DONALD W. STEINMETZ, J.
The issue in this case is whether Wis. Stat. § 102.42(2)(a) (1993-94),
Jerry Huebner worked as a press operator for UFE. After 13 years of employment, Huebner developed work-related right and left wrist problems. After obtaining medical treatment from several doctors, Huebner's family physician, Dr. Eugene Jonas, eventually referred him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for further evaluation. Huebner visited the Mayo Clinic on three occasions and incurred medical expenses totalling $2,204.40. Although Huebner did not seek or obtain UFE's consent prior to obtaining treatment at the Mayo Clinic, he presented his medical expenses to UFE for payment. Relying on Wis. Stat. § 102.42(2)(a), UFE informed Huebner that it would not pay the Mayo Clinic expenses because Huebner had failed to obtain its consent prior to undergoing medical treatment out-of-state.
Huebner subsequently filed an application with the LIRC seeking payment of the Mayo Clinic medical expenses. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) who concluded that UFE was responsible for the expenses. The ALJ found that Wis. Stat. § 102.42(2)(a) only requires an employee to obtain consent from his or her employer before undergoing out-ofstate medical care when the employee "chooses" to
On review, LIRC agreed with the ALJ's conclusion and reasoning. It stated:
UFE, pursuant to Wis. Stat. § 102.23, petitioned for judicial review of the commission's decision. The St. Croix County Circuit Court, Judge C. A. Richards, affirmed LIRC's interpretation of the statute. UFE then sought relief from the court of appeals claiming that LIRC's interpretation contravened the plain language of the statute. The court of appeals affirmed and UFE and Pacific Indemnity Company, UFE's insurer, petitioned this court for review.
This case requires us to interpret Wis. Stat. § 102.42(2)(a) of the Worker's Compensation Act. The ultimate goal of statutory interpretation is to ascertain the intent of the legislature. See Rolo v. Goers, 174 Wis.2d 709, 715, 497 N.W.2d 724, 726 (1993). The first step of this process is to look at the language of the statute. See In Interest of Jamie L., 172 Wis.2d 218, 225, 493 N.W.2d 56, 59 (1992). If the plain meaning of the statute is clear, a court need not look to rules of statutory construction or other extrinsic aids. State Historical Society v. Maple Bluff, 112 Wis.2d 246, 252, 332 N.W.2d 792 (1983). Instead, a court should simply
We first, therefore, turn to the statute itself to determine if it is ambiguous. Wisconsin Statute § 102.42(2)(a) allows an employee to have "his or her choice of any physician, chiropractor, psychologist or podiatrist licensed to practice and practicing in this state for treatment of the injury." If, however, the employee wishes to choose a non-Wisconsin practitioner, the employer must consent. The last sentence of the subsection, however, reads: "Treatment by a practitioner on referral from another practitioner is deemed to be treatment by one practitioner." Wis. Stat. § 102.42(2)(a).
It is unclear whether the requirement of employer consent applies to all out-of-state medical care or only
The statute's ability to support two reasonable constructions creates an ambiguity which cannot be resolved through the language of the statute itself. "[A] statutory provision is ambiguous if reasonable minds could differ as to its meaning." Harnischfeger Corp. v. LIRC, 196 Wis.2d 650, 662, 539 N.W.2d 98 (1995). We therefore must turn to extrinsic sources and rules of statutory construction in order to determine the intent of the legislature in enacting Wis. Stat. § 102.42(2)(a).
One such extrinsic source is the interpretation of the agency charged with enforcing the statute. LIRC concluded that a referral by a practitioner in Wisconsin for out-of-state treatment remains "treatment" by the original Wisconsin practitioner. Furthermore, it reasoned that if an employee receives out-of-state treatment recommended by his or her initial Wisconsin practitioner, it is not because the employee has chosen such treatment, but because his or her physician has determined that such care is necessary for the employee's well-being. Since Huebner's original physician was chosen pursuant to the statute, and since Huebner did not voluntarily choose to obtain the out-ofstate treatment, LIRC determined that he was not required to obtain approval from UFE.
Although we are not bound by LIRC's interpretation, we do defer to agency interpretations in certain situations. See Parker, 184 Wis. 2d at 699. This court has identified three distinct levels of deference granted to agency decisions: great weight deference, due weight deference and de novo review. See Jicha v. DILHR, 169 Wis.2d 284, 290, 485 N.W.2d 256 (1992). Which level is appropriate "depends on the comparative institutional capabilities and qualifications of the court and the administrative agency." Parker, 184 Wis. 2d at 699. Many times, as in this case, the parties to an action strongly disagree on the proper standard to be employed.
LIRC contends that its interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 102.42(2)(a) should be accorded great weight deference. We disagree. This court recently addressed great weight deference in detail in Harnischfeger. In order for an agency interpretation to be accorded great weight deference, all four of the following requirements must be met:
Harnischfeger, 196 Wis. 2d at 660.
LIRC's experience with Wis. Stat. § 102.42(2)(a) clearly does not satisfy the requirements of the Harnischfeger
UFE, on the other hand, argues that this court should apply a de novo standard of review to LIRC's interpretation and not grant LIRC any deference. We also disagree with this position. A de novo standard of review is only applicable when the issue before the agency is clearly one of first impression, Kelley Co., Inc. v. Marquardt, 172 Wis.2d 234, 244-45, 493 N.W.2d 68, 73 (1992), or when an agency's position on an issue has been so inconsistent so as to provide no real guidance, Marten Transport, Ltd. v. DILHR, 176 Wis.2d 1012, 1018-19, 501 N.W.2d 391 (1993). As LIRC's opinions in AMC, Allans Electric, and Olson demonstrate, this is not the first time that questions concerning out-ofstate medical expenses under Wis. Stat. § 102.42(2) have come before it. LIRC has applied and interpreted this subsection over the last seven years and has developed
UFE, however, contends that LIRC has been inconsistent in its treatment of this issue and as such should not be accorded any deference. UFE points to LIRC's decision in Allans Electric where it did not allow an employee to recover certain out-of-state medical expenses. However, it is clear that Allans did not involve expenses incurred through a referral by a Wisconsin practitioner. Instead, the employee in Allans went to a doctor located in Illinois not because of a referral, but solely of his own volition. Clearly, then, because of Allans' factual dissimilarity, LIRC's position in Allans is not necessarily inconsistent with its position in Olson or this case. As such, it would be inappropriate to apply a de novo standard of review to LIRC's interpretation.
The remaining level of agency review is due weight deference. Under the due weight standard, "a court need not defer to an agency's interpretation which, while reasonable, is not the interpretation which the court considers best and most reasonable." Harnischfeger, 196 Wis. 2d at 660 n.4. Due weight deference is appropriate when the agency has some experience in an area, but has not developed the expertise which necessarily places it in a better position to make judgments regarding the interpretation of the statute than a court. The deference allowed an administrative agency under due weight is not so much based upon its knowledge or skill as it is on the fact that the legislature has charged the agency with the enforcement of the statute in question. Since in such situations the agency has had at least one opportunity to analyze the issue and formulate a position, a court will not overturn
This is very different than the deference granted to an agency under the great weight standard. If great weight deference is appropriate, a court will uphold an agency's reasonable interpretation that is not contrary to the clear meaning of the statute, even if the court feels that an alternative interpretation is more reasonable. Under due weight, however, the fact that the agency's interpretation is reasonable does not mean that its interpretation will necessarily be upheld. If a court finds an alternative interpretation more reasonable, it need not adopt the agency's interpretation. However, the court of appeals in this case, relying upon another court of appeals opinion, Carrion Corp. v. DOR, 179 Wis.2d 254, 265, 507 N.W.2d 356 (Ct. App. 1993), improperly concluded that under both great weight and due weight deference, an agency's interpretation will be upheld as long as it is reasonable.
We find, as did the court of appeals, UFE, 193 Wis. 2d at 367-68, that LIRC's interpretation should be granted due weight deference. Although it has not developed the expertise and specialized knowledge necessary to be accorded great weight deference, this case is not the first time LIRC has interpreted subsection (2)(a) either. LIRC has some experience in determining the proper medical expenses for which an employer is responsible. Therefore, LIRC's interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 102.42(2)(a) should be upheld unless there is a more reasonable interpretation available. UFE has not provided such an interpretation.
Courts should also resolve statutory ambiguities so as to advance the legislature's basic purpose in enacting the legislation. See Carkel, Inc. v. Lincoln Cir. Ct., 141 Wis.2d 257, 265-66, 414 N.W.2d 640 (1987). The Worker's Compensation Act was created to ensure that employees who become injured or ill through their employment receive the prompt and comprehensive medical care that is necessary for their well-being. See Nigbor v. DILHR, 120 Wis.2d 375, 382, 355 N.W.2d 532 (1984); Cruz v. ILHR, 81 Wis.2d 442, 449-50, 260 N.W.2d 692 (1978). This court has repeatedly held that the Act should be construed liberally in order to fully effectuate this purpose. See, e.g., West Allis School Dist. v. DILHR, 116 Wis.2d 410, 421, 342 N.W.2d 415 (1984); Nigbor, 120 Wis. 2d at 382.
Of the two possible interpretations, LIRC's allows employees to more readily receive the treatment that
This court sees no reason to discard LIRC's construction of the statute for an alternative interpretation.
By the Court.—The decision of the court of appeals is affirmed.
All future references to Wis. Stats. are to the 1993-94 statutes.