CASE NO. 3717 CRB-01-97-11
COMPENSATION REVIEW BOARD
WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COMMISSION
JANUARY 28, 1999
Estate of BRUCE CHASE (DECEASED)
SECOND INJURY FUND
The claimant was represented by Donald R. Beebe, Esq., Beebe & O’Neil, 335 Washington Street, P.O. Box 6002, Norwich, CT 06360-1302.
The Fund was represented by Yinxia Long, Esq., Assistant Attorney General, 55 Elm Street, P. O. Box 120, Hartford, CT 06141-0120.
This Petition for Review from the October 30, 1997 Finding and Award of the Commissioner acting for the Second District was heard August 21, 1998 before a Compensation Review Board panel consisting of the Commission Chairman Jesse M. Frankl and Commissioners Donald H. Doyle, Jr., and Michael S. Miles.
JESSE M. FRANKL, CHAIRMAN. The representative of the deceased claimant has petitioned for review from the October 30, 1997 Finding and Award of the Commissioner acting for the Second District. In that decision the trial commissioner granted the Fund’s Motion to Reopen an approved stipulation under which the Fund had agreed to pay the claimant $384,000.00 as a full and final settlement of the claimant’s workers’ compensation claim. The trial commissioner found that at the time the stipulation agreement was approved, the Fund was not aware that the claimant had died, and would not have agreed to the approval if it had known of his death. The claimant argues on appeal that the trial commissioner erred by granting the Motion to Reopen. We affirm the trial commissioner’s decision.
The trial commissioner found the following relevant facts. The claimant sustained a compensable injury to his lumbar spine on June 28, 1988. Effective June 28, 1990, liability for the injury was transferred to the Fund pursuant to § 31-349. The claimant contended that he was totally disabled due to the June 28, 1988 injury, which he alleged caused a ruptured lumbar disc, bladder dysfunction, and psychiatric neurosis. The Fund denied that the claimed conditions were caused by the compensable June 28, 1988 injury, denied that the claimant was totally or partially disabled, and denied his need for continuing medical care.
The parties negotiated an agreement for a full and final settlement of the claimant’s claims. The Fund’s claims manager, Richard McKenna, testified that a number of factors were involved in arriving at the settlement amount, including temporary total disability benefits, life expectancy, and future medical benefits. On September 19, 1996, the claimant signed a document entitled “Award by Stipulation” (hereinafter “stipulation”) wherein the claimant agreed to settle his claims for $384,000.00. On September 26, 1996, Attorney Ellen Kisiel signed the stipulation on behalf of the Fund. On September 26, 1996, the claimant signed a form entitled “Stipulation and What it Means” which indicated that he understood the effect of the settlement. On October 4, 1996, the claimant died as a result of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
The Fund was not notified of the claimant’s death until October 25, 1996. Prior to the Fund’s knowledge of the claimant’s death, a hearing was conducted on October 18, 1996 by a trial commissioner acting for the Second District who approved the stipulation at that time. The parties agree that the Fund did not receive notice of the October 18, 1996 hearing.1 On November 1, 1996 the Fund filed a Motion to Reopen the stipulation. In support of its Motion to Reopen, the Fund contended, inter alia, that its lack of notice of the October 18, 1996 hearing deprived it of due process, and further contended that the failure to disclose the claimant’s death violated principles of fairness and full disclosure. In opposition to the Motion to Reopen, the claimant contended, inter alia, that a trial commissioner does not have the authority to consider constitutional issues such as due process, and that the claimant’s counsel had no duty to disclose the claimant’s death prior to the approval of the stipulation.
The trial commissioner, in deciding the Fund’s Motion to Reopen, cited § 31-298 which provides in relevant part: “In all cases and hearings under the provisions of this chapter, the commissioner shall proceed, so far as possible, in accordance with the rules of equity.” The trial commissioner noted that the Workers’ Compensation Act requires that notice be given to the parties and that hearings be held in matters which are disputed or contested (see § 31-297), but that the Act does not require notice or hearings for the approval of stipulations. Under the circumstances in this case, however, the trial commissioner concluded: “The principles of fairness, justness, and a level playing field require that the Respondent Fund be afforded the opportunity to attend and, if it so chooses, object to the Stipulation approval process.” Accordingly, she ordered that an approval hearing regarding the stipulation should be scheduled with notice provided to the parties. It should be noted that the office manager for the Second District failed to notify the Second Injury Fund of these proceedings.
Although the Workers’ Compensation Act does not explicitly authorize settlement agreements, our courts have consistently upheld the power to settle a compensation claim as inherent in the power to make a voluntary agreement pursuant to § 31-296. Muldoon v. Homestead Insulation Co., 231 Conn. 469, 480 (1994). Section 31-296 allows a commissioner to approve an agreement if the commissioner finds that it conforms “in every regard” to the provisions of Chapter 568. “Approval of such a stipulation by the commissioner is not an automatic process. It is his function and duty to examine all the facts with care before entering an award, and this is particularly true when the stipulation presented provides for a complete release of all claims under the act.” Welch v. Arthur A. Fogarty, Inc., 157 Conn. 538, 545 (1969).
“Like a stipulated judgment in Superior Court, an Award by Stipulation may be set aside without the consent of all parties only if it was obtained by fraud, misrepresentation, accident or mistake.” Gonzalez v. Electric Transport (Penske), 13 Conn. Workers’ Comp. Rev. Op. 6, 1729 CRB-1-93-5 (Oct. 13, 1994) (citations omitted). Generally, the decision to open and modify an agreement or award under § 31-315 falls within the discretion of the trial commissioner, and this board will not disturb the decision unless the commissioner has arbitrarily reached an unreasonable result. Besade v. Interstate Security Services, 212 Conn. 441, 453 (1989); Tutsky v. YMCA of Greenwich, 28 Conn. App. 536, 541-42 (1992); Hines v. Linc Scientific Imaging, 3037 CRB-8-95-3 (April 14, 1997).
In reviewing the trial commissioner’s decision to grant the Fund’s Motion to Reopen, we find the analysis in Secola v. State of Connecticut Comptroller’s Office, 3102 CRB-5-95-6 (Feb. 26, 1997) to be relevant. In Secola, “the commissioner made it clear that in his view, the proposed stipulation and the negotiations leading up to it were not consistent with the equitable nature of the Workers’ Compensation Act, and that the respondent was no longer in agreement with the stipulation at the time it was submitted for approval, thus negating the existence of a valid agreement under § 31-296.” The question addressed by the Board in Secola was “may a trial commissioner decline to approve a stipulation on those grounds?” Id.
In Secola, the Board recognized that much of the case law concerning stipulations stresses the remedial purpose of the Act, and the intent of the law to protect a claimant’s interests. Id., citing Muldoon, supra, 481, 483; Welch, supra, 545; Festa v. Town of Hamden, 16 Conn. Workers’ Comp. Rev. Op. 46, 3052 CRB-3-95-4 (Oct. 16, 1996). However, the Board stated that “protecting the employee’s rights does not mean ignoring the rights of the employer or insurer. Fairness and equity are two-way streets, and the commissioner is certainly entitled to consider more than the claimant’s position in deciding whether a stipulation should be approved.” Secola, supra.
In Secola, supra, the trial commissioner specifically found that the respondent was no longer in agreement with the stipulation at the time it was submitted for approval. Similarly, in the instant case the trial commissioner found that if the Fund had been informed of the claimant’s October 4, 1996 death, the Fund would not have agreed to approval of the stipulation on October 18, 1996. We agree with the reasoning in Secola, supra, that “(j)ust as the commissioner is entitled to reject a stipulation if the claimant has second thoughts, he may exercise his authority to withhold approval of a stipulation if the respondent no longer concords with its terms when it is submitted for ratification.” Id. In this case, the trial commissioner’s findings that the Fund was neither provided with notice of the claimant’s October 4, 1996 death, nor with notice of the October 18, 1996 hearing, support his conclusion that approval of the stipulation on that date was not equitable. We therefore affirm his decision granting the Fund’s Motion to Reopen.
Because we affirm the trial commissioner’s decision on equitable grounds, we need not reach the numerous other contentions made on appeal by the claimant and the Fund.
The trial commissioner’s decision is affirmed.
Commissioners Donald H. Doyle Jr., and Michael S. Miles concur.
1 We note that the entire controversy in this case could have been avoided if the Office Supervisor had provided notice of the hearing to the Fund, including notice that the claimant had died. The trial commissioner specifically found that the file contained a facsimile “dated October 16, 1996, addressed to Attorney Beebe and O’Neil and to Attorney John Cotter, sent by Deborah Stiggle, Office Supervisor, which confirmed a Stipulation approval hearing would be held on Friday, October 18th, 1996.” (Finding No. 20). BACK TO TEXT