VIRGENIA M. RYAN, Employee, v. POTLATCH CORP., SELF-INSURED/COMP COST, INC., Employer-Insurer/Appellant.

JULY 31, 2015

No. WC14-5782


SETTLEMENTS - INTERPRETATION; VACATION OF AWARD.  The compensation judge correctly interpreted a stipulation for settlement for the employee’s low back injury in concluding that it did not close out liability for a consequential psychological condition where there was no evidence or claim of a psychological injury at the time of the settlement.  Accordingly the judge did not err in holding that the employee was not required to seek vacation of the stipulation for settlement in order to proceed with her psychological injury claim.

JURISDICTION.  This court’s jurisdiction is not exceeded by construction or interpretation of a stipulation for settlement in order to determine the procedural or substantive effects of the stipulation on the employee’s claims as expressly set forth in the Workers’ Compensation Act.


Determined by:  Hall, J., Stofferahn, J., and Milun, C.J.
Compensation Judge:  Paul V. Rieke

Attorneys:  John Person and Alex D. Kuhn, Breen & Person, Brainerd, MN, for the Respondent.  James W. Waldhauser and Thomas W. Atchison, Cousineau McGuire, Chartered, Minneapolis, MN, for the Appellant.




The self-insured employer appeals from the compensation judge’s determination that a 2003 award on stipulation, which has not been vacated, does not preclude the employee from bringing a claim for benefits from a psychological condition which arose as a consequence of the physical injury which was the subject of the stipulation for settlement, since the psychological condition was not within the parties’ contemplation at the time of the 2003 stipulation for settlement.  We affirm.


The employee worked for the employer, Potlatch Corporation, in a heavy job moving paper products.  She sustained a personal injury to her back on May 16, 2002.  An MRI on July 29, 2002 showed a right paracentral disc protrusion at L4-5 with an extruded disc fragment, and small disc protrusions at L3-4 and L5-S1 with annular tears at these levels.  She was treated surgically with a bilateral L4-5 hemilaminotomy, foraminotomy, and microdiscectomy on September 5, 2002.   The surgery provided relief from the employee’s leg pain while leaving mild back pain.

The employee filed a claim petition on January 24, 2003, based on the 2002 back injury.  The claim petition did not raise any claims based on a psychological condition.

On November 5, 2003, the employee entered into a stipulation for settlement with the self-insured employer.  The stipulation provided for a full, final, and complete settlement of the employee’s claims, with the exception of future reasonable and necessary medical treatment, in return for a lump sum payment.  The stipulation did not mention any claim for psychiatric or emotional problems associated with the low back injury.  The stipulation was approved by a compensation judge and an Award on Stipulation was served and filed on November 10, 2003.

The employee obtained retraining to become a medical secretary, and worked in that profession for about five years.

In 2009, the employee’s low back condition progressed and on April 29, 2009, she underwent a three-level fusion from L3 to the sacrum.  Following this surgery the employee did not return to work.  She had further low back surgery on October 7, 2009.  While in the hospital for the October 2009 surgery, the employee was given a psychiatric consultation.  The report indicates that the employee had become more depressed since her initial fusion surgery.  In November 2009, the employee was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder as part of a disability evaluation for social security.  She began psychotherapy for depression and a chronic pain disorder in December 2009.

In 2010, the employee underwent surgery to implant a spinal cord stimulator.  This was unsuccessful in alleviating her chronic pain.  She underwent gastric bypass surgery in 2011.  In December 2012 the employee was referred for additional psychotherapy for chronic pain and depression.  She continued in psychotherapy through 2013.

The employee filed a claim petition on January 10, 2013, asserting a claim for consequential depression/anxiety and need for bariatric surgery associated with her May 16, 2002, lumbar spine injury.  The claim petition sought medical benefits and permanent total disability compensation from April 29, 2009, and continuing.

In their amended answer filed June 6, 2013, the employer and insurer admitted that the employee sustained a psychological injury “as part of the original injury,” and stated that they had made payments for pain clinic programs and psychological treatment as a consequence of the work injury.  They contended that the employee’s claims for indemnity benefits were closed out in the prior stipulation for settlement and requested dismissal of the employee’s claim.

On June 27, 2013, the employer and insurer filed a motion to dismiss, which came on for hearing before Compensation Judge Paul V. Rieke on February 25, 2014.  In his findings and order, served and filed on March 4, 2014, Judge Rieke denied the motion, finding that the preponderance of the evidence supported the finding that the employee had developed a consequential psychological injury since the date of the stipulation which was not merely an extension of her psychological condition at the time of the stipulation.  The employer and insurer did not appeal from these findings.

On October 17, 2014, a further hearing was held before Judge Rieke.  The sole issue was whether the employee was required to seek vacation of the 2003 award on stipulation before any further proceedings on her claim petition.  At this hearing, the parties stipulated to the following:

  1.  that the compensation judge’s findings from the prior hearing were incorporated by reference;
  2.  that the employee’s psychological/emotional/psychiatric injury is a direct consequence of the admitted work injury and that the employer and insurer admit liability;
  3.  that the employee sustained a 20 percent permanent partial disability and has been permanently totally disabled from and after April 29, 2009, and that her psychological/emotional/ psychiatric disability is a substantial contributing factor to her permanent total disability; and
  4.  that the employee has not sought vacation of the 2003 settlement and that the settlement has not been vacated.

Following the hearing, Judge Rieke held that it was not necessary that the 2003 settlement first be vacated in order for the employee to proceed with her claim petition.   The employer and insurer appeal.


This case was submitted on stipulated facts and presents solely a question of law.  “[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).


The compensation judge in this case held that the employee could proceed with her claim for a psychological condition associated with her low back injury without first seeking to vacate a stipulation for settlement which addressed only the physical low back injury.  He reasoned that this case was governed by Sweep v. Hanson Silo Co., 391 N.W.2d 817, 39 W.C.D. 51 (Minn. 1986) and by a number of subsequent cases in which this court applied Sweep in interpreting the effect of a stipulation for settlement on conditions not contemplated by the parties at the time of the stipulation.

In Sweep, the supreme court held that a stipulation for settlement purporting to close out an injury not contemplated at the time of the stipulation would be impermissibly broad.  In a long line of cases subsequent to Sweep, this court has repeatedly held that a prior stipulation for settlement does not close out claims from the same incident but not mentioned in the stipulation, absent evidence that the subsequent claims were contemplated by the parties when they entered into the stipulation.  Our cases have followed this doctrine both in reviewing appeals from an order on a motion to dismiss[1] and in reviewing petitions for vacation of the award on stipulation,[2] regularly holding that a stipulation for settlement does not need to be vacated for a claimant to proceed with a claim for a condition not specifically closed out in the stipulation.

The appellant employer argues that the Sweep doctrine should not be applied in cases where the newly claimed condition is a “consequential injury,” i.e., a condition that arises as a consequence of the condition foreclosed in the stipulation, in contradistinction to a condition which is entirely distinct from the condition foreclosed in the stipulation.  Our cases, however, have not made that distinction, and have applied the same analysis to consequential conditions as to wholly distinct conditions.  For example, in Golen v. J.C. Penney Co., slip op. (W.C.C.A. Oct. 27, 1993), a case which is directly on point with the facts in the instant case, we expressly held that a full, final, and complete stipulation for settlement for an employee’s personal injury to the neck and low back did not close out his subsequent claims for a consequential psychological condition not diagnosed or contemplated at the time of the award on stipulation.  The principle that runs through our prior cases in this area is predicated on whether a condition was reasonably within the contemplation of the parties at the time of the stipulation, not whether that condition is consequential or distinct from the settled condition.

The appellant next argues that our prior cases on this issue have, in essence, been overruled by the holding in Stevens v. S.T. Servs., 851 N.W.2d 52, 74 W.C.D. 433 (Minn. 2014).  In Stevens, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that “an employer may petition under Minn. Stat. § 176.238, subd. 5, to discontinue an employee’s benefits only if the employee has not been adjudicated permanently totally disabled.”  Stevens at 59, 74 W.C.D. at 444.  In so doing, the court expressly overruled language in several of this court’s cases authorizing what the supreme court characterized as “a free-standing, extra-statutory procedure by which employers could petition for discontinuance of permanent total disability benefits without resorting to the statutory procedures governing the vacation of an award.”

The appellants argue that by holding that a stipulation for settlement does not bar claims not in the contemplation of the parties, this court created an extra-statutory procedure, analogous to the kind of procedure overruled in Stevens.  They argue that the holding in Stevens should be read as overruling our prior cases expressing that holding.

We conclude, however, that Stevens does not control the case at hand.  The court in Stevens determined that the procedure it overruled had no statutory basis and conflicted with the language of other statutory provisions.  However, nothing in this court’s line of cases on the present issue created or authorized any new, extra-statutory procedure.  Rather, these cases simply involved the interpretation of the language of a stipulation for settlement, in order to determine its scope and effect on an issue arising under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

This court is specifically empowered by statute to determine “all questions of law and fact arising under the workers’ compensation laws of the state in those cases that have been appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals.”  Minn. Stat. § 175A.01, subd. 5.  The supreme court has acknowledged that where it is necessary to the determination of issues on appeal to this court, we have authority to interpret a stipulation for settlement in order to determine how its terms affect the application of the Workers’ Compensation Act.  In Hagen v. Venem, 366 N.W.2d 280 (Minn. 1985), the supreme court reviewed this court’s interpretation of a structured settlement, in which we interpreted its use of the term “proceeds,” in order to determine the proper application of Minn. Stat. § 176.061, subd. 6.  The appellant there similarly argued that this court had exceeded its jurisdiction and fashioned an equitable remedy not set out in the Workers’ Compensation Act.  The supreme court held that this court had not exceeded its jurisdiction, in that it had simply interpreted the terms of a settlement in order to determine the application of the provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act.  This is a distinction which the Stevens court also itself implicitly acknowledged,[3] noting that issues of statutory and contract interpretation are issues of law and thereby subject to de novo review.

The Workers’ Compensation Act specifically governs jurisdiction, requirements, and procedures regarding claims raised before a compensation judge, regarding the review of the terms of a stipulation for settlement, and regarding vacation of an award on stipulation by this court.  Our prior cases addressing this issue all simply involved interpreting the language of a stipulation to determine which statutory procedures were applicable in the context of a specific claim.  In none of these cases did we create a new, extra-statutory, equitable remedy.

The appellants have acknowledged that our case law precedent is contrary to their appeal.  We are not persuaded by their argument that our holdings in these cases fashioned an extra-statutory remedy or otherwise exceeded this court’s jurisdiction.  The case before us falls squarely within longstanding case precedent.  As the appellant has not offered any compelling reason to overturn our prior case precedent in this area, we affirm.

[1] See, e.g., Munn v. Travel Host Motel of Duluth, No. WC09-5039 (W.C.C.A. May 4, 2010); Gates v. Costco Wholesale, No. WC04-201 (W.C.C.A. Jan. 14, 2005); Larson v. St. Louis Co., slip op. (W.C.C.A. Apr. 10, 2002); Buske v. State, Dep’t of Human Servs., slip op. (W.C.C.A. Nov. 9, 1999).

[2] See, e.g., Haniff v. Wirsbo Co., No. WC12-5402 (W.C.C.A. July 2, 2012); Pitleck v. St. Anthony Health Ctr.., No. WC08-114 (W.C.C.A. Aug. 13, 2008); Menzel v. Am. Restaurant Group, slip op. (W.C.C.A. May 6, 1999); Golen v. J.C. Penney Co., slip op. (W.C.C.A. Oct. 27, 1993); Munkelwitz v. Bladholm Bros., slip op. (W.C.C.A. July 28, 1993); Buske, slip op. at n.1.

[3] See Stevens, at 55, 74 W.C.D. at 437, citing State ex rel Humphrey v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 713 N.W.2d 350, 355 (Minn. 2006).