JAMES R. PETERSON, Employee/Appellant, v. HIBBING TACONITE MINING CO. and INSURANCE CO. OF THE STATE OF PA./SEDGWICK CLAIMS MGMT. SERVS., INC., Employer-Insurer, and SPECIAL COMP. FUND.
WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
MAY 20, 2011
DISCONTINUANCE - MATTERS AT ISSUE. The compensation judge did not err in concluding that the employer and insurer were entitled to discontinue temporary total disability benefits allegedly paid for a 1998 work injury, pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(k), despite the employee’s denial that such an injury had ever occurred. Nothing in the judge’s decision precludes the employee from establishing, in future litigation, that his disability during the period at issue was instead due to a different work injury.
Determined by: Wilson, J., Johnson, J., and Stofferahn, J.
Compensation Judge: Rolf G. Hagen
Attorneys: James B. Peterson, Falsani, Balmer, Peterson, Quinn & Beyer, Duluth, MN, for the Appellant. Robin C. Merritt and Kenneth A. Kimber, Haft Fride, Duluth, MN, for the Respondents.
DEBRA A. WILSON, Judge
The employee appeals from the compensation judge’s decision allowing discontinuance of temporary total disability benefits pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(k). We affirm.
The employee worked for Hibbing Taconite Mining Company [the employer] for many years. Over the course of his employment there, he sustained a number of work-related injuries, including a January 15, 1982, low back strain. The employer was self-insured on that date and admitted liability for that injury. By sometime in 1998, the employee began to miss work as a result of increased back symptoms and was paid wage loss benefits for various periods. Also in 1998, the employee underwent low back surgery.
The employee stopped working for the employer in October of 2003 and received temporary total disability benefits following his termination from employment. Effective January 1, 2005, the employee also began receiving SSDI.
In May of 2009, the self-insured employer filed a petition for permanent total disability, alleging injury dates of January 15, 1982, and October 8, 1998, and seeking a judicial declaration as to which injury was the controlling event for purposes of benefit calculation. Hearing on the petition was held on October 23, 2009. Shortly prior to or during that hearing, the self-insured employer and the Special Compensation Fund alleged the occurrence of yet other work injuries. The parties agreed that the employee had been permanently and totally disabled since January 1, 2005.
In her decision, the compensation judge apportioned liability for the employee’s permanent total disability as follows: 20% to the January 15, 1982, injury, 40% to a June 30, 1998, injury, and 40% to an October 27, 2003, injury. The judge further found that the 2003 injury was the controlling event and that the employee was therefore not entitled to supplementary benefits.
The employee appealed from the compensation judge’s decision. On appeal, a panel of this court concluded that, because the insurers on the risk for all of the alleged injuries had not been notified of the litigation, it was necessary to vacate the judge’s decision. Peterson v. Hibbing Taconite Co., No. WC10-5051 (W.C.C.A. May 7, 2010).
Eventually, the employer and Insurance Company of North America [the insurer] filed a petition to discontinue benefits, alleging that the employee had received more than 104 weeks of temporary total disability benefits for an injury occurring on June 30, 1998, in contravention of Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(k). When the matter came on for hearing on October 15, 2010, the employee contended that discontinuance was inappropriate because he had not sustained an injury on the date claimed by the employer and insurer and because he had actually been totally disabled as a substantial result of his 1982 work injury.
In a decision issued on December 1, 2010, the compensation judge granted the employer and insurer’s request to discontinue benefits. 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).
Pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(k) (1998),
(k) Temporary total disability compensation shall cease entirely when 104 weeks of temporary total disability compensation have been paid, except as provided in section 176.102, subdivision 11, paragraph (b). Notwithstanding anything in this section to the contrary, initial and recommenced temporary total disability compensation combined shall not be paid for more than 104 weeks, regardless of the number of weeks that have elapsed since the injury, except that if the employee is in a retraining plan approved under section 176.102, subdivision 11, the 104 week limitation shall not apply during the retraining, but is subject to the limitation before the plan begins and after the plan ends.
In the present case, it is undisputed that the employee received well in excess of 104 weeks of temporary total disability benefits following his termination from employment in 2003. The employer and insurer, which paid those benefits, contend that the payments were made for a work injury of June 30, 1998, meaning that discontinuance was appropriate pursuant to the statutory provision quoted above. The employee contends that there was no such injury and that he was instead actually receiving benefits for his admitted 1982 back injury. And, because subdivision 1(k) was not in effect at the time of the 1982 injury, the employee argues, discontinuance is not warranted.
The compensation judge concluded that the narrow issue before him was whether benefits could be discontinued for the 1998 injury alleged by the employer and insurer, and he found no need to determine whether that injury had in fact occurred or whether benefits might be payable for some other injury. The employee’s arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, we agree with the judge’s analysis.
The employer and insurer assert that they had accepted liability for the 1998 injury and paid temporary total disability benefits accordingly. The question for determination by the judge was whether the employer and insurer were entitled, pursuant to statute, to discontinue benefits payable for that 1998 work injury. Answering that question did not necessitate any decision as to the occurrence of the injury or as to whether the employee’s disability was in fact due to that injury during the period for which benefits were paid. Rather, the judge was entitled to conclude that, to the extent that the employee sustained an injury on June 30, 1998, and to the extent that the employee’s disability was a substantial result of that injury, the employer and insurer were entitled, by operation of law, to cease payment of benefits for that injury. And this is of course even more obvious if, as the employee alleges, no such injury occurred in the first place.
Nothing in the judge’s decision establishes that the disputed 1998 injury in fact occurred, that the employee’s disability was due to that injury, or that that injury should be viewed as the “controlling event” for purposes of the law applicable to the employee’s permanent total disability benefit payments. By the same token, nothing in the judge’s decision precludes the employee from making a future claim for benefits due to the 1982 injury. However, at the time of the hearing before the compensation judge on the petition to discontinue, the employee had made no such benefit claim. The judge’s decision is therefore affirmed.
 Some of the background information in this case has been taken from this court’s prior decision in this matter, Peterson v. Hibbing Taconite Co., No. WC10-5051 (W.C.C.A. May 7, 2010).
 The statute providing for payment of those benefits, Minn. Stat. § 176.132, was repealed in 1995.
 After failing to prevail at an administrative conference on an earlier NOID.