipulations are made a part of the record. See Minn. R. 1415.2900, subp. 9(2) (stipulations entered into by the parties before hearing must be made part of the record). However, the record as a whole in this case, including statements by the parties at hearing, the post-hearing correspondence to the compensation judge, and even some of the evidence submitted, suggests that the parties may, in fact, have been proceeding as if permanent total disability were not at issue. At the very least, the record is unclear as to precisely what issues the parties intended to litigate, if in fact there was any meeting of the minds on that point. Under these circumstances, the most appropriate course is to remand the matter for a new hearing on the issue of permanent total disability. If the judge finds in the employee=s favor on this issue, he should also make new findings as to whether the 1985 injury is a substantial contributing cause of the employee=s permanent total disability and whether equitable apportionment is appropriate.
 The County also appealed from the judge=s decision that the employee=s permanent total disability benefit claim was not barred by a previous settlement with a different employer. However, the County withdrew its appeal as to this issue at oral argument. As such, we need not address it.
 The employee=s job for the County involved cutting trees. The injury occurred when a tree fell on the employee, pinning him to the ground.
 See Busch v. Advanced Maint., 659 N.W.2d 772, 63 W.C.D. 277 (Minn. 2003).
 All post-hearing correspondence to and from the compensation judge quoted here is part of the record on appeal by virtue of this court=s order granting the employee=s unopposed motion to supplement the hearing record.
 It is noteworthy in this regard that neither party submitted any vocational reports or testimony concerning the employee=s ability to work. The employee had been receiving social security disability benefits for several years by the hearing date.
 Because causation and apportionment were expressly at issue in the initial hearing, the compensation judge may, in his discretion, either make his decision on these issues based on the existing record, or allow the parties to submit additional evidence. On the issue of whether the employee is in fact permanently and totally disabled, the parties may submit whatever evidence is appropriate to allow the judge to make a determination.