Stevens v. S.T. Servs. and C.N.A. Ins. Cos

Stevens v. S.T. Servs. and C.N.A. Ins. Cos., No. WC15-5839 (Mar. 8, 2016)

The employer and insurer petitioned to vacate an Award on Stipulation served and filed in 1994 which found the employee permanently & totally disabled; they moved on the bases of mutual mistake of fact and substantial change in medical condition.

The insurer learned from discussions with the employee that from 2008-2010, the employee was working as a plumbing specialist for Home Depot in Alaska. The employee worked nearly full time in a role where he advised customers but did no manual labor; he subsequently moved back to Minnesota in 2010.

In June 2011, the employer and insurer filed a petition to discontinue benefits. The employer and Insurer argued employee had returned to employment and was no longer permanently totally disabled.

Initially, the Worker’s Compensation Court of Appeals referred the matter to the Office of Administrative Hearings for determination. A compensation judge found the employee was no longer permanently and totally disabled. The employee appealed and the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals affirmed. The employee appealed to Minnesota Supreme Court and the case was remanded based on the employee’s argument that employer and insurer were precluded by statute from discontinuing permanent total disability via a petition to discontinue. The Minnesota Supreme Court instructed that the petition to discontinue should be dismissed and that the employer and insurer would need to seek vacation of the prior award under the standards set forth in Minn. Stat. § 176.461.

The employer and insurer subsequently petitioned the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals for vacation of award.

In the instant case, the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals structured its opinion on whether the employer and insurer could show “cause” for vacation of award under § 176.461; it specifically addressed whether the employer and insurer established a “mutual mistake of fact” or a substantial change in medical condition since the time of award.

With regards to mutual mistake, the employer argued that all parties understood the employee was unable to work at the time of settlement, when he was in fact employable. The court of appeals rejected this argument, reasoning that the fact the employee found work in Alaska fourteen years after settlement did not relate back to the circumstances in 1994.

The employer and insurer also argued a substantial change in medical condition occurred based on medical records from 26 years ago (dated four years before the settlement). In this regard, the court found the employer and insurer failed to submit evidence in support of their claim. With regards to employer and insurer’s related argument that the employee’s return to work established the requisite change in medical conditions, the court acknowledged that while change in ability to work is a factor to consider, the limited nature of the employee’s work duties cut against this finding, along with the absence of persuasive medical records.