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Del Toro v. City of Stamford

CASE NO. 4515 CRB-7-02-4

COMPENSATION REVIEW BOARD

WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COMMISSION

MARCH 31, 2003

RICHARD DEL TORO

CLAIMANT-APPELLEE

v.

CITY OF STAMFORD

EMPLOYER

and

CIRMA

INSURER

RESPONDENTS-APPELLANTS

APPEARANCES:

The claimant was not represented at oral argument. Notice sent to Gary J. Wilson, Esq., 4 Daniels Farm Road, Suite 168, Trumbull, CT 06611-3938.

The respondents were represented by James L. Sullivan, Esq., Maher & Williams, 1300 Post Road, P.O. Box 550, Fairfield, CT 06430-0550.

This Petition for Review from the March 21, 2002 Finding and Award of the Commissioner acting for the Seventh District was heard October 18, 2002 before a Compensation Review Board panel consisting of the Commission Chairman John A. Mastropietro and Commissioners Donald H. Doyle, Jr. and Amado J. Vargas.

OPINION

JOHN A. MASTROPIETRO, CHAIRMAN. The respondents have petitioned for review from the March 21, 2002 Finding and Award of the Commissioner acting for the Seventh District. They argue on appeal that the trier erred by granting the claimant’s Motion to Preclude, which required them to accept the compensability of a condition that is excluded from the definition of “personal injury” by § 31-275(16)(B)(ii) C.G.S., as directed by the decision of our Appellate Court in Del Toro v. Stamford, 64 Conn. App. 1 (2001), cert. denied, 258 Conn. 913 (2001). We find no error, and affirm the trial commissioner’s decision.

The history of this case is as follows. The claimant worked as a police officer for the respondent City of Stamford from 1981 through 1996. On November 30, 1985, he was involved in an incident that resulted in the death of a civilian. He later sought psychiatric treatment. On July 9, 1996, he filed a Form 30C alleging repetitive trauma with a July 27, 1995 date of injury. The description of the injury on the form reads, “officer involved shooting on 11-30-85.” The respondents failed to contest that claim within 28 days as required by § 31-294c(b), and the claimant filed a Motion to Preclude on August 28, 1996. The trial commissioner initially denied that motion, as the injury alleged on the form is not compensable under § 31-275(16)(B)(ii), which excludes mental and emotional impairments from the definition of “personal injury” unless they arise from a physical trauma or occupational disease. The denial of that motion was appealed to this board, which (in a 2-1 ruling) affirmed the trial commissioner’s decision on the ground that this Commission lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the stated claim. Del Toro v. Stamford, 3731 CRB-7-97-11 (October 22, 1999).

On appeal to our Appellate Court, the decision of this board was reversed. The court agreed that the conclusive presumption of § 31-294c(b) may not be applied in cases where this commission lacks subject matter jurisdiction, but held that the compensability of an injury as defined under § 31-275(16) does not implicate such a jurisdictional issue. “The concept that subject matter jurisdiction encompasses the issue of the compensability of an injury finds no support in our case law. To the contrary, [it] reveals that, in the context of workers’ compensation proceedings, subject matter jurisdiction is implicated only with issues concerning the existence of an employee-employer relationship, or the proper initiation of the claim itself.” Del Toro, supra, 7, citing Castro v. Viera, 207 Conn. 420, 427 (1988); Infante v. Mansfield Construction Co., 47 Conn. App. 530, 534 (1998). “We have also concluded that subject matter jurisdiction does not include the issue of causation and, thus, does not allow the employer to circumvent the statutory presumption of liability.” Del Toro, supra, 8. Because the court found the respondents’ jurisdictional claim to be illusory, it ruled that the claimant’s Motion to Preclude should have been granted as a matter of law, and remanded the case to the trier for “further proceedings consistent with this opinion.” Id., 9.

The trial commissioner’s subsequent ruling took administrative notice of all prior proceedings, including the Appellate Court’s decision. The trier followed the remand order and granted the claimant’s Motion to Preclude, thereby ordering the respondents to accept liability for the claimant’s psychological distress claim despite the absence of a precipitating physical injury or occupational disease. The respondents then appealed that decision to this board. They now argue before us that the Appellate Court incorrectly decided the issue of subject matter jurisdiction and misinterpreted the statute and the controlling caselaw. “[W]hat the Appellate Court has done is confer jurisdiction over a type of injury which the legislature has expressly removed from jurisdiction. . . . [N]either the Compensation Review Board nor the Trial Commissioner nor the Appellate Court are permitted to overrule the legislature by way of the granting of a Motion to Preclude.” Brief, p. 12.

With regard to our interpretation of § 31-275(16)(B)(ii), we remain sympathetic to the respondents’ contention that a notice of claim that describes a mental or emotional impairment with no underlying physical injury and no suggestion of occupational disease does not state a cognizable claim under our Workers’ Compensation Act. If a particular type of ailment is explicitly omitted from the definition of “personal injury,” it would seem counterintuitive to allow a claimant to collect compensation on account of that ailment, even if a respondent fails to file a timely disclaimer under § 31-294c. Our jurisdiction is specifically defined by the Act, and we may not go outside its boundaries in exercising authority over the subject matter of a claim. Hunnihan v. Mattatuck Mfg. Co., 243 Conn. 438, 444 (1997); Castro, supra, 428. If a claim does not originate under the Act, we are without authority to adjudicate its merits, as no facts exist upon which we may premise the exercise of our administrative power. Id., 428-29, citing Heiser v. Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., 150 Conn. 563, 565 (1963).

However, this board does not have the authority to ignore the controlling opinion of a higher court, particularly where the law on the issue in dispute was set forth in an earlier proceeding in the same case. This goes even beyond the doctrines of stare decisis (which counsels a court to follow its prior rulings unless inescapable logic and cogent reasons require otherwise) and res judicata (which prevents a litigant from reasserting a claim that has been denied on its merits, or from retrying issues that have been resolved in a prior proceeding). George v. Ericson, 250 Conn. 312, 318 (1999)(stare decisis); Dowling v. Finley Associates, 248 Conn. 364, 373-74 (1999)(res judicata and collateral estoppel). One of the fundamental due process protections in this system is the appealability of a Compensation Review Board decision to the Appellate Court under § 31-301b. If a board ruling is reversed on appeal, it is not our place to ignore the court’s orders on remand. To do so would be to exempt ourselves from the structural hierarchy of our legal system. Therefore, we must follow the Appellate Court’s direction.

We accordingly affirm the trial commissioner’s decision.

Commissioners Donald H. Doyle, Jr., and Amado J. Vargas concur.

Workers’ Compensation Commission

Page last revised: December 15, 2004

Page URL: http://wcc.state.ct.us/crb/2003/4515crb.htm

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