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Festa v. Town of Hamden

CASE NO. 3052 CRB-3-95-4

COMPENSATION REVIEW BOARD

WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COMMISSION

OCTOBER 16, 1996

LAWRENCE FESTA

CLAIMANT-APPELLEE

v.

TOWN OF HAMDEN

EMPLOYER

and

CIRMA c/o ROLLINS HUDIG HALL

INSURER

RESPONDENTS-APPELLANTS

APPEARANCES:

The claimant was represented by Edward M. Gillis, Esq., Gillis & Gillis, Two Whitney Ave., Suite 502, New Haven, CT 06510-1061.

The respondents were represented by Robert Enright, Esq., David Davis, Esq., and Tim Welsh, Esq., McGann, Bartlett & Brown, 281 Hartford Tpke., Vernon, CT 06066.

This Petition for Review from the March 30, 1995 Ruling on Motion to Enforce Stipulation of the Commissioner acting for the Third District was heard February 23, 1996 before a Compensation Review Board panel consisting of the Commission Chairman Jesse M. Frankl and Commissioners Amado J. Vargas and Robin L. Wilson.

OPINION

JESSE M. FRANKL, CHAIRMAN. The respondents have petitioned for review from the March 30, 1995 Ruling on Motion to Enforce Stipulation by the Commissioner acting for the Third District. They argue on appeal that the commissioner improperly declined to enforce a February 24, 1994 stipulation against the claimant, having found that the claimant was not competent to understand the terms of the agreement at that time. We affirm the trial commissioner’s decision.

The commissioner recited the following facts in his decision. The claimant suffered a compensable injury to his right elbow on August 9, 1983, which was accepted by the respondents in 1987. The claimant’s treating physician assessed him with a 20 percent permanent partial disability of the elbow as a result of the injury. By the early 1990s, the claimant had sought benefits for temporary total disability and increased permanent partial disability that he contended were related to the compensable injury. The respondents denied those contentions, and the matter was scheduled for a formal hearing on February 24, 1994 before the Commissioner acting for the Third District.

Before the hearing began, the parties’ attorneys reported that a settlement had been reached, and that it would be committed to writing by both parties. The parties then recited for the record their understanding of the terms of the agreement, which was lengthy and dealt with a number of complex issues. The gist of the agreement was that the claimant would settle his claims for $11,202.00 ($1,202 of which was for Dr. Shine’s bill), and the respondents would waive any claim for credit against an earlier $26,000 cervical award. The medical aspect of the case would remain open, as would claims for increased permanent partial impairment to the claimant’s neck or elbow. All claims for future temporary total and partial disability were being waived by the claimant. The commissioner found that the prior commissioner had questioned the claimant as to his understanding of the agreement, which the claimant stated that he understood.

The claimant testified, however, that he is a diabetic, and that he has bouts of hypoglycemia that leave him dizzy and confused. The commissioner found that the claimant experienced such an attack at the time the settlement was being discussed on February 24, 1994, though he did not disclose his infirmity to the prior commissioner. According to the claimant, he believed at that time that the settlement conditions were tentative, and did not fully understand those terms because of his hypoglycemia. He also told his attorney shortly after the formal hearing that he could not agree to the stipulation. The claimant did not sign the agreement when the respondents presented it to him. The trial commissioner found that, despite the best efforts of the prior commissioner to inform the claimant of his rights, the claimant did not fully understand the terms of the agreement due to his hypoglycemia. Thus, he declared the stipulation null and void, and denied the respondents’ motion to enforce it. The respondents then petitioned for review.

The respondents argue on appeal that the transcript of the February 24, 1994 proceedings reveals that the claimant understood the nature of the stipulation perfectly well, and moreover, that there is no evidence to support the notion that the claimant actually suffers from a hypoglycemic condition. Instead, the respondents contend that the claimant simply changed his mind, and should not be allowed to do so. In response, the claimant asserts that he indeed suffered from a hypoglycemic attack on February 24, 1994, making it impossible for him to understand the nature and extent of the stipulation, and that the transcript does not evince such an understanding. He also argues that, at that time, he was under the impression that a stipulation had to be reduced to writing, signed, reviewed, and presented to the commissioner before it could become final.

A stipulation has the same binding effect as an award once it is approved by a commissioner. As such, any further claim for compensation would be barred unless modification were permissible under § 31-315 C.G.S. Mongillo v. Terminal Taxi Co., 12 Conn. Workers’ Comp. Rev. Op. 197, 199, 1455 CRB-3-92-7 (March 7, 1994). Because of the serious consequences of such an agreement, approval of a stipulation is not undertaken lightly. A commissioner must examine all of the facts carefully before entering an award, especially where claims under the Workers’ Compensation Act are released. Welch v. Arthur A. Fogarty, Inc., 157 Conn. 538, 545 (1969). The Act’s policy of protecting an employee’s right to compensation can even result in the invalidation of the claimant’s own agreement when it fails to assure him appropriate compensation. Id.

In accord with these principles, a commissioner is required to take great pains in assuring that a claimant comprehends the nature and scope of a stipulation before it may be approved. This Commission has promulgated a form entitled “Stipulation and What It Means” that enumerates the consequences of a stipulation from a claimant’s point of view. The form explains to the claimant that the stipulation is a final settlement, that rights to future medical, disability and loss of income benefits may be lost by accepting the stipulation, and that one’s right to a formal hearing is also waived by settling the case. The form also directs the claimant to ask any questions he or she may have about the stipulation and its effects. Before a claimant may agree to a stipulation, a commissioner must canvass the claimant to insure that he has considered these issues and still wants to settle his case.

In this case, the February 24, 1994 transcript reveals that the attorneys for the claimant and respondents explained the effect of the stipulation to the commissioner, who then asked the claimant if he understood it. The claimant interrupted the commissioner twice while he was asking questions, gave several one-word answers, and discussed only the provisions regarding future medical bills and the fact that he was not closing off his right to further impairment if his permanency increased. Significantly, the commissioner did not ask the claimant if he understood this to be a final settlement of his case, and if he wished to formally enter into the agreement at that time. The conversation in the transcript touches on some of the crucial issues discussed above, but does not reflect that the claimant necessarily had a thorough understanding of the stipulation. There is certainly nothing in the transcript to rebut the claimant’s contention that he believed that a stipulation had to be reduced to writing and signed before it could become effective, and that he would have a chance to review it again.

The trial commissioner also found that the claimant indeed suffered a hyperglycemic attack the morning of the formal hearing, and that he could not fully understand the terms of the purported agreement at that time. The claimant testified to the existence of that condition, and stated that he could not recall most of what happened during the period of his attack, including his conversation with the prior commissioner regarding the stipulation. Although medical evidence would be necessary to establish the claimant’s hypoglycemia as a compensable condition, we do not believe that the same quantum of proof was necessary to establish that fact insofar as it related to the claimant’s state of mind on February 24, 1994. The fact that there was significant doubt as to the claimant’s capacity to understand the nature and extent of the stipulation on that date, coupled with the fact that the claimant never actually signed the stipulation, was more than enough evidence to support a finding that the claimant should not be held to the terms of that agreement.1 See Nichols v. Nichols, 79 Conn. 644, 657 (1907) (court discussed mental capacity necessary to enter into deed). Therefore, we affirm the trial commissioner’s decision to dismiss the motion to enforce the stipulation.

Commissioners Robin L. Wilson and Amado J. Vargas concur.

1 Thus, we decline to rule on the claimant’s Motion to Submit Additional Relevant and Material Evidence, which consists of a 1995 medical report stating that the claimant is subject to hypoglycemic attacks. BACK TO TEXT

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