ROBERT JONES, Employee/Appellant, v. STURM FUNERAL HOMES, INC., and RTW GRP., Employer-Insurer/Respondents, and NEW ULM MED. CTR., Intervenor.

DECEMBER 22, 2020
No. WC20-6349

PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE.  The compensation judge did not err by declining to strike the employer and insurer’s untimely answer and to deem admitted the averments contained in the claim petition, and to instead proceed with an immediate hearing under the requirements of Minn. Stat. § 176.331.

    Determined by:
  1. David A. Stofferahn, Judge
  2. Gary M. Hall, Judge
  3. Deborah K. Sundquist, Judge

Compensation Judge:  Adam S. Wolkoff

Attorneys: Christopher P. Rosengren, Rosengren Law Office, L.L.C. North Mankato, Minnesota, for the Appellant.  Patrick W. Ostergren, Law Office of Brian A. Meeker, Bloomington, Minnesota, for the Respondents.




The employee appeals from the decision of the compensation judge to not strike the untimely answer of the employer and insurer, and from his denial of the employee’s claims.  We affirm.


The employee, Robert Jones, claimed a May 29, 2016, work injury to his lumbar spine, which resulted in alleged wage loss and medical expenses.  A claim petition was filed on April 29, 2019.  The employer and insurer filed an answer, but failed to file within 20 days of service of the claim petition as required by Minn. Stat. § 176.321.  As a result, the Office of Administrative Hearings set the case for immediate hearing pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 176.331.

A hearing was held on January 2, 2020.  The employee argued that he was entitled to a default hearing as a result of the employer and insurer’s untimely filing of the answer.  The employee contended that in a default hearing, the averments in the claim petition should be deemed admitted and the claims presented should be awarded.  The employer and insurer maintained that they had a right to present evidence, question witnesses, and dispute the merits of the employee’s claims under the statute.  The compensation judge took that issue under advisement and the parties proceeded to present evidence on other issues and the merits of the employee’s claims.  By Findings and Order dated March 6, 2020, the compensation judge declined to strike the answer, declined to consider the hearing a default hearing, and denied the employee’s claims for benefits and claims of the intervenor.  The employee appeals, contesting only the procedural issues.


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(3).  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), summarily aff’d (Minn. June 3, 1993).


At hearing before the compensation judge and on appeal to this court, the employee asserts that the employer and insurer’s untimely answer should be stricken, and that the averments contained in the claim petition should be deemed admitted.

“Within 20 days after the service of the petition, an adverse party shall serve and file an answer to the petition.”  Minn. Stat. § 176.321, subd. 1.  Should an answer not be filed within 20 days of service of the petition, the case “shall be immediately set for a hearing at the first available date under section 176.331.”  Minn. Stat. § 176.321, subd. 3.  Section 176.331 states that at the hearing, “the adverse party that failed to file an answer may appear at the hearing, present evidence and question witnesses, but shall not be granted a continuance except upon a showing of good cause.”

In rejecting the employee’s arguments, the compensation judge considered the legislative history of sections .321 and .331.  These sections were amended to reflect the current language in 1987.  Prior to that amendment, section .321 provided that if an answer was not filed, “the failure to file an answer shall be treated as a default.”  The statute was silent as to whether that provision applied to late filings, or only to cases where no answer was filed at all.  Even in the instance of a “default” under section .321, however, section .331 allowed a compensation judge to “require proof of an alleged fact.”  In this case, the compensation judge concluded that the removal of the word “default” from the statute was indicative of legislative intent to end default proceedings.  We agree.  Contrary to the employee’s position, the employer and insurer are not in default for having filed an untimely answer.  Instead, the current statutory language provides only that the consequence of filing an untimely answer is an inability to obtain a continuance without a showing of good cause.  Minn. Stat. § 176.331.  Because an immediate hearing was scheduled in this case pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 176.331, the employee was provided his statutory remedy.

Not only does the explicit language of the statute contradict the employee’s position, the cases to which he cites[1] in no way support the argument that the filing of an untimely answer should result in a stricken answer and a deemed admission of the averments contained in the claim petition.  Without statutory or caselaw authority for the remedies sought by the employee, we affirm the decision of the compensation judge.

[1] Coners v. Wayne Pankonin, 42 W.C.D. 393 (W.C.C.A. 1989), Ford v. Cal Inland, Inc., 49 W.C.D. 122 (W.C.C.A. 1993), and Flores v. Maxine L. Shaw, 71 W.C.D. 51 (W.C.C.A. 2011).