TROELS BOTLER, Employee/Appellant, v. WAGNER GREENHOUSES and ONE BEACON INS. CO., Employer-Insurer.
WORKERS= COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
DECEMBER 17, 2007
JURISDICTION - SUBJECT MATTER; GUARDIAN OR CONSERVATOR; STATUTES CONSTRUED - MINN. STAT. ' 176.092. Where the issue necessarily required construction of provisions of the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act, Minn. Stat. '' 524.5-101 to 524.5-502, the compensation judge and the WCCA lacked subject matter jurisdiction to determine whether or not the employer and insurer were liable for the costs and fees of a guardian/conservator appointed to represent the interests of an incapacitated work-injured employee under Minn. Stat. ' 176.092.
Determined by: Pederson, J., Rykken, J., and Johnson C. J.
Compensation Judge: Jennifer Patterson
Attorneys: Donald W. Kohler, Attorney at Law, White Bear Lake, MN, for the Appellant. James S. Pikala and Christine L. Tuft, Arthur, Chapman, Kettering, Smetak & Pikala, Minneapolis, MN, for the Respondents.
WILLIAM R. PEDERSON, Judge
The employee appeals from the compensation judge's denial of the employee=s request that the employer and insurer pay the ongoing costs of his guardianship/conservatorship pursuant to Minnesota Statutes section 176.092. We vacate the judge=s findings and order and dismiss the employee=s appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
On January 4, 2002, Troels Botler [the employee] sustained severe work-related injuries, including a traumatic brain injury, when he fell from the roof of a greenhouse onto a concrete floor in the course of his employment with Wagner Greenhouses. The employee=s injury rendered the employee totally disabled, and Wagner Greenhouses [the employer] and its insurer acknowledged liability and commenced payment of benefits. The employee=s injuries required his case to be referred to district court for appointment of a legal guardian and conservator pursuant to Minnesota Statutes section 176.092, and on April 15, 2002, the employee=s wife was appointed by the Hennepin County District Court, Probate/Mental Health Division [the district court] to act in that capacity. The following year, the employee filed a claim petition, seeking various additional workers= compensation benefits as well as payment of attorney fees and costs related to his guardianship/conservatorship and payment of related court-required annual accounting expenses. The employer and insurer denied the employee=s requests for the annual fees and costs related to the guardianship/conservatorship, on grounds that Minnesota Statutes section 524.5-501 requires an employer and insurer to pay only for the costs of the appointment of a guardian, not subsequent annual fees and costs.
On a date not of record, the employee and his wife were divorced, and in September of 2006 Patricia Bangsund, an employee of corporate fiduciary Lutheran Social Services [LSS], began to serve as the employee=s guardian/conservator. On September 20, 2006, the district court formally appointed LSS to act as the employee=s guardian/conservator, and Letters of Successor Guardianship and Conservatorship were issued on October 3, 2006, pursuant to the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act. See Minn. Stat. '' 524.5-101 to 524.5-502.
Pursuant to LSS=s legal guardianship responsibilities, Ms. Bangsund=s duties have included such activities as visiting the employee monthly, working with nursing home personnel, attending quarterly care conferences to review the employee=s treatment plan, consenting to treatment, conferring with the employee=s doctors and other health care providers, making decisions on where the employee lives, and being responsible for the employee=s personal items. In her capacity as conservator of the employee=s assets, Ms. Bangsund=s duties have also included such activities as gathering and managing the employee=s assets, contacting the Social Security office to become the payee of Social Security disability benefits, dealing with attorneys on issues of marital dissolution asset splitting, mailing medical bills to the insurer for payment, and paying the employee=s other bills out of the employee=s assets. LSS charges $60.00 an hour for the guardianship/conservatorship services that it provides for the employee.
The matter came on for hearing before a compensation judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings on March 7, 2007. Issues at hearing were (1) whether Minnesota Statutes section 176.092 requires a workers= compensation insurer to pay for only the initial appointment of a guardian or conservator or for the appointment of successor guardians and conservators as well and (2), whether Minnesota workers= compensation law requires the workers= compensation insurer to pay (a) reasonable compensation to the individual or corporate fiduciary who is providing the guardianship or conservatorship services and (b) the costs of the required annual accounting to the district court.
By Findings and Order filed May 23, 2007, the compensation judge concluded that Minnesota law requires an insurer or self-insured employer to pay the court costs and reasonable attorney fees associated with the appointment of a guardian or conservator and also those court costs and legal fees associated with the appointment of successor guardians and conservators. On that basis, the judge ordered the employer and insurer to pay all court costs and reasonable attorney fees associated with the appointment of LSS as the successor guardian/conservator in this case. The judge went on to conclude, however, that AChapter 176 of the Minnesota statutes does not set out that a workers= compensation insurer or self-insured employer in Minnesota is responsible for paying the reasonable charges of guardians and conservators and the costs of preparing and filing the annual accounting required by Probate Court.@ The judge then found that A[t]he employer and insurer in this case do not have to pay Lutheran Social Services for providing guardianship and conservatorship services and for preparing and filing the annual accounting required by Probate Court.@ The employee 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 Refinery, 48 W.C.D. 607, 608 (W.C.C.A. 1993).
The Minnesota Workers= Compensation Act provides, in part, as follows with respect to injured minor or incapacitated employees:
Subd. 2. Appointment. If an injured employee or dependent under section 176.111 does not have a guardian or conservator and the attorney representing the employee or dependent knows or has reason to believe the employee or dependent is a minor or an incapacitated person, the attorney shall, within 30 days, seek a district court order appointing a guardian or conservator. If the employer, insurer, or special compensation fund in a matter involving a claim against the fund knows or has reason to believe the employee or dependent is a minor or is incapacitated, the employer, insurer, or special compensation fund shall notify the attorney representing the employee or dependent. If the employee or dependent has no attorney or the attorney fails to seek appointment of a guardian or conservator within 30 days of being notified under the subdivision, the employer or insurer shall seek the appointment in district court and the special compensation fund shall notify the commissioner or a compensation judge for referral of the matter under subdivision 3. In the case of a minor who is not represented by an attorney, the commissioner shall refer the matter under subdivision 3.
Subd. 3. Referral. When, in a proceeding before them, it appears to the commissioner, compensation judge, or, in cases upon appeal, the Workers= Compensation Court of Appeals, that an injured employee or dependent is a minor or an incapacitated person without a guardian or conservator, the commissioner, compensation judge, or court of appeals shall refer the matter to district court. The commissioner has no duty to monitor files at the department but must review a file for referral upon receiving a complaint that an injured employee or dependent is a minor or an incapacitated person without a guardian or conservator.
Minn. Stat. ' 176.092, subds. 2 and 3.
The Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act provides, in part, as follows with respect to costs and fees relating to guardianships and conservatorships of injured workers:
(c) Subject to the approval of the court, the insurer or self-insured employer shall pay the costs and guardian, conservator, and attorney fees of the employee or dependent associated with the appointment of a guardian or conservator and as required under section 176.092.
Minn. Stat. ' 524.5-501(c). Pursuant to section 524.5-102, subd. 4., the word Acourt@ means the district court. Minnesota Statutes section 524.5-316(a) provides that a legal guardian appointed by the district court Ashall report to the [district] court in writing on the condition of the ward at least annually and whenever ordered by the court.@ Minn. Stat. ' 524.5-316(a). Similarly, Minnesota Statutes section 524.5-420(a) provides that the conservator of a person=s estate Ashall report to the [district] court for administration of the estate annually unless the court otherwise directs.@ Minn. Stat. ' 524.5-420(a).
The legislature has provided a specific and comprehensive process within the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act for the oversight and payment of guardians and conservators appointed under that Act. The Act invests the district court with the authority and jurisdiction to control and direct the actions of conservators and guardians. Accordingly, we conclude that the jurisdiction of the workers= compensation courts does not extend to interpreting or applying Minn. Stat. ' 524.5-501(c). And, because we find nothing in the Workers= Compensation Act authorizing the relief requested here, we vacate the compensation judge=s
findings and order and dismiss the appeal.
 In his brief, the employee asserts that his wife initiated proceedings in June of 2006.
 Essentially as articulated in the compensation judge=s Finding 6 in this matter.
 The compensation judge based her decision in part on her interpretation of Minnesota Statutes section 525.703. Section 525.703 was repealed in 2003, however, and was effectively replaced with Minnesota Statutes section 524.5-502. Similarly, Minnesota Statutes section 525.6199, referred to by the judge, also was repealed in 2003, and replaced with Minnesota Statutes section 524.5-501, referred to in our decision. Whether a decision in this case is based on the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act or its predecessor statutes, our jurisdiction does not extend to interpreting or applying those statutes.