The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Cohn Jubelirer
Submitted: December 19, 2008
BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, President Judge, HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge, HONORABLE JOSEPH F. McCLOSKEY, Senior Judge.
The Department of Labor & Industry, Bureau of Workers' Compensation (Bureau) petitions for review of an order of the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Board), which affirmed the decision of a workers' compensation judge (WCJ) granting Ethan-Allen Eldridge Division's and St. Paul Travelers Insurance Company's (collectively, Employer) Application for Supersedeas Fund Reimbursement (Reimbursement Application).
At issue in this case is whether the WCJ properly granted Employer's Reimbursement Application under Section 443 of the Workers' Compensation Act (Act),*fn1 when Employer's underlying Petition to Suspend Benefits (Suspension Petition) had been granted after the approval of a compromise and release agreement (the C&R) entered into between Employer and Susan Kilpatrick (Claimant). Through the C&R, Employer and Claimant settled "any workers' compensation claim against the [Employer] for any injury she may have sustained during the course of her employment with [Employer]." (C&R ¶ 15(B).) However, the C&R also contained language that specifically left open, for resolution by a WCJ, the question of whether Employer was entitled to a suspension of benefits for a set period of time. The Bureau contends that the C&R's general release language relinquished all claims, including the Suspension Petition, such that Employer was not able to receive reimbursement through the Supersedeas Fund.
The relevant facts in this matter are as follows. On March 3, 2005, Claimant sustained an injury to her left foot during the course of her employment with Employer. Employer issued a Notice of Compensation Payable on March 15, 2005. On April 11, 2006, Employer filed both a Suspension Petition and a Petition to Terminate Benefits. These petitions included requests for supersedeas, which were denied by the WCJ on May 25, 2006.
On January 12, 2007, during the pendency of the Suspension Petition and Termination Petition, Employer and Claimant executed the C&R and submitted it to the WCJ for approval. In the C&R, Employer agreed to provide Claimant with a lump-sum payment of $22,500 (with $4,500 of that amount allocated for attorney's fees). (C&R ¶ 18(C).) Also in the C&R, Claimant agreed to a waiver of all workers' compensation claims. However, the C&R also contained specific language indicating that the Suspension Petition for the period of March 10, 2006 until January 12, 2007, would remain open for subsequent determination. The C&R contained the following language relevant to the current proceeding:
10. Summarize all benefits to be paid on and after the date of this stipulation or agreement for reasonable and necessary medical treatment causally related to the injury and the length of time of such payment of benefits is to continue.
The [C]laimant and the [Employer] have agreed to settle any and all claims arising out of the work incident of March 3, 2005, including but not limited to any wage loss, physical, mental or disfigurement claims, as well as any claims for the payment of medical benefits in exchange for a lump sum payment of $22,500.00. The [Employer] will not be liable for any medical bills incurred by the [C]laimant, subsequent to the approval of the C&R Agreement, regardless of whether said medical bills are reasonable, necessary and causally related to the acknowledged work injury.
15. State the issues involved in this claim and the reasons why the parties are entering into this agreement.
A. The [C]laimant and the [Employer] desire to enter into this C&R Agreement so as to avoid the time, costs, and uncertainty of future litigation.
B. The [C]laimant understands and agrees that, subsequent to the approval of this C&R Agreement, she will be forever precluded from bringing any workers' compensation claim against the [Employer] for any injury she may have sustained during the course of her employment with the [Employer], including but not limited to any injury arising out of the work incident of March 3, 2005.
C. Whether the [C]laimant understands and agrees that subsequent to the approval of the [C&R], the [Employer] will not be liable for the payment of any medical bills incurred by the claimant after the approval date, regardless of whether said medical bills are reasonable, necessary and causally related to the acknowledged work injury.
D. Whether the [C]laimant understands and agrees that the [Employer] believes that it is entitled to a suspension of the
[C]laimant's workers' compensation benefits as of March 10, 2006 and that the parties will allow the [WCJ] to decide the [Employer]'s entitlement to a suspension of benefits for the period running from March 10, 2006 until January 12, 2007. In the event that the [WCJ] rules in favor of the [Employer] with regard to the suspension issue, [the Employer] agrees and acknowledges that it is not entitled to any reimbursement or other remuneration from the Claimant.
18. Miscellaneous provisions, if any.
D. The [C]laimant and the [Employer] have agreed that independent of this settlement, the [WCJ] will decide the issue of the [Employer]'s entitlement to a suspension of the [C]laimant's workers' compensation benefits for the period running from March 10, 2006 to January 12, 2007.
(C&R ¶¶ 10, 15, 18(D) (emphases added).)
As of the time that Employer's counsel submitted the C&R to the WCJ, the WCJ had already conducted multiple hearings; heard live testimony from Claimant; heard testimony from several witnesses for Employer, received an IME report and the deposition of the IME ...