ROBERT L. MOLSTAD, Employee, v. CITY OF ST. LOUIS PARK, SELF-INSURED/SEDGWICK CLAIMS MANAGEMENT SERVS., Employer/Appellant, and CERVICAL SPINE SPECIALISTS and MEDICA/HEALTHCARE RECOVERIES, INC., Intervenors.
WORKERS= COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
MAY 6, 2003
JURISDICTION - SUBJECT MATTER. Under the particular circumstances of this case, where no award on stipulation had been issued by the time the compensation judge issued his decision, the judge had jurisdiction to decide the allegedly settled claim for outstanding medical expenses.
Determined by Johnson, C.J., Pederson, J., and Stofferahn, J.
Compensation Judge: James R. Otto.
THOMAS L. JOHNSON, Judge
The self-insured employer appeals the compensation judge=s decision, contending the judge lacked jurisdiction to issue a findings and order. We affirm.
Robert L. Molstad, the employee, sustained a personal injury on October 11, 2000, while in the employ of the City of St. Louis Park, the employer, then self-insured with claims administered by Sedgwick Claims Management Services. The employer admitted liability for the employee=s personal injury and paid wage loss and medical benefits and provided vocational rehabilitation services.
In April 2002, the employee filed a Medical Request seeking to change his treating physician. The request was later amended to include a request for payment of medical expenses from various providers. The employer thereafter filed a Petition to Discontinue Benefits which was consolidated with the employee=s medical request and was heard by Compensation Judge James R. Otto on August 29, 2002. At the outset of the hearing, the compensation judge outlined the issues. The employee sought payment of medical expenses for treatment of his neck and low back caused by the October 2000 injury. The employer admitted the employee injured his lumbar spine on October 11, 2000, but claimed the injury was temporary, and denied the employee injured his cervical spine on that date. The employer further sought to discontinue temporary total disability benefits, contending the employee had reached maximum medical improvement. The judge then received exhibits from the parties, and the employee testified and was cross-examined by counsel for the employer.
At some point, the compensation judge apparently continued the hearing. Before the hearing was reconvened, the employer withdrew its petition to discontinue benefits. At some point thereafter, the compensation judge apparently inquired of the attorneys as to the remaining issues to be resolved. By letter dated October 24, 2002, Michael J. Patera, counsel for the employer, stated the only issue remaining was medical expenses. Mr. Patera further stated:
I have not been provided a list of the medical benefits ultimately claimed at the Hearing, but my notes reflect a value claimed on behalf of CDI and Southdale Anesthesiologists and no balance claimed due by Fairview Southdale Hospital, Southdale Family Physicians of [sic] the Institute for Low Back and Neck. No claim for Dr. Brutlag=s bills have been joined to this proceeding. Intervention Notices were sent to all providers and the only medical intervenors are Medica by HRI and Cervical Spine Specialists. My client has paid the bill of Cervical Spine Specialists. The claim of Medica by HRI has been settled and a stipulation is being prepared. The only bills remaining may be CDI and Southdale Anesthesiologists, although Medica appears to have satisfied both, at least in part.
(App. Br., Ex. B.) By letter to Judge Otto dated October 28, 2002, Mr Patera stated:
Per your request, the issues I understand to remain subject to your decision will be primary liability of the neck condition and non-intervenor medical bills that may have been submitted at the time of the original Hearing by Mr. Manka. As I do not have copies of the same, I cannot be more specific than as noted in my correspondence of October 24, 2002.
(Resp. Br., Ex. 3.)
By letter dated October 29, 2002, Gary J. Manka, the attorney for the employee, stated the issues were whether his client sustained a cervical injury as a result of his work-related injury of October 11, 2000, the compensability of the medical bills and possible payments to medical providers pursuant to the Spaeth decision. (App. Br., Ex. C.)
In a Findings and Order filed November 6, 2002, the compensation judge stated the record in the case closed on October 24, 2002, with both attorneys agreeing to the closure of the record and agreeing that a decision would be based on the evidence submitted at the August 29, 2002 hearing. The judge found the employee=s testimony was highly credible, found the employee=s personal injury included a permanent aggravation of degenerative disc disease at C5-6 and L5-S1 and ordered the self-insured employer to pay all medical expenses for the treatment of the employee=s cervical and lumbar spine and his left arm problem. The employer and insurer appeal.
The employer asserts the compensation judge lacked subject matter jurisdiction to issue findings and order because there was no justiciable claim or controversy to be adjudicated. The employer contends that on November 6, 2002, the date the judge issued his Findings and Order, the underlying disputes between the parties had been settled or withdrawn. Accordingly, the appellant asks this court to vacate the Findings and Order. We decline to do so.
The existence of a justiciable controversy is essential to a court=s jurisdiction. A justiciable controversy exists when there is a genuine conflict in the tangible interests of the opposing litigants. Izaak Walton League of Am. Endowment, Inc. v. State, Dep=t of Natural Resources, 312 Minn. 587, 252 N.W.2d 852 (1977). The judicial function does not comprehend the giving of advisory opinions and, therefore, justiciability is necessary in all adjudications. Seiz v. Citizens Pure Ice Co., 27 Minn. 277, 290 N.W. 802 (1940). A related doctrine is mootness which requires that the requisite personal interest or controversy that must exist at the commencement of the litigation must continue throughout its existence. Chaney v. Minneapolis Community Dev. Agency, 641 N.W.2d 328 (Minn. App. 2002). An issue is not moot if a party can be afforded relief should the issues be resolved in that party=s favor. In re Rapp, 621 N.W.2d 781 (Minn. App. 2001). The existence of jurisdiction is a question of law which is subject to de novo review. Krovchuk v. Koch Oil Refinery, 48 W.C.D. 607 (W.C.C.A. 1993).
In his letter dated October 24, 2002, Mr. Patera advised the compensation judge the claim of Medica/HRI had been settled and a stipulation was being prepared. However, no settlement agreement is valid and effective until it is approved and an award based thereon is issued. Saathoff v. Alex Rubbish Serv., 35 W.C.D. 670 (W.C.C.A. 1982); Minn. Stat. ' 176.521(1). The Stipulation for Settlement was signed by Medica on November 19, 2002, and the Award on Stipulation was filed on November 27, 2002. On November 6, 2002, the date of the Findings and Order, the issue of the outstanding medical bills was unresolved because no award had yet been issued. Thus, there then was a justiciable controversy which was not moot. The compensation judge, therefore, had jurisdiction to issue a findings and order to resolve the outstanding issue.
The employer and insurer further appeal the compensation judge=s credibility finding contending it was unsupported by substantial evidence. We conclude we need not reach this issue. A finding of credibility has no res judicata effect. The only benefits in dispute at the hearing were the medical expenses. The self-insured employer was ordered to pay the medical bills at issue and has not appealed that order. Accordingly, the issue of the employee=s credibility in this proceeding is moot.
 The employee underwent an anterior discectomy fusion at C5-6 on October 5, 2001. A number of the medical expenses in issue related to treatment for the claimed cervical spine injury.
 The transcript of the hearing is incomplete, stops in mid sentence and contains no explanation as to why the hearing was continued.
 See letter to Judge Otto dated October 16, 2002. (App. Ex. A, attached to appellant=s brief.)
 See Spaeth v. Cold Spring Granite Co., 56 W.C.D. 136, 161 (Minn. 1997) (order opinion).