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CASE NO. 3058 CRB-4-96-3
COMPENSATION REVIEW BOARD
WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COMMISSION
MAY 2, 1997
HARTFORD INSURANCE GROUP
The claimant appeared pro se at oral argument.
The respondents were represented by Richard Stabnick, Esq., Pomeranz, Drayton & Stabnick, 95 Glastonbury Blvd., Glastonbury, CT 06033-4412.
This Petition for Review from the May 5, 1995 Finding and Dismissal of the Commissioner acting for the Fifth District was heard January 10, 1997 before a Compensation Review Board panel consisting of Commissioners James J. Metro, Angelo L. dos Santos, and Amado J. Vargas.
JAMES J. METRO, COMMISSIONER. The pro se claimant has petitioned for review from the May 5, 1995 Finding and Dismissal of the Commissioner acting for the Fifth District. He argues on appeal that the commissioner erred by dismissing his claim for a dependency allowance. We affirm the trial commissioner’s decision.
The claimant sustained a compensable injury to his right master wrist on August 15, 1986, which was accepted by voluntary agreement. At that time, § 31-308b C.G.S. provided that a totally disabled employee shall receive weekly “a dependency allowance of ten dollars for each of such employee’s children or stepchildren who, (1) at the time of injury for which such compensation is being paid, were being wholly or mainly supported by such employee and who . . . are under eighteen years of age . . . .” The claimant did not allege that he had fathered or legally adopted minor children of his own. Rather, he claimed entitlement to a dependency allowance based on his responsibility for each of two nephews who resided in Ghana, Africa. The claimant contends that an unwritten Ghanaian tribal custom made him the caretaker of these children when his sister, their mother, died in April 1986.
The commissioner found that the claimant produced the following as evidence of guardianship: a December 27, 1989 letter from the Ghanaian embassy certifying that he was the legal guardian of his deceased sister’s nephews; a Statutory Declaration from a surviving sister made in a Ghanaian court, stating that the claimant was responsible for caring for one of his nephews; a certification from a Ghanaian Administrative Secretary authenticating the seal on the Statutory Declaration; and a January 23, 1995 letter from the Ghanaian Consulate-General in New York confirming the existence of a “matrilineal inheritance system” in the Akhan tribe, and stating that “the children of one’s sisters could be a direct responsibility.” (Emphasis added by commissioner.) He also offered into evidence a number of registered mail receipts, money transfer orders and checks that he alleged were for support for his nephews. He introduced a certificate of insurance listing one nephew as a dependent, and a February 1, 1995 notarized statement from a local college professor corroborating his claim that he was providing support to his nephews at the time of his injury.
The trier observed that most of the documents substantiating guardianship and financial support were prepared or issued after the date of the claimant’s compensable injury. Some of the traveler’s checks and wire transfers were sent to unidentified third parties in Germany and South Africa, and the claimant produced no evidence that his nephews had actually received the money, nor that his alleged support of his nephews constituted their primary support. She concluded that the claimant had not shown that his late sister’s children were his “children or stepchildren” within the meaning of § 31-308b. He had no evidence that a competent court had named him their legal guardian, nor did he show that the tribal custom allegedly creating his responsibility would make his nephews equivalent to a child or stepchild under § 31-308b. Further, he had produced inadequate evidence of actual support of his nephews. Thus, the trier held that he had failed to prove that he was entitled to a dependency allowance for his two nephews. The claimant has appealed that decision.
Part of what the claimant is arguing on appeal is that the trial commissioner should not have looked for the legal indicia of “guardianship” as a barometer of his relationship with his nephews. He contends that the term “guardianship” first became intertwined with this case when the word was selected as the closest approximation to the nature of the relationship that Ghanaian custom creates in this situation. However, he argues that attempting to determine whether he fits the American definition of a legal guardian is inappropriate in this case, because his tribal custom would not require the formal filing of documents in a Ghanaian court of law. Instead, the tribal custom automatically made him responsible for the children as soon as his sister passed away, just as if they were his own biological children. He argues that this custom makes these children akin to his “stepchildren” under § 31-308b.
This distinction may be important, but it also presents a problem for the claimant in this case. Regardless of the effect that the country of Ghana would give to Akhan tribal customs, the claimant must prove that he satisfies the conditions created by the laws of the state of Connecticut before he can collect workers’ compensation here, including dependency allowances for specified individuals. One of those conditions is that the dependent in question be a “child” or a “stepchild” of the employee. Rather than looking at the laws and customs of any other state, tribe, or country, we must interpret our own laws “according to the commonly approved usage of the language, and technical words and phrases, and such as have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in the law.” Crook v. Academy Drywall Co., 8 Conn. Workers’ Comp. Rev. Op. 154, 155, 848 CRD-4-89-4 (Sept. 21, 1990).
A person’s “child” is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as their “progeny; offspring of parentage.” It may include or apply to adopted, after-born, or illegitimate children, as well as stepchildren and “issue.” A “stepchild” is defined by Black’s as “the child by one of the spouses by a former marriage,” or a child “who has a parent by his natural parent’s second marriage and has not been adopted by that parent.” “Adoption,” in turn, entails “legal process pursuant to state statute in which a child’s legal rights and duties toward his natural parents are terminated and duties toward his adoptive parents are substituted.” It is emphasized that the adoptive process is completely statutory, and has no basis in the common law.
A look at these definitions shows that, absent a biological parent-child relationship with either the claimant or the claimant’s spouse, only a child adopted through statutory process could possibly fall within the term “children or stepchildren” in § 31-308b. The Ghanaian tribal custom alleged by the claimant may be a noble and long-recognized practice in his native tribe, and may be a perfectly desirable means of ensuring that children are cared for if something unfortunate happens to their parents. However, this custom is not based on a statutory adoption process, either in Ghana or in Connecticut. In the eyes of the law of this state, there is no legal obligation tying the claimant to his nephews as anything other than their uncle. Consistent with that fact, there is no language in § 31-308b that contemplates the recognition of any individual other than a “child” or a “stepchild” as a dependent for whom benefits may be claimed. Quite simply, § 31-308b was not built to take into account familial relationships such as the one adduced by the claimant in this case. We therefore need proceed no further in this matter; the claimant has not alleged sufficient facts to satisfy that statute.
The trial commissioner’s decision is affirmed.
Commissioners Angelo L. dos Santos and Amado J. Vargas concur.
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