Robert Jones v. Sturm Funeral Homes, Inc., et. al.

Robert Jones v. Sturm Funeral Homes, Inc., et. al. No. WC20-6349 (W.C.C.A. December 22, 2020).

The Employee appeals a decision from the workers’ compensation judge to not strike an untimely answer of the Employer and Insurer, and from denial of the Employee’s claims.  The Employee filed a claim petition on April 29, 2019. The Employer and Insurer filed an answer, but failed to file the answer within 20 days of service of the claim petition as required by statute.  The Office of Administrative Hearings set an immediate hearing. At hearing, the Employee argued that he was entitled to a default hearing and that the averments in the claim petition should be deemed admitted, and the claims should be awarded. The workers’ compensation judge declined to strike the answer, declined to consider the hearing a default hearing, and denied the Employee’s claims for benefits.

On appeal, the WCCA looked to the statutory language, which reads: “Within 20 days after the service of the petition, an adverse party shall serve and file an answer to the petition.”  Minn. Stat. § 176.321, subd. 1.  Should an answer not be filed within 20 days of service of the petition, the case “shall be immediately set for a hearing at the first available date under section 176.331.”  The WCCA noted that the judge considered the legislative history of the statutes. Specifically, .321 provided that if an answer was not filed, “the failure to file an answer shall be treated as a default.”  The compensation judge concluded that the legislature removed the word “default” from the statute and that was indicative of legislative intent to end default proceedings. The WCCA agreed with this reasoning and further noted that the an immediate hearing was scheduled in this case under Minn. Stat. § 176.331, providing the Employee with the statutory remedy. The WCCA affirmed.

Takeaway:  If an answer to claim petition is not filed within 20 days, the matter will be set for an immediate hearing. However, this will not be a default hearing and the judge will consider the evidence of both parties.