CANDIDA M. ARCHIBALD, Employee/Appellant, v. CEDARVIEW CARE CTR., SELF-INSURED/MINNESOTA COUNTIES INS. TRUST, Employer.
WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
JUNE 9, 2010
JURISDICTION - SUBJECT MATTER; PRACTICE & PROCEDURE - EXPEDITED HEARING; REHABILITATION - REHABILITATION REQUEST. Where the only material issue in dispute at the formal, expedited hearing de novo was whether a change of QRC was reasonable and in the best interests of the parties, and where neither party indicated that it was not prepared to litigate that issue, the compensation judge erred in concluding that she was without jurisdiction to decide the issue purely on grounds that it had not been originally identified in a Rehabilitation Request, and the judge’s decision to that effect was reversed and remanded for trial on the merits.
Reversed and remanded.
Determined by: Pederson, J., Rykken, J., and Johnson, C.J.
Compensation Judge: Cheryl LeClair-Sommer
Attorneys: David K. Furness, Walbran & Furness, Owatonna, MN, for the Apppellant. Karen R. Swanton and Kelly P. Falsani, Fitch, Johnson, Larson & Held, Minneapolis, MN, for the Respondent.
WILLIAM R. PEDERSON, Judge
The employee appeals from the compensation judge’s determination that she lacked jurisdiction to address at a de novo hearing an issue that had not been raised by the Rehabilitation Request that initiated the litigation. We reverse the decision of the compensation judge and remand the matter for a hearing on the merits.
The facts in this case are undisputed. On June 23, 2009, the employee’s qualified rehabilitation consultant [QRC] filed a Rehabilitation Request to extend rehabilitation services, including job placement services, through August 1, 2009. Two weeks later, on July 7, 2009, the Department of Labor and Industry [DOLI] served the parties with a notice scheduling for July 27, 2009, an administrative conference under Minnesota Statutes § 176.106. Following the notice of administrative conference, the employer filed a Rehabilitation Response, in which it not only objected to the Rehabilitation Request but affirmatively requested a change of QRC. Several days later, the QRC filed another Rehabilitation Request seeking payment of an outstanding bill.
At the administrative conference held on July 27, 2009, a mediator/arbitrator [arbitrator] for the commissioner determined that the issues before her for determination included those raised by both Rehabilitation Requests and the request for a change of QRC made by the employer in its Rehabilitation Response. In a Decision and Order served July 30, 2009, the arbitrator approved the requested extension of rehabilitation services and payment of the QRC’s outstanding bill, and she also approved the employer’s request for a change of QRC. On August 3, 2009, the employee’s attorney wrote to the arbitrator, documenting an objection that he had raised at the conference to consideration of the change of QRC issue on grounds that the issue had not been properly raised by the filing of a rehabilitation request as required by Minnesota Rules 5220.0950, subpart 1.A. There was apparently no reply to his letter.
On August 26, 2009, the employee requested a formal, de novo hearing before a compensation judge under Minnesota Statutes § 176.106, subdivision 7. In her Request for Formal Hearing, the employee raised two issues: (1) whether the employer had properly raised the change of QRC issue by doing so in its Rehabilitation Response and (2) whether reasonable grounds and the best interests of the parties supported a change of QRC.
The matter came on for hearing before a compensation judge on October 23, 2009. Despite having requested the de novo hearing on the change of QRC issue, the employee argued to the judge that the issue should not be heard because it had not been properly raised for consideration at the administrative conference. The parties stipulated that the issues presented by the June 23, 2009, Rehabilitation Request were moot, and they agreed that the second Rehabilitation Request filed in July 2009 was no longer at issue. The employee essentially argued that the judge should determine that the arbitrator improperly expanded her jurisdiction by deciding the change of QRC issue. In a Findings and Order issued November 6, 2009, the judge determined that she had no jurisdiction to “overturn” the arbitrator’s determination of the issues in dispute at the conference, that the Request for Formal Hearing entitled the employee to a de novo hearing only on the claims set forth in the June 23, 2009, Rehabilitation Request, which were now moot, and that she had no jurisdiction to affirmatively address issues raised in the Rehabilitation Response. Finding no issue properly before her, the judge dismissed the Request for Formal Hearing. The employee appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
“[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).
All determinations by the commissioner or the commissioner’s designee pursuant to Minnesota Statutes § 176.102 are governed by the procedures set forth in Minnesota Statutes § 176.106, which provides for administrative conferences. An administrative conference is defined as “a meeting conducted by a commissioner’s designee where parties can discuss on an expedited basis and in an informal setting their viewpoints concerning disputed issues arising under sections 176.102, 176.103, 176.135, 176.136 or 176.239.” Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd. 27 (emphasis added). An administrative conference is not the equivalent of an evidentiary hearing. Any party aggrieved by the decision of the commissioner’s designee under Minnesota Statutes § 176.106 may request a de novo hearing before a compensation judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings. Minn. Stat. § 176.106, subd. 7. The decision of the compensation judge is appealable pursuant to Minnesota Statutes § 176.421.
In the present case, the employee properly filed a Request for Formal Hearing, in which she clearly identified one issue for litigation as whether reasonable grounds and the best interests of the parties supported a change of QRC. At the eventual de novo hearing, no argument was presented that either party was not properly notified or given an opportunity to prepare for trial on that issue. In a Memorandum accompanying her Findings and Order dismissing the employee’s Request for Formal Hearing, the compensation judge stated that the only issue properly before her could be the already settled one raised by the applicable pleading, the June 23, 2009, Rehabilitation Request. The judge explained that she based her conclusion on this court’s decision in Hardin v. Northwest Airlines, slip op. (W.C.C.A. Mar. 19, 1996).
In Hardin, an employee had filed a Rehabilitation Request to “explore direction of current rehabilitation.” The employee evidently sought to include an exploration of retraining as part of the rehabilitation services available to her. A conference was held before a Settlement Judge at the Department of Labor and Industry. In a Decision and Order, the judge stated that the “[e]mployee offered no evidence that a retraining program is reasonable and necessary.” He therefore dismissed the Rehabilitation Request. At a subsequent de novo hearing, the compensation judge stated that “[t]he court today believes that the issue before it is whether or not retraining is to be given consideration with the rehabilitation services that are presently being given to the employee.” Counsel for the employer and insurer contended that the sole issue before the court was the Decision and Order of the Settlement Judge that a retraining program was not reasonable or necessary. In a Findings and Order, the compensation judge found that “[r]etraining is to be given equal consideration with other rehabilitation services provided to this employee.” On appeal, the employer and insurer contended that the issue was defined by the Request for Formal Hearing, so that the only question before the compensation judge was whether a retraining program was reasonable or necessary. This court held that the issue before the compensation judge was the one raised by the applicable pleading, the Rehabilitation Request. The court noted that a hearing before the compensation judge is de novo, so the decision and order of the Settlement Judge was of no force or effect. Because the employer and insurer had reasonable notice of the employee’s claim and an opportunity to be heard, we held that the compensation judge had properly stated and decided the issue before him.
While the Hardin decision does appear to focus to an extent on the pleading that effectively raised the issue for litigation, we conclude that the more important issue there was whether the parties had reasonable notice and opportunity to be heard. To quote the Hardin court,
A hearing before the compensation judge is de novo, so the decision and order of the settlement judge has no force or effect. The issue before the compensation judge was the one raised by the applicable pleading, the Rehabilitation Request. The employer and insurer had reasonable notice of the employee’s claim and an opportunity to be heard. The compensation judge properly stated and decided the issue before him. The Findings and Order are not contrary to law and do not violate due process.
Hardin at p. 3 (underscoring added); see also Kulenkamp v. TimeSavers, Inc., 420 N.W.2d 891, 40 W.C.D. 869 (Minn. 1987) (basic fairness requires reasonable notice and opportunity to be heard before an award of benefits may be made). The confusion at the present de novo hearing arose from the employee’s desire to focus on perceived procedural irregularities at the administrative conference level - - the first of the two issues identified by the employee in her request for formal hearing - - rather than on the only material issue in dispute, the change of QRC - - the second of the two issues identified in her request. Whatever merit there may be to the employee’s contention that the arbitrator improperly expanded the issues, her procedural remedy, as an “aggrieved party,” was to request a formal hearing before a compensation judge. Once that request was made, the arbitrator’s decision no longer had force and effect, and this court’s review is limited to the proceedings of record before the compensation judge.
We conclude that the judge did have jurisdiction at the de novo hearing to address the change of QRC issue raised by the employee’s Request for Formal Hearing. Because proceedings under Minnesota Statutes § 176.106 are heard on an expedited basis, the compensation judge must exercise appropriate discretion concerning what matters to hear and resolve. Compensation judges are “bound neither by the common law or statutory rules of evidence nor by technical or formal rules of pleading or procedure.” Minn. Stat. § 176.411, subd. 1. In the present case, the only material issue in dispute at the formal hearing was whether a change of QRC was reasonable and in the best interests of the parties. Neither party indicated that it was not prepared to litigate this issue. Therefore, the judge erred in failing to consider this issue properly before her, regardless of whether or not it had initially been raised by a Rehabilitation Request.
Accordingly, we hold that the compensation judge did have jurisdiction to consider the issue raised by the employee, and we remand the matter to the judge for a formal hearing on the merits.