Castro v. Viera

Decision Date10 May 1988
Docket NumberNo. 13231,13231
Citation207 Conn. 420,541 A.2d 1216
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesMarie D. CASTRO et al. v. Joaquim VIERA et al.

Joseph F. Skelley, Jr., with whom were Bernard Poliner, Hartford, and, on the brief, Elizabeth M. Christofaro, for appellants (named defendant et al.).

Henry B. Hurvitz, Hartford, for appellees (plaintiffs).

Before ARTHUR H. HEALEY, SHEA, CALLAHAN, GLASS and COVELLO, JJ. ARTHUR H. HEALEY, Associate Justice.

This appeal concerns the Connecticut Workers' Compensation Act. General Statutes § 31-275 et seq. The plaintiffs are Marie Castro and her minor children. The defendants are Joaquim and Mary Viera. The workers' compensation commissioner (commissioner) for the first district dismissed the plaintiffs' claim for benefits after he denied the plaintiffs' motion to preclude 1 the defendants from "contesting liability" because the defendants failed to file a "Notice of Intent to Contest Liability" pursuant to General Statutes § 31-297(b) 2 within twenty days after receiving notice of their claim for benefits. The claim arose out of the death on September 30, 1983, of Rogerio Castro, the husband of the named plaintiff and father of the plaintiff children, while he had been working on premises owned by the defendants.

After an evidentiary hearing, the commissioner specifically found, inter alia, that prior to September 30, 1983, the decedent had worked for the defendants as an independent contractor and did not have an employer-employee relationship with them. The commissioner also found that, on September 30, 1983, when the decedent had fallen to his death from a ladder at the defendants' building, "[he] was not working as an employee of the [defendants]." The commissioner, after denying the motion to preclude, dismissed the claim for benefits, essentially concluding that the defendants were not precluded under the statute from raising the jurisdictional defense of the lack of the requisite employer-employee relationship between the decedent and the defendants necessary to the application of the act. In doing so, the commissioner determined that, although the defendants had not "contested liability on or before the twentieth day after receiving the [plaintiffs'] written notice of claim," the commissioner did receive, on January 5, 1984, a form 43-67, Notice to Contest Liability to Pay Compensation (form 43). The reasons, set out on this form 43, for contesting liability by the defendants were as follows: " 'No jurisdiction under Conn. Workers' Compensation Act as there is no Employer-Employee relationship.' 'Injury and death not work related.' " The commissioner rejected the plaintiffs' argument that the failure of the defendants to file a timely notice precluded them from contesting their right to receive benefits on any grounds, including jurisdictional grounds. The plaintiffs cited Bush v. Quality Bakers of America, 2 Conn.App. 363, 373, 479 A.2d 820, cert. denied, 194 Conn. 804, 482 A.2d 709 (1984), in support of this position and cited the following language from Bush: "By not contesting compensability, Quality [the employer] waived any jurisdiction claim." Pointing out that the lack of an employer-employee relationship was not at issue in Bush, the commissioner opined that the reference of the Appellate Court to the waiver of any jurisdictional claim therefore had no applicability to the lack of an employer-employee relationship.

Following the dismissal of their claim for benefits by the commissioner, the plaintiffs appealed the decision of the commissioner to the compensation review division. General Statutes § 31-301. 3 The compensation review division decided that the commissioner had erred in denying the plaintiffs' motion to preclude under § 32-297(b). The compensation review division panel specifically based its finding of error on LaVogue v. Cincinnati, Inc., 9 Conn.App. 91, 516 A.2d 151, cert. denied, 201 Conn. 814, 518 A.2d 72 (1986). In doing so, that panel said: "LaVogue held, 'If an employer fails to file a notice contesting liability, the employer shall be conclusively presumed to have accepted the compensability of the employee's injury....' Id. at 93. LaVogue holds that where a conclusive presumption of liability arises, liability cannot be attacked on any grounds, including jurisdiction." It remanded the matter to the commissioner for further proceedings.

Thereafter, the defendants appealed the review division's reversal of the commissioner's denial of the plaintiffs' motion to preclude under § 31-297(b) to the Appellate Court. The appeal was then transferred to this court pursuant to Practice Book § 4023. We find error.

On appeal, the defendants maintain that the review division erred in reversing the commissioner's conclusion that they did not "waive" subject matter jurisdiction by failing to file a timely written notice of their intention to contest their liability to pay compensation to the plaintiffs under § 31-297(b). They contend that the conclusive presumption of the act embodied in § 31-297(b) applies only to contestability as it relates to liability and not to the basic question of whether the act applies to the matter. Subject matter jurisdiction over this matter, they argue, is not present and it cannot be conferred by waiver, consent, silence or agreement of the parties. Disputing the relevancy of the legislative history referred to by the plaintiffs as well as the case law cited by the compensation review division and the plaintiffs, they contend that the act itself, phrased in terms of "employer" and "employee" status, speaks to the legislative intent as to the relationship that must exist to trigger potential coverage under the act. Claiming that the case law relied upon by the plaintiffs and the review division is readily distinguishable, they assert that the commissioner, confronted with the claim of lack of subject matter jurisdiction, had the obligation to decide that question before proceeding at all.

On the other hand, the plaintiffs claim that, because of the language of § 31-297(b), legislative history and the case law, the failure of one who receives a notice of claim for workers' compensation benefits to file a notice contesting that claim within the twenty day period "means that liability for the claim is accepted and there is no right thereafter to contest the claim for any reason whatsoever." Included in the plaintiffs' position is their argument that the defendants' contention that the lack of an employer-employee relationship deprives the workers' compensation commission of jurisdiction does not apply when reviewing the applicability of § 31-297(b) in relation to "the complete jurisdictional scheme of the entire Workers' Compensation Act."

Although we said in Perille v. Raybestos-Manhattan-Europe, Inc., 196 Conn. 529, 541, 494 A.2d 555 (1985), that the Workers' Compensation Act was of " 'broad humanitarian scope' ... and is 'remedial' and 'should be broadly construed ...' " we then went on specifically to say: "It is thus fair to proceed on the premise that the act was intended to be and is the exclusive remedy available where it appears that the necessary employer-employee relationship exists and the injury-producing transaction arises out of and in the course of that employment unless it is demonstrated otherwise." (Emphasis added.) Id., 541-42, 494 A.2d 555. 4 The burden in a workers' compensation claim rests upon the claimant to prove that he is an "employee" under the act and thus is entitled to invoke the act. Bourgeois v. Cacciapuoti, 138 Conn. 317, 321, 84 A.2d 122 (1951); Morganelli v. Derby, 105 Conn. 545, 551, 135 A. 911 (1927). This relationship is threshold because it is settled law that the "commissioner's jurisdiction is 'confined by the Act and limited by its provisions.' " Gagnon v. United Aircraft Corporation, 159 Conn. 302, 305, 268 A.2d 660 (1970). Long ago, we said that the jurisdiction of the commissioners "is confined by the Act and limited by its provisions. Unless the Act gives the Commissioner the right to take jurisdiction over a claim, it cannot be conferred upon [the commissioner] by the parties either by agreement, waiver or conduct." Jester v. Thompson, 99 Conn. 236, 238, 121 A. 470 (1923). Because the act is a legislative enactment, "[t]he legislative will as expressed in the [Workers'] Compensation Act, is conclusive upon [a] court and gives us no alternative but to hold that the commissioner was without jurisdiction in the premises." Walsh v. A. Waldron & Sons, 112 Conn. 579, 586, 153 A. 298 (1931); Vegliante v. New Haven Clock Co., 143 Conn. 571, 581, 124 A.2d 526 (1956). While it is correct that the act provides for proceedings that "were designed to facilitate a speedy, efficient and inexpensive disposition" of matters covered by the act; Menzies v. Fisher, 165 Conn. 338, 346, 334 A.2d 452 (1973); Gagnon v. United Aircraft Corporation, supra, 159 Conn. at 306, 268 A.2d 660; the charter for doing so is the act itself. The authority given by the legislature is carefully circumscribed and jurisdiction under the act is clearly defined and limited to what are clearly the legislative concerns in this remedial statute.

With this background, we take up the issue of whether the conclusive presumption in § 31-297(b) precluded the commissioner from deciding, as he did, that there was no subject matter jurisdiction of the proferred claim under the act and that, therefore, the matter was properly dismissed for that reason. We agree with the commissioner.

In speaking of a court in general, we have said: " ' "Jurisdiction of the subject-matter is the power [of the court] to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong." ' " Henry F. Raab Connecticut, Inc. v. J.W. Fisher Co., 143 Conn. 108, 111-12, 438 A.2d 834 (1981). "A court has subject matter jurisdiction if it has the authority to adjudicate a...

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