Armijo v. Save 'N Gain

Decision Date28 February 1989
Docket NumberNo. 10558,10558
Citation1989 NMCA 14,108 N.M. 281,771 P.2d 989
PartiesYvette B. ARMIJO, Claimant-Appellant, v. SAVE 'N GAIN and Penn General Southwest, Respondents-Appellees.
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico
OPINION

DONNELLY, Judge.

Claimant, Yvette Armijo, appeals the denial of her motion seeking to reopen her worker's compensation claim for psychological disability in order to permit a formal hearing on the merits. The principal issue raised by claimant on appeal is whether the Workers' Compensation Division (WCD) hearing officer abused his discretion by refusing to allow claimant to reject the recommended resolution made by the prehearing officer after she had filed a written acceptance of the proposed administrative resolution. We affirm.

Claimant was employed by Save 'N Gain in Albuquerque as a stocker. On July 27, 1987, she filed a worker's compensation claim for psychological disability alleging that she suffered a disabling injury on June 24, 1987. Respondents, Save 'N Gain and Penn General Southwest, denied the claim in their response filed on August 12, 1987. Claimant's dispute was heard by a prehearing officer in an informal conference on August 24, 1987, at which claimant appeared pro se and respondents appeared with counsel. On November 3, 1987, the prehearing officer issued a recommended resolution of the claim beyond the sixty-day statutory time limit prescribed in NMSA 1978, Section 52-5-5(C) (Repl.Pamp.1987). After the recommended resolution was issued, claimant consulted an attorney. Thereafter both claimant and respondent filed written acceptances of the prehearing officer's recommended resolutions. Claimant's written acceptance was filed November 20, 1987. On January 25, 1988, claimant, acting on the advice of a different attorney, moved for leave to file a rejection of the recommendations and requested permission to revoke her written acceptance and be accorded a hearing on the merits. Claimant appeals the denial of that motion.

I. JURISDICTIONAL ISSUES

We initially address two jurisdictional issues raised by claimant.

(A) Claimant contends that the WCD prehearing officer's failure to issue the recommended resolution within 60 days rendered it void and exhausted his jurisdiction to take any further action in the matter. Claimant argues that the prehearing officer's issuance of a recommended resolution 41 days after the statutory deadline raises a jurisdictional question. Although the jurisdictional issue was not included in claimant's docketing statement, appellate review of this question is not limited where the issue involves the forum's subject matter jurisdiction. SCRA 1986, 12-216(B). A jurisdictional defect may not be waived and may be raised at any stage of the proceedings, even sua sponte by the appellate court. State v. Ramirez, 89 N.M. 635, 556 P.2d 43 (Ct.App.1976).

Legislation prescribing the sixty-day time requirement for the issuance of a recommended administrative resolution, as set forth in Section 52-5-5(C), became effective June 19, 1987. The statute provides in applicable part:

Upon receipt, every claim shall be evaluated by the director or his designee, who shall then contact all parties and attempt to informally resolve the dispute. Within sixty days after receipt of the claim, the director shall issue his recommendations for resolution * * *. Within thirty days of receipt of the recommendation of the director, each party shall notify the director on a form provided by him of the acceptance or rejection of the recommendation. A party failing to notify the director waives any right to reject the recommendation and is bound conclusively by the director's recommendation unless, upon application made to the director within thirty days after the foregoing deadline, the director finds that the party's failure to notify was the result of excusable neglect. If either party makes a timely rejection of the director's recommendation, the claim shall be assigned to a hearing officer for hearing. [Emphasis added.]

Claimant filed her claim on July 27, 1987. The recommended resolution was not issued until November 3, 1987, more than three months after the claim was received by the WCD.

In Lopez v. New Mexico Board of Medical Examiners, 107 N.M. 145, 754 P.2d 522 (1988), the supreme court addressed an issue concerning the validity of the decision of the state medical licensing board after the expiration of a prescribed statutory deadline. The court concluded that a statutory time limit on actions by that board was "expressly jurisdictional" and that action taken by the board after the time had run was without force and effect. Id. Claimant also relies on Foster v. Board of Dentistry, 103 N.M. 776, 714 P.2d 580 (1986) (ruling by review board revoking a professional license after expiration of time period prescribed by law held null and void). See also Varoz v. New Mexico Bd. of Podiatry, 104 N.M. 454, 722 P.2d 1176 (1986) (limitation period imposed by statute held a procedural safeguard).

Claimant asserts that here, as in Foster and Lopez, the language of the statute indicates a legislative intent to impose a time limit on the ability of the WCD to issue a recommended informal resolution. Claimant contends the court may not alter a clear legislative condition and statutory intent of providing a "quick and efficient delivery of indemnity and medical benefits to injured and disabled workers." NMSA 1978, Sec. 52-5-1 (Repl.Pamp.1987); Sanchez v. Bernalillo County, 57 N.M. 217, 257 P.2d 909 (1953). While it is clear that in adopting a process for the informal resolution of workers' compensation claims, the legislature intended to provide a procedure for expediting worker's compensation claims, we discern no legislative intent that the sixty-day time limit stated in Section 52-5-5(C) preclude further administrative action in this case.

Statutes governing the revocation of professional licenses reflect a legislative determination that a balance should be struck between the public's need to be protected and the licensee's individual property right to earn a livelihood under a state-conferred license. Varoz v. New Mexico Bd. of Podiatry. In contrast, the statutory time requirement for action by the WCD director or his designee contained in Section 52-5-5(C) is designed to provide an expeditious method for the resolution of workers' claims. The thrust of the statute indicates that the rights of the parties in a workers' compensation action are not subject to forfeiture because of the division's failure to comply with statutory deadlines. Instead, Section 52-5-1 affirmatively declares that it "is the specific intent of the legislature that benefit claims be decided on their merits * * *."

Section 52-5-5(C) read together with the legislatively declared purposes set forth in Section 52-5-1 of the Workers' Compensation Act reveals a legislative intent that the WCD should not be deprived of administrative jurisdiction when the issuance of recommended resolutions are delayed beyond the prescribed statutory time limit. Instead, we conclude that a failure of the director to comply with the legislative time constraints imposed by Section 52-5-5(C) permits the parties to either waive any delay in the rendition of the informal resolution and await the recommended resolution or, if no informal resolution has been filed after the expiration of the sixty-day period, to invoke its right to a prompt hearing on the merits before a hearing officer without further delay and without the necessity of awaiting the issuance of an informal settlement recommendation. Here claimant's election to accept the delayed recommendation effectively waived any objection to the untimeliness of the director's recommendation. Thus, the delay in the issuance of the recommended informal resolution did not deprive the WCD of further jurisdiction to act in this matter.

(B) Claimant additionally asserts that she was effectively denied due process of law herein and the right to have her case decided on the merits when her claim for psychological disability was considered in an informal conference under administrative procedures established under the Workers' Compensation Act. See NMSA 1978, Sec. 52-5-7 (Repl.Pamp.1987). Specifically claimant argues that she was deprived of due process by requiring her to submit to an informal adjudication of her claim under circumstances where no record was made of the proceedings, no testimony of supporting witnesses was required, adverse witnesses were not presented for cross examination, and no findings of fact or conclusions of law were made. Claimant further alleges that neither the Workers' Compensation Act nor the Rules and Regulations adopted by the WCD authorize the prehearing officer to make a final disposition on a claim. We understand claimant's arguments here as challenging the constitutionality of the Workers' Compensation Act and the jurisdiction of the WCD to conclusively determine her claims. Although this issue was not clearly asserted in claimant's docketing statement, we nevertheless consider the contention because it raises a jurisdictional issue. See SCRA 1986, 12-216(B).

Claimant's due process rights, however, are not deemed denied unless she is deprived of a reasonable opportunity to present her case and have the merits of her claims fairly judged in "some form of hearing" in an appropriate forum. Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., 455 U.S. 422, 433, 102 S.Ct. 1148, 1156, 71 L.Ed.2d 265 (1982) (emphasis omitted).

Claimant argues that neither the Workers' Compensation Act nor the rules and regulations promulgated by the WCD empower a prehearing officer with the authority to make a final disposition of her claim. We disagree. Section 52-5-7 establishes a procedure for informal hearings to...

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