ANNA M. GEE, Employee, v. NOW TECHNOLOGIES, INC., and SFM MUT. INS. CO., Employer-Insurer/Appellants, and HEALTHEAST CARE SYS., Medical Provider/Cross-Appellant.
WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
JULY 30, 2009
JURISDICTION - SUBJECT MATTER. An order obligating an employer and insurer to pay the reasonable value of medical treatment, services, and supplies, where the determination of that value has not been made, is not an order affecting the merits of the case, and is not, therefore, appealable to the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals under Minn. Stat. § 176.421, subd. 1.
Determined by: Johnson, C.J., Rykken, J. and Pederson, J.
Compensation Judge: Bradley J. Behr
Attorneys: Andrew W. Lynn, Lynn Scharfenberg & Assocs., Minneapolis, MN, for the Appellants. Todd J. Thun, Thun Law Office, Minneapolis, MN, for the Cross-Appellant.
THOMAS L. JOHNSON, Judge
Now Technologies, Inc., and SFM Mutual Insurance Company appeal the compensation judge’s finding that HealthEast Care Systems is, and Medtronic is not, a healthcare provider. HealthEast Care Systems cross appeals the compensation judge’s finding that the obligation of Now Technologies and SFM Mutual Insurance Company for the employee’s surgical procedure is the reasonable value of those services not to exceed 85% of the usual and customary charges for similar treatment. We conclude the compensation judge’s decision is not appealable under Minn. Stat. § 176.421.
On May 16, 1996, Anna M. Gee, the employee, sustained a personal injury arising out of her employment with Now Technologies, the employer, then insured by SFM Mutual Insurance Company. The employer and its insurer admitted liability for the employee’s personal injury.
In April 2008, the employee underwent a replacement of an implantable infusion device, a pain pump/bone stimulator, at St. Joseph’s Hospital utilizing a Synchromed E. L. Programmable Pump manufactured by Medtronic. St. Joseph’s Hospital is a part of HealthEast Care Systems. HealthEast billed the employer and insurer $30,576.00 for the surgical pump and accompanying hardware. The parties stipulated this was HealthEast’s usual and customary charge for the pump and the hardware and reflected a markup in an amount not disclosed in the record.
HealthEast filed a Medical Request seeking payment of $25,989.60 for the surgical pump and hardware from the employer and insurer. The case was heard by a compensation judge on stipulated facts pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 176.322. The issues presented to the compensation judge were:
1. Whether HealthEast/St. Joseph’s Hospital is the healthcare provider that actually furnished the service, article or supply pursuant to Minn. R. 5221.0700, subp. 2A, and other applicable provisions of Minn. Stat. § 176 and Minn. R. 5221.
2. Whether HealthEast/St. Joseph’s Hospital is entitled to payment of $25,989.60, which represents the remainder of its 85% usual and customary charges for medical supplies and treatment provided to the employee, or whether payment in the amount of $25,989.60 is denied at this time (pending a full evidentiary hearing) because the compensation judge has independent statutory authority to determine and award a reasonable charge amount which is less than either 85% usual and customary or 85% prevailing charge limitations set forth at Minn. Stat. § 176.136 and Minn. R. 5221.0500.
In a Findings and Order served and filed June 9, 2009, the compensation judge found that HealthEast was the healthcare provider which furnished the infusion pump utilized in the employee’s surgery and was entitled to bill the insurer subject to the limitations of Minn. Stat. § 176.136, subd. 1b.(b), and Minn. R. 5221.0500, subp. 2.D.; that Medtronic did not furnish any medical or health service to the employee when it sold its programmable pump to HealthEast; that the employer and insurer’s obligation to HealthEast for the surgical procedure performed on April 21, 2008, may not exceed 85% of the provider’s usual and customary charge for similar treatment, articles and supplies pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 176.136, subd. 1b.(b), and that a compensation judge has the authority to determine the reasonable value of HealthEast’s charges in an amount less than the 85% limitation contained in Minn. Stat. § 176.136, subd. 1b.(b). The compensation judge then ordered the matter be set for a full evidentiary hearing to determine the reasonable value of the charges of HealthEast.
Now Technologies and SFM Mutual Insurance Company appeal the compensation judge’s determination that HealthEast is, and Medtronic is not, a healthcare provider under the meaning of the applicable statute and rules. HealthEast cross appeals the compensation judge’s finding that a compensation judge has authority to determine the reasonable value of charges of HealthEast in an amount less than 85% limitation contained in Minn. Stat. § 176.136, subd. 1b.(b).
Appeals to the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals are governed by Minn. Stat. § 176.421, subd. 1, which provides that a party may appeal to this court “within 30 days after a party in interest has been served with notice of an award or disallowance of compensation, or other order affecting the merits of the case.” As a general rule, an order is appealable only if it “finally determines rights of the parties and concludes the action.” Hagen v. Hoffman Aseptic Packaging, slip op. (W.C.C.A. May 8, 1997) (citing Zizak v. Despatch Indus., Inc., 427 N.W.2d 755, 756 (Minn. App. 1988)). The policy behind the general rule is to prevent piecemeal appeals and protect the rights of all parties until all claims have been adjudicated in the trial court. Johnson v. Johnson, 363 N.W.2d 355, 357 (Minn. App. 1985) (citing Comment, Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 104.01), pet. for rev. denied (Minn. May 6, 1985). Orders that do not affect the merits of the case, or do not prevent a later determination of the case on the merits, are not appealable to this court. Mierau v. Alcon Indus., Inc., 386 N.W.2d 741, 38 W.C.D. 652 (Minn. 1986).
“The existence of a justiciable controversy is prerequisite to adjudication. The judicial function does not comprehend the giving of advisory opinions. No controversy is presented, absent a genuine conflict in the tangible interests of opposing litigants.” Izaak Walton League of Am. Endowment, Inc., v. State, Dep’t of Natural Resources, 312 Minn. 587, 589, 252 N.W.2d 852, 854 (1977). The existence of a justiciable controversy may be raised on the court’s own motion since it is essential to a court’s exercise of jurisdiction. Makitalo v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., slip op. (W.C.C.A. May 9, 1995).
The appellate courts have used a three-part test in determining whether an issue presented for a decision constitutes a justiciable controversy. The issue must (1) involve definite and concrete assertions of right by parties with adverse interests, (2) involve a genuine conflict in tangible interests of opposing litigants, and (3) be capable of relief by decree or judgment. Graham v. Crow Wing County Bd. of Comm’rs, 515 N.W.2d 81, 84 (Minn. App. 1994) (citing St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce v. Marzitelli, 258 N.W.2d 585, 587 (Minn. 1977), pet. for rev. denied (Minn. June 2, 1994). This test appears to have originated in cases involving declaratory judgment actions under Minn. Stat. Ch. 555 which gives courts of record the “power to declare rights, status, and other legal relations whether or not further relief is or could be claimed.” Minn. Stat. § 555.01. See also Seiz v. Citizens Pure Ice Co., 207 Minn. 277, 290 N.W. 802 (1940). The test has, however, also been utilized in cases not arising under the declaratory judgment statute. See, e.g., Rosenfeld v. Rosenfeld, 529 N.W.2d 724 (Minn. App. 1995). This three-part test has been cited in cases involving the issue of whether an appeal to the W.C.C.A. presented a justiciable controversy. See, e.g., Carlson v. Donovan Constr. Co., 62 W.C.D. 72, 78 (W.C.C.A. 2001), summarily aff’d (Minn. Feb. 5, 2002).
In Johnson v. Apple Valley Health Care Ctr., No. WC04-195 (W.C.C.A. 2004), a party appealed the compensation judge’s pretrial order determining the nature of the proceedings to be held before the compensation judge, including a statement of the burden of proof and a determination of the party upon whom the burden of proof rested. On appeal from the compensation judge’s pretrial order this court concluded the appeal was premature and held the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the appeal. In Davidson v. Northshore Mfg. Co., 60 W.C.D. 69 (W.C.C.A. 1999), summarily aff’d (Minn. Nov. 14, 2000), the employee filed a rehabilitation request not to obtain retraining benefits but to preserve his rights to retraining benefits should he decide to pursue retraining at some time in the future. That is, the employee sought guidance as to how the requirements of Minn. Stat. § 176.102, subd. 11(c), might be satisfied. On appeal, this court concluded that nothing in the Workers’ Compensation Act allowed for either advisory opinions or declaratory judgments. Since the issue was not ripe, and no benefits were yet at stake, the decision of the compensation judge was vacated as premature and the appeal was dismissed. See Herrly v. Walser Buick, Inc., 47 W.C.D. 670 (W.C.C.A. 1992); see also Froland v. American Hardware Ins. Co., slip op. (W.C.C.A. Oct. 10, 1996).
In this case, there has been no award or disallowance of compensation or other order affecting the merits of the case and no benefits are yet at stake. The compensation judge’s decision does not determine the rights of the parties or conclude the action. Rather, the parties seek only a legal interpretation of Minn. Stat. § 176.136, subd. 1b.(b). The parties are requesting an advisory opinion and no justiciable controversy exists. The appeal of Now Technologies and SFM Mutual Insurance Company as well as the cross appeal of HealthEast Care Systems are, therefore, dismissed. The case is remanded to the Office of Administrative Hearings to schedule an evidentiary hearing.
 The matter was submitted to the compensation judge based upon stipulated facts. No witnesses were called and no testimony was taken by the compensation judge.
 Minn. Stat. § 176.136, subd. 1b.(b) provides:
The liability of the employer for the treatment, articles, and supplies that are not limited by subdivision 1a or 1c or paragraph (a) shall be limited to 85 percent of the provider’s usual and customary charge, or 85 percent of the prevailing charges for similar treatment, articles, and supplies furnished to an injured person when paid for by the injured person, whichever is lower. On this basis, the commissioner or compensation judge may determine the reasonable value of all treatment, services, and supplies, and the liability of the employer is limited to that amount. The commissioner may by rule establish the reasonable value of a service, article, or supply in lieu of the 85 percent limitation in this paragraph.