PATTI J. JACOBSON, Employee/Appellant, v. THIRD WORLD FRIENDS and AMERICAN FAMILY INS. GROUP, Employer-Insurer.
WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
OCTOBER 28, 2011
TEMPORARY TOTAL DISABILITY - 104 WEEKS; STATUTES CONSTRUED - MINN. STAT. § 176.101, SUBDS. 1(k) and 1(m); DISCONTINUANCE - NOTICE OF INTENT TO DISCONTNUE. Where Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(k), required that the employee’s temporary total disability benefits be capped at 104 weeks, where Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(m), provided that an employer/insurer “must” provide the employee with notice of that cap once 52 weeks of such benefits had been paid, but where the statute nowhere specified any penalty for violation of that requirement, the compensation judge did not err in concluding that he lacked authority to create and impose a penalty or in confirming the employer’s discontinuance of benefits.
EVIDENCE - ESTOPPEL & LACHES. Where the employer and insurer had failed to provide the employee with notice of the 104-week cap on temporary total disability within 52 weeks, as required but without specified penalty for failure under Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(m), but where there was no evidence of any inducement or misrepresentation on the part of the employer and insurer or any detrimental reliance on the part of the employee, the compensation judge’s conclusion that the doctrine of equitable estoppel did not apply was not clearly erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence, and, “not a court of equity,” the WCCA declined to apply the doctrine itself.
Determined by: Pederson, J., Milun, C.J., and Stofferahn, J.
Compensation Judge: Adam S. Wolkoff
Attorneys: Charles A. Bird and Jeremy R. Stevens, Bird, Jacobsen & Stevens, Rochester, MN, for the Appellant. Mary Hager and Julia Douglass, Aafedt, Forde, Gray, Monson & Hager, Minneapolis, MN, for the Respondents.
WILLIAM R. PEDERSON, Judge
The employee appeals from the compensation judge’s decision allowing cessation of temporary total disability compensation at 104 weeks, despite the employer and insurer’s failure to notify the employee in writing of the 104-week limitation on payment of those benefits, as required under Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(m). We affirm.
The facts in this case are uncontested. On February 25, 2008, Patti Jacobson [the employee] sustained injuries arising out of and in the course of her employment with Third World Friends [the employer]. The employer and its workers’ compensation insurer, American Family Insurance Group [the insurer], admitted liability for the employee’s injury and made payment of 105 weeks of temporary total disability [TTD] benefits. On February 2, 2011, the insurer served on the employee and her attorney a Notice of Intention to Discontinue Benefits [NOID], based on the employee’s having been paid the statutory maximum of 104 weeks of TTD compensation. See Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(k). The employer and insurer acknowledge, however, that at no time did they notify the employee in writing of this 104-week limitation on TTD compensation, as is required by statute. See Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(m). The employee requested an administrative conference to address the discontinuance, arguing that discontinuance was improper because the employer and insurer did not comply with Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(m). A judge allowed the employer and insurer to discontinue benefits, and on March 25, 2011, the employee filed an Objection to Discontinuance.
The discontinuance issue was decided de novo by a compensation judge of the Office of Administrative Hearings following submission, on May 24, 2011, of memoranda by the parties. In a Findings and Order issued June 8, 2011, the compensation judge identified the issue before him as follows:
Whether the employer and insurer’s failure to provide the employee with the notice required by Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(m) mandates continued payment of temporary total disability benefits beyond the 104 week statutory cap on temporary total disability set forth at Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(k).
At trial, the employee argued that the only way to enforce subdivision 1(m) of the statute is to require continued payment of temporary total disability compensation. She argued also that the court should apply principles of equitable estoppel “to rule [that] the employer and insurer cannot serve a NOID at a time when the required notice has not been given.” The compensation judge held that he had no authority to extend the durational cap on temporary total disability benefits beyond the 104 weeks imposed by the legislature, and he found no evidence to support the application of equitable estoppel to this case. He therefore allowed the employer and insurer to discontinue temporary total disability benefits. The employee appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
On appeal, the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals must determine whether “the findings of fact and order [are] clearly erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted.” Minn. Stat. § 176.421, subd. 1 (2010). Substantial evidence supports the findings if, in the context of the entire record, “they are supported by evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Hengemuhle v. Long Prairie Jaycees, 358 N.W.2d 54, 59, 37 W.C.D. 235, 239 (Minn. 1984). Where evidence conflicts or more than one inference may reasonably be drawn from the evidence, the findings are to be affirmed. Id. at 60, 37 W.C.D. at 240. Similarly, findings of fact should not be disturbed, even though the reviewing court might disagree with them, “unless they are clearly erroneous in the sense that they are manifestly contrary to the weight of evidence or not reasonably supported by the evidence as a whole.” Northern States Power Co. v. Lyon Food Prods., Inc., 304 Minn. 196, 201, 229 N.W.2d 521, 524 (1975).
“[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).
1. Judicial Authority
On the employee’s date of injury, Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(k), provided that temporary total disability benefits “shall cease entirely when 104 weeks of temporary total disability compensation have been paid.” There is no dispute that the employee has received 104 weeks of TTD compensation since her February 25, 2008, injury. In 2000, the legislature added a provision to the statute, requiring an employer or insurer to notify the employee of this cap on TTD benefits, mandating that,
Once an employee has been paid 52 weeks of temporary total compensation, the employer or insurer must notify the employee in writing of the 104-week limitation on payment of temporary total compensation. A copy of this notice must also be filed with the department.
Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(m) (underscoring added). There also is no dispute that the employer and insurer failed to provide the employee with the required statutory notice.
The compensation judge determined first that there are no rules or statutes setting forth penalties for violation of Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(m). He then determined that he lacked the authority to create and impose such a penalty. In the absence of statutory authority to impose a penalty or to extend the 104-week durational cap on TTD, the judge confirmed the employer and insurer’s discontinuance. The employee argues that the plain language of section 176.101, subd. 1(m), requires an employer or insurer to notify the employee of the durational limits on TTD benefits after 52 weeks of TTD has been paid. This notice by the employer or insurer, she argues, is a mandatory provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act by virtue of the word “must.” See Minn. Stat. § 645.44, subd. 15a. Because the judge’s interpretation would render the statute meaningless, and because such an interpretation would also fail to effectuate the clear intent of the legislature, compliance with the notice provision, she argues, must be viewed as a pre-condition to discontinuance under section 176.101, subd. 1(k). As a consequence, she argues, the court must require, as a penalty, ongoing payments of TTD benefits until 52 weeks after the required notice is given. We are not persuaded.
The Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals is a court of limited jurisdiction, restricted by statute to the construction and application of the Workers’ Compensation Act. See Minn. Stat. § 175A.01, subd. 5. Within the class of cases “arising under” the Act, however, this court’s powers are plenary. The court may hear and determine “all questions of law and fact” in any case appealed to us within that class. Id., see also Hagen v. Venem, 366 N.W.2d 280, 283 (Minn. 1985). This court does not, however, have jurisdiction to fashion equitable remedies once it is determined that the claim is not governed by the terms of the statute. Cooper v. Younkin, 339 N.W.2d 552, 554, 36 W.C.D. 277, 279 (Minn. 1983).
In the present case, the language of Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subds. 1(k) and 1(m), is clear and unambiguous. With respect to subdivision 1(m), no penalty is either provided for or implied in its language. In Alcozer v. North Country Food Bank, the supreme court noted the “wide latitude” extended to the legislature in addressing a wrong.
In Breimhorst v. Beckman, we recognized that the guaranty of a certain remedy in the law refers to general fundamental principles of justice and that the court must grant the legislature “wide latitude” to address public needs through legislation and determine “both the form and the measure of the remedy for a wrong.”
Alcozer v. North Country Food Bank, 635 N.W.2d 695, 704, 61 W.C.D. 771, 783-84 (Minn. 2011) (citations omitted). In the case here at issue, we may only presume that, had the legislature intended a penalty for failure to provide the statutory notice, it would have provided one. Absent any authority for this court to insert what the legislature may have left out, we affirm the judge’s determination that he had no legal basis for finding a penalty for violation of Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(m).
Similarly, even if we could conclude that the employer and insurer’s NOID was technically deficient for failure to comply with section 176.101, subd. 1(m), we could not extend the durational limit on TTD compensation. The statutory language is clear on its face and specifically limits the duration of those benefits to 104 weeks. See Woelfel v. Plastics, Inc., 371 N.W.2d 215, 217-218, 38 W.C.D. 43, 46 (Minn. 1985) (holding that the filing of a technically deficient NOID did not impose on the insurer an indeterminate liability to continue compensation payments). Finding no legal basis to altar the statutory limitation on TTD benefits, we also affirm the judge’s determination on this issue.
2. Equitable Estoppel
The compensation judge determined also that principles of equitable estoppel did not apply to this case. As a factual matter, the judge found no evidence to establish any inducement or misrepresentation of material fact on the part of the employer and insurer. Nor did he find evidence of the employee’s reliance on any representations made by the employer and insurer. The employee argues that, this court, “as a court of equity,” should exercise its equitable powers by equitably preventing a hearing on the service of a valid NOID until there has been compliance with the statutory notice requirement. We disagree.
First, this court is a court of limited jurisdiction, not a court of equity. We have no power to formulate equitable remedies. See Cooper, 339 N.W.2d at 554, 36 W.C.D. at 279. Second, equitable estoppel requires reasonable reliance on the representations of the defending party. Northern Petroleum Co. v. United States Fire Ins. Co., 277 N.W.2d 408, 410 (Minn. 1979). Whether equitable estoppel is applicable depends on the facts of each case and is a question for the trier of fact. O’Donnell v. Continental Cas. Co., 263 Minn. 331, 116 N.W.2d 680, 684 (1962). Here, the judge found no evidence of inducement or misrepresentation of material fact on which the employee reasonably relied to her detriment. Nor does the employee argue on appeal that the judge’s finding on this issue is unsupported by the record. We therefore affirm the judge’s decision on this issue. See Hengemuhle v. Long Prairie Jaycees, 358 N.W.2d 54, 59, 37 W.C.D. 235, 239 (Minn. 1984).
In summary, we find no legal basis for concluding that the employer and insurer’s failure to provide the notice required by Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(m), precludes application of the 104-week cap on TTD provided by Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(k). Although the notice provision is mandatory, this court has no authority to fashion a remedy for its violation. We note also that the employee has not been denied any benefit under the Workers’ Compensation Act as a result of not receiving this notice. Ultimately, “[i]t is for the legislature, not the court, . . . .to balance the interests of employees and employers, and to make whatever adjustments and corrections it deems appropriate.” Parson v. Holman Erection Co., Inc., 428 N.W.2d 72, 76, 41 W.C.D. 129, 135 (Minn. 1988). The judge’s decision is therefore affirmed in its entirety.