Hufnagel v. Deer River Health Care, et al.

Hufnagel v. Deer River Health Care, et al., No. WC17-6057 (W.C.C.A. Dec. 5, 2017).

This matter involves an attorney fee claim filed by the Employee’s attorney related to three work injuries the Employee sustained while working at Deer River Health Care, which eventually became Essentia Health. Essentia Health was insured by a different insurer than Deer River Health Care. The first injury occurred at Deer River Health Care on June 22, 2009. The second two injuries occurred at Essentia Health on August 14, 2014 and June 10, 2015.

At Hearing, the parties stipulated that the June 22, 2009 injury was compensable. As a result, the issues were whether the Employee sustained the second two injuries in 2014 and 2015, whether any injuries were substantial contributing factors to the Employee’s condition, entitlement to TTD benefits following the 2014 and 2015 injuries, apportionment of benefits, and reimbursement of intervention interests. The compensation judge determined that the Employee did sustain 2014 and 2015 injuries, which were temporary in nature and since resolved. He further held that the Employee’s 2009 injury was a substantial contributing factor to his current condition. TTD and medical benefits were awarded, and there was no apportionment.

Following the compensation judge’s Order, the employee’s attorney filed a Statement of Attorney Fees and Costs for Roraff/Irwin and .191 fees along with costs. The compensation judge awarded contingent fees, Subd. 7 fees, Roraff fees, and costs in the Findings and Order, and determined that these fees were insufficient to compensate the Employee’s attorney. As result, the Employee was awarded an additional $8,000.00 in Roraff/Irwin fees, but his claim for .191 fees was denied. In issuing this award, the compensation judge indicated the Employee’s attorney spent an unreasonable amount of time in establishing liability for the 2009 injury. The compensation judge solely awarded fees relating to the 2014 and 2015 injuries. The Employee’s attorney appealed this award.

On review, the W.C.C.A. must determine whether “findings of fact and order [are] clearly erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted.” Minn. Stat. § 176.421, subd. 1(3); see also Hengemuhle v. Long Prairie Jaycees; Northern States Power Co. v. Lyon Food Prods., Inc. Questions of law are to be reviewed de novo. Krovchuk v. Koch Oil Refinery.

The W.C.C.A. vacated and remanded the compensation judge’s fee award.  The W.C.C.A. indicated that .191 fees are “authorized where the primary issue is apportionment of benefits.” The Court indicated that the compensation judge’s decision focused on whether the 2009 date of injury continued to be a substantial contributing factor to the employee’s condition, but did not address the degree to which the Employers asserted each other were responsible for the Employee’s claims. The W.C.C.A. indicated the compensation judge must determine the amount of .191 fees due, whether they should be apportioned, and if so, how.

In order to obtain excess Roraff fees, an employee’s attorney must show that medical benefits were awarded and the attorney fees awarded were not adequate compensation. The compensation judge indicated the employee’s attorney met this criteria. The W.C.C.A. indicated that although the compensation judge applied all of the Irwin factors, the judge should not have treated the time spent on the 2009 injury as unreasonable. Further, because the compensation judge should have awarded .191 fees, the entire fee award was vacated and remanded in order to “consider whether the totality of fees awarded is adequate to compensate the employee’s attorney for the representing provided.” It was noted further noted that if attorneys are unable to obtain reasonable fees in workers’ compensation matters, it may have a “chilling effect” on attorneys willingly representing employees with complicated cases.