CHRISTOPHER WINTER, deceased employee, by KAREN WINTER OTT v. D.J. KRANZ and CNA COMMERCIAL INS., Employer-Insurer/Appellants.
WORKERS= COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
MARCH 31, 2004
DEPENDENCY BENEFITS - REMARRIAGE OF SPOUSE; STATUTES CONSTRUED - MINN. STAT. '176.111, SUBDS. 8, 9a, and 16. The purpose of Minn. Stat. ' 176.111 is to provide wage replacement benefits to a surviving spouse and dependent children. We cannot conclude the phrase "continue to be eligible to receive" requires that benefits to the surviving spouse be suspended upon remarriage. Rather, the dependency statute, as amended effective January 1, 1984, continues to provide for the continuation of benefits to a surviving spouse upon remarriage.
Compensation Judge: Janice M. Culnane
Attorneys: Mark A. Kleinschmidt and Ted A. Johnson, Cousineau, McGuire & Anderson, Minneapolis, MN, for Appellants. Scott H. Soderberg, Soderberg & Vail, Minneapolis, MN, for Respondent.
THOMAS L. JOHNSON, Judge
The employer and insurer appeal the compensation judge=s denial of their petition to discontinue dependency benefits to the surviving spouse of the deceased employee. We affirm.
The facts in this case are undisputed. Christopher Winter, the employee, suffered a fatal work-related accident on November 24, 1997. The employee then earned a weekly wage of $813.20. On November 24, 1997, the employee was married to Karen Winter and they had two children, Joseph, born May 23, 1994, and Justin, born October 10, 1996. Joseph and Justin each receive a Social Security survivor=s benefit of $864.00 per month. On January 24, 2001, Karen Winter married Kevin Ott.
The employer and insurer filed a petition to discontinue benefits contending benefits to Karen Winter Ott should be suspended during her remarriage. The case was heard by a compensation judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings. In a Findings and Order filed September 5, 2003, the compensation judge found no reasonable grounds existed to suspend or discontinue payment of workers= compensation benefits to Ms. Winter Ott. The employer and insurer appeal.
Prior to her remarriage, Ms. Winter Ott was entitled to, and received, dependency benefits under Minn. Stat. ' 176.111, subd. 8, which provides:
Spouse, two dependent children. If the deceased employee leaves a surviving spouse and two dependent children, there shall be paid to the surviving spouse for the benefit of the spouse and children 66-2/3 percent of the daily wage at the time of the injury of the deceased until the last dependent child is no longer dependent. At that time the dependent surviving spouse shall be paid weekly benefits at a rate which is 25 percent less than the last weekly workers' compensation benefit payment, as defined in subdivision 8a, while the surviving child was a dependent, for a period of ten years, adjusted according to section 176.645.
Upon her remarriage, Ms. Winter Ott's entitlement to dependency benefits is governed by Minn. Stat. ' 176.111, subds. 9a and 16. Minn. Stat. ' 176.111, subd. 16, states:
Cessation of compensation. Except as provided in this chapter, compensation ceases upon the death or marriage of any dependent.
Finally, Minn. Stat. ' 176.111, subd. 9a, states:
Remarriage of spouse. A surviving spouse who remarries and is receiving benefits under subdivision 6, 7, or 8 shall continue to be eligible to receive weekly benefits for the remaining period that the spouse is entitled to receive benefits pursuant to this section.
These subdivisions, the appellants argue, read together and in light of all other relevant sections, together with the purposes and public policy considerations of the workers' compensation statute, require a suspension of the payment of dependency benefits to Ms. Winter Ott during the period of her remarriage. The appellants contend Ms. Winter Ott remains eligible to receive the remaining weekly benefits if her marriage ends. In support of this assertion, the appellants offer several arguments.
Minn. Stat. § 176.111, subd. 9a, provides that a surviving spouse who remarries and is receiving benefits "shall continue to be eligible to receive weekly benefits." The compensation judge concluded this phrase was unambiguous and required the continued payment of dependency benefits. The appellants argue this decision is legally erroneous. They note there is no definition of the term "eligible" or the phrase "eligible to receive" within the workers' compensation statute. Whenever possible, no "word, phrase, or sentence of a statute should be deemed superfluous, or insignificant." Minn. Stat. § 645.17(2) (2002). The appellants argue the compensation judge interpreted the phrase "shall continue to be eligible to receive" as meaning "shall continue to receive" which makes the word "eligible" superfluous. This conclusion, the appellants argue, is contrary to Minn. Stat. § 645.17(2) (2002).
The appellants also argue that under the canons of statutory construction, a court should interpret the language in one portion of a statute in the context of and together with the other related provisions of the statute. See, e.g., Kachman v. Blosberg, 251 Minn. 224, 87 N.W.2d 687 (1958). Minn. Stat. § 176.111, subds. 6, 7 and 8 each use the phrase "there shall be paid to." Since subdivision 9a uses the phrase "shall continue to be eligible," the appellants contend the legislature must have intended the two phrases be construed differently. Had the legislature intended that benefits continue after remarriage, they argue, it would have said the spouse would continue to receive benefits. The proper construction of the phrase, the appellants contend, requires dependency benefits to Ms. Winter Ott be suspended during the period of her remarriage.
Finally, the appellants assert the contemporaneous record of the public input to the legislature regarding the then proposed amendments to the workers' compensation statutes supports a conclusion that the legislative intent of the 1983 amendments was to suspend dependency benefits to a remarried spouse during the marriage. Specifically, the appellants point to two reports dealing with dependency benefits which they state were provided to the legislature for its consideration in addressing the potential amendments to the statute. The University of Minnesota report states that in a majority of states, dependency benefits ended upon remarriage of the spouse. The Minnesota Insurance Division report specifically recommended that dependency benefits be discontinued if the surviving spouse remarried. In 1983, the legislature enacted Minn. Stat. § 176.001, which provided that it was the "specific" intent of the legislature that workers' compensation cases shall be decided on their merits and that the common law rule of "liberal construction" based on the supposed "remedial" basis of workers' compensation legislation shall not apply. Based on this background, the appellant contends the legislature could not have intended the result reached by the compensation judge.
"The object of all interpretation and construction of laws is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature." Minn. Stat. § 645.16. Where the language of a statute is plain and unambiguous, there is no room for statutory construction. A.C.E. Equipment Co. v. Erickson, 277 Minn. 457, 152 N.W.2d 739 (1967). A statute is ambiguous if it is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation. Phelps v. Commonwealth Land Title Ins. Co., 537 N.W.2d 271 (Minn. 1995). If a statute is ambiguous, the legislature's intent may be determined by examining the need for the law, the circumstances of its enactment, the purpose of the statute, prior law, the consequences of interpretation, the legislative history and administrative interpretations of the law. County of Ramsey v. Wilson, 526 N.W.2d 384 (Minn. Ct. App. 1995).
The appellants acknowledge that there remains no legislative record of the debates, floor sessions or committee meetings from which to determine the contemporaneous legislative history of the amended statute. Thus, while the reports cited by the appellants may have been submitted to the legislature, there is no evidence of what impact, if any, they had on the legislative process. Neither can we conclude from the repeal of the common law rule of liberal construction any specific legislative intent to discontinue spousal dependency benefits after remarriage.
Since its enactment in 1913, the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act has always provided for dependency benefits to a surviving spouse and dependent children. That act also contained the precursor of the present subdivision 16 which provided that dependency benefits shall cease to be paid to any dependent who marries, unless otherwise provided in the act. Minn. Stat. § 8208 (14) (1913 Session Laws). The statute, however, then went on to specifically delineate the benefits paid to a surviving spouse with no children who remarried, or a surviving spouse with dependent children who remarried. Over the years, the dependency statute was amended several times. Prior to its amendment in 1983, Minn. Stat. § 176.111 provided that a spouse with two dependent children who remarried continued to receive benefits until the youngest dependent child was no longer dependent. At that time, the dependent surviving spouse was paid a lump sum settlement equal to two full years of weekly benefits, less the portion allocated to the dependent children under subdivision 10. Effective January 1, 1984, Minn. Stat. § 176.111 was again amended. Subdivisions 6, 7 and 8 were rewritten eliminating any reference to a payment of a lump sum or weekly benefits upon the remarriage of the surviving spouse. Minn. Stat. § 176.111, subd. 9a, was added to the statute to address the effect of remarriage.
The purpose of Minn. Stat. § 176.111 is to provide wage replacement benefits to a surviving spouse and dependent children. Since its enactment in 1913, the Workers' Compensation Act has provided for payment of some amount of benefits to a surviving spouse who remarries. Thus, the interpretation of Minn. Stat. § 176.111, subd. 9a, urged by the appellant would be a significant and dramatic departure from the statutory scheme that existed for seventy years prior to 1984. We cannot conclude that the intent of the phrase "continue to be eligible to receive" requires that benefits to Ms. Winter Ott be suspended upon her remarriage. Had the legislature intended this result, they could have very simply and clearly said so. The decision of the compensation judge is, therefore, affirmed.
 These reports are Minnesota Insurance Division, Workers' Compensation in Minnesota: An Analysis with Recommendations (1982); University of Minnesota Industrial Relations Center, Minnesota Workers' Compensation Benefits and Costs: An Objective Analysis (1983).
 Subject, however, to coordination with governmental survivor benefits contained at Minn. Stat. ' 176.111, subd. 21.