The plaintiff, Nancy O'Neil, administratrix of the estate of Bruce C. Chase (claimant), appeals from the decision of the workers' compensation review board (board) affirming the decision of the workers' compensation commissioner (commissioner) to open an approved stipulation in which the defendant second injury fund (fund) agreed to pay the claimant $384,000 in full and final settlement of his workers' compensation claim. The plaintiff claims that the board improperly affirmed the commissioner's decision because the commissioner did not have the power or jurisdiction (1) to set aside the approved stipulation on equitable grounds and (2) to issue an order for a de novo hearing. We reverse the decision of the board.
The commissioner found the following facts. On June 28, 1988, the claimant sustained a compensable injury to his lumbar spine. Effective June 28, 1990, liability for the injury was transferred to the fund pursuant to General Statutes § 31-349.
A hearing was conducted on October 18, 1996, at which time the commissioner approved the stipulation. Counsel for the claimant, the claimant's heirs, his prior counsel, the administratrix of his estate and her counsel were present at the hearing. The fund was not notified of the hearing, had no representative at the hearing and contends that it was not advised of the claimant's death until October 25, 1996.
On November 1, 1996, the fund filed a motion to open the approved stipulation. The motion was assigned to a different commissioner. The fund argued that lack of notice of the October 18, 1996 hearing violated its right to due process and that failure to disclose the claimant's death violated principles of fairness and full disclosure.
In his finding and award dated October 30, 1997, the commissioner initially acknowledged that the Workers' Compensation Act (act), General Statutes § 31-275 et seq., directs that the best interests of the claimant must be considered when approving a stipulation, that notice must be given to the parties and hearings must be held only in matters that are disputed or contested, and that the act does not appear to require notice of a hearing for approval of a stipulation. He also observed, however, that our Supreme Court has deemed the commissioner
Thereafter, the plaintiff appealed from the commissioner's decision. On January 28, 1999, the board affirmed the decision on equitable grounds pursuant to Secola v. State of Connecticut Comptroller's Office, No. 3102 CRB-05-95-06 (February 26, 1997). In Secola, the commissioner declined to approve a proposed stipulation because the respondent no longer agreed to the stipulation terms, thus negating the existence of a valid agreement under General Statutes § 31-296. Secola v. State of Connecticut Comptroller's Office, supra, No. 3102 CRB-05-95-06. The board in the present case observed that "the trial commissioner found that if the fund had been informed of the claimant's ... death, the fund would not have agreed to approval of the stipulation" and concluded that "the trial commissioner's findings that the fund was neither provided with notice of the claimant's ... death, nor with notice of the October 18, 1996 hearing, support his conclusion that approval of the stipulation ... was not equitable." This appeal followed.
The plaintiff first claims that the board improperly affirmed the commissioner's decision because the commissioner exceeded his power in setting aside the approved stipulation agreement on equitable grounds. We agree.
"As a threshold matter, we set forth the standard of review applicable to workers' compensation appeals.
"Statutory construction is a question of law and therefore our review is plenary.... [O]ur fundamental objective is to ascertain and give effect to the apparent intent of the legislature.... In seeking to discern that intent, we look to the words of the statute itself, to the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and to its relationship to existing legislation and common law principles governing the same general subject matter.... As with any issue of statutory interpretation, our initial guide is the language of the operative statutory provisions." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Kelly v. Bridgeport, 61 Conn.App. 9, 13-14, 762 A.2d 480 (2000), cert. denied, 255 Conn. 933, 767 A.2d 104 (2001).
"Although the [Workers' Compensation Act] does not explicitly provide for [stipulated settlement agreements], we have consistently upheld the ability to compromise a compensation claim as inherent in the power to make a voluntary agreement regarding compensation." Muldoon v. Homestead Insulation Co., 231 Conn. 469, 480, 650 A.2d 1240 (1994). Section 31-296
In discussing the power to grant equitable relief, our Supreme Court has stated that "[c]ourts of equity may grant relief from the operation of a judgment when to enforce it is against conscience, and where the appellant had no opportunity to make defense, or was prevented from so doing by accident, or the fraud or improper management of the opposite party, and without fault on his [or her] own part.... Fraud, accident, mistake, and surprise are recognized grounds for equitable interference, when one, without his [or her] own negligence, has lost an opportunity to present a meritorious defense to an action, and the enforcement of the judgment so obtained against him [or her] would be against equity and good conscience, and there is no adequate remedy at law.... Equity will not, save in rare and extreme cases, relieve against a judgment rendered as the result of a mistake on the part of a party or his [or her] counsel, unless the mistake is unmixed with negligence, or ... unconnected with any negligence or inattention on the part of the judgment debtor...." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Cavallo v. Derby Savings Bank, 188 Conn. 281, 284-85, 449 A.2d 986 (1982); Hoey v. Investors' Mortgage & Guaranty Co., 118 Conn. 226, 230-31, 171
We conclude that the commissioner did not have authority to grant the fund equitable relief under § 31-315 because there is no evidence that the fund was prevented from making a defense by fraud, accident, mistake, surprise or improper management of the opposite party. Paragraph eighteen of the signed stipulation agreement unequivocally states that "[i]t is agreed by and among the parties hereto that this stipulation was not induced nor entered into by fraud, accident, mistake or duress...." Moreover, under the recognized grounds for equitable interference previously cited, neither the court nor the plaintiff had a duty to inform the defendant of the approval hearing and the claimant's death after the agreement was signed, and their failure to do so could not have affected the defendant's ability to make a defense because the parties already had reached a "full, final and complete" settlement of all claims arising from the injury. Accordingly, there is no equitable ground under § 31-315 on which to provide the relief requested.
Section 31-298 is also an improper basis on which to grant the fund's motion to open and to set aside the approved stipulation. Section 31-298,
Our Supreme Court has noted that, although § 31-298 expressly refers to the rules of equity, the provision "deals with the manner in which testimony is obtained and hearings are conducted." Stickney v. Sunlight Construction, Inc., 248 Conn. 754, 765, 730 A.2d 630 (1999). Accordingly, the equitable requirements of § 31-298 do not apply to the scheduling of hearings and notice to the parties, matters that are specifically addressed in another part of the statutes, General Statutes § 31-297.
Secola is distinguishable from the present case on several grounds. First, the procedural issue in that case involved the commissioner's decision to withhold
In light of our conclusion in part I of this opinion that the commissioner did not have the authority to open and to set aside the approved stipulation, we need not review the plaintiffs claim that the commissioner exceeded his authority in issuing an order for a de novo hearing.
The decision of the compensation review board is reversed and the case is remanded to the board with direction to vacate the commissioner's finding and award dated October 30, 1997, and to reinstate the commissioner's finding and award of October 18, 1996.
In this opinion the other judges concurred.