DuBois v. Workers' Comp. Appeals Bd.

Decision Date28 June 1993
Docket NumberNo. S018824,S018824
Citation853 P.2d 978,5 Cal.4th 382,20 Cal.Rptr.2d 523
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 853 P.2d 978 Scott Russell DuBOIS, Petitioner, v. WORKERS' COMPENSATION APPEALS BOARD, Robert A. Rohrer et al., Respondents.

William A. Herreras, San Luis Obispo, for petitioner.

Phillip N. Bruce, Sacramento, as amicus curiae on behalf of petitioner.

John M. Rea, Leland D. Starkey, Vanessa L. Holton, Raoul Thorbourne and Sue Tuskes, Dept. of Indus. Relations, San Francisco, for respondents.

GEORGE, Justice.

In this case we must determine whether the State of California Uninsured Employers Fund (UEF), whose function it is to pay workers' compensation benefits in the event the employer of an injured worker is not insured for workers' compensation liability, is subject to payment of a penalty pursuant to Labor Code section 5814 1 for the UEF's own unreasonable delay in payment of benefits to the injured worker.

The UEF asserts that section 3716.2 exempts it from any penalty for unreasonable delay in the payment of benefits pursuant to section 5814, whether the entity responsible for the delay is the employer or the UEF. Scott Russell DuBois, an employee whose benefits were delayed, asserts that section 3716.2 exempts the UEF only from paying those penalties that otherwise would be due from an employer for unreasonable delay or other misconduct on the part of the employer, but not from the UEF's own unreasonable delay in paying benefits. We conclude that sections 3716 and 3716.2, defining the obligations and limiting the liability of the UEF, do not permit imposition of any penalty mandated by section 5814 against the UEF, even for its own unreasonable delay in paying valid claims for workers' compensation. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal and order it to reinstate the decision of the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB), which had determined that the UEF is not liable for the payment of a penalty pursuant to section 5814.

I

On June 24, 1988, applicant DuBois sustained an injury to his neck while employed by Robert Rohrer, doing business as Rohrer Trucking, which entity subsequently was determined by the WCAB to be willfully uninsured for its liability to pay workers' compensation. The Rehabilitation Bureau of the Division of Industrial Accidents (Rehabilitation Bureau) determined DuBois was eligible for temporary disability indemnity payments during vocational rehabilitation (§§ 139.5, 3207) and, on April 20, 1989, awarded him vocational rehabilitation temporary disability (VRTD) benefits from the date of October 13, 1988, forward, its decision and order subsequently becoming final when Rohrer Trucking did not object or appeal. Despite its lack of insurance, Rohrer Trucking until mid-1989 paid most of DuBois's medical bills and provided VRTD benefits. On August 22, 1989, after conducting a hearing, a workers' compensation judge (WCJ) made "findings and [an] award" against Rohrer Trucking for the payment of the VRTD benefits to DuBois.

When Rohrer Trucking failed to make such payments, DuBois requested a supplemental hearing before the WCAB, seeking, pursuant to section 3716, subdivision (a), to collect from the UEF the award DuBois had received against Rohrer Trucking, and seeking, pursuant to section 5814, an additional amount in penalties for the unreasonable delay on the part of Rohrer Trucking in paying the benefits. On December 14, 1989, defendant Director of Industrial Relations, as administrator of the UEF Fund (§ 3710), stipulated with DuBois that his injury had caused his temporary disability and had created the need for VRTD benefits from June 25, 1988, to December 14, 1989, and for medical treatment. The UEF further stipulated it would administer and pay the balance of unpaid VRTD benefits that were owed DuBois through December 14, 1989, continue to pay VRTD benefits pursuant to the Rehabilitation Bureau's decision and order of April 20, 1989, satisfy an outstanding lien for rehabilitation services previously received by DuBois, and "pay, adjust or litigate unpaid self-procured medical" expenses. On the same date, this stipulation was entered by a WCJ as an award in favor of DuBois against the UEF. Neither the stipulation nor the award included provision for any penalties.

Not having received any payment from the UEF, DuBois on February 15, 1990, filed a petition with the WCAB, requesting that, pursuant to section 5814, a penalty of 10 percent be assessed against the UEF for its own unreasonable delay in paying the stipulated benefits. On May 24, 1990, the WCJ conducted a hearing to determine whether the UEF unreasonably had delayed making the payments. At that proceeding, DuBois stated he had received no payments under the December 14, 1989, award, and a UEF representative stated that the UEF had been unable to determine whether payments to DuBois had been made. Having requested and received written briefing on the question whether section 3716.2 precluded the assessment of any penalties against the UEF, the WCJ on June 14, 1990, issued findings and an award, determining that the UEF unreasonably had delayed payment of the stipulated benefits, and that the UEF was not exempted by section 3716.2 from penalties for its own unreasonable delay in paying the award. The WCJ ordered the UEF to pay the benefits as well as a penalty of 10 percent of the benefits awarded on December 14, 1989, pursuant to section 5814.

The UEF petitioned the WCAB for reconsideration. After granting the petition, the WCAB reversed the decision of the WCJ, concluding that section 3716.2 exempted the UEF from payment of any penalties for its own failure to pay benefits in a timely manner. Thereafter, the Court of Appeal summarily denied DuBois's petition for a writ of review, and DuBois petitioned for our review. We granted review and ordered the case transferred to the Court of Appeal, directing that it issue the writ requested and review the case.

The Court of Appeal, over the dissent of one justice, determined that the language of section 3716.2 is ambiguous, and, relying upon the legislative history of that statute, construed it to provide that, although the UEF may not be held liable for penalties assessed against the uninsured employer, it is not exempt from the payment of penalties for its own unreasonable delay in paying workers' compensation benefits. The dissent concluded that section 3716.2 precludes the imposition of any penalties against the UEF for its own unreasonable delay. We granted review.

II

The parties and the Court of Appeal have focussed upon the meaning of the sentence, contained in section 3716.2, that provides: "The Uninsured Employers Fund shall not be liable for any penalties or for the payment of interest on any awards." The parties request that we determine whether that directive exempts the UEF from the penalties for unreasonable delay that may be imposed upon employers or their insurance carriers in workers' compensation cases.

A fundamental rule of statutory construction is that a court should ascertain the intent of the Legislature so as to effectuate the purpose of the law. (Nickelsberg v. Workers' Comp. Appeals Bd. (1991) 54 Cal.3d 288, 294, 285 Cal.Rptr. 86, 814 P.2d 1328; Moyer v. Workmen's Comp. Appeals Bd. (1973) 10 Cal.3d 222, 230, 110 Cal.Rptr. 144, 514 P.2d 1224.) In construing a statute, our first task is to look to the language of the statute itself. (Ibid.) When the language is clear and there is no uncertainty as to the legislative intent, we look no further and simply enforce the statute according to its terms. (Hutnick v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co. (1988) 47 Cal.3d 456, 464, 253 Cal.Rptr. 236, 763 P.2d 1326; Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Workers' Comp. Appeals Bd. (1982) 31 Cal.3d 715, 726, 182 Cal.Rptr. 778, 644 P.2d 1257; see Code Civ.Proc., §§ 1858, 1859.)

Additionally, however, we must consider the above quoted sentence in the context of the entire statute (§ 3716.2) and the statutory scheme of which it is a part. "We are required to give effect to statutes 'according to the usual, ordinary import of the language employed in framing them.' [Citations.]" (Moyer v. Workmen's Comp. Appeals Bd., supra, 10 Cal.3d 222, 230, 110 Cal.Rptr. 144, 514 P.2d 1224; see also Dyna-Med, Inc. v. Fair Employment & Housing Com. (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1379, 1386-1387, 241 Cal.Rptr. 67, 743 P.2d 1323.) " 'If possible, significance should be given to every word, phrase, sentence and part of an act in pursuance of the legislative purpose.' [Citation.].... 'When used in a statute [words] must be construed in context, keeping in mind the nature and obvious purpose of the statute where they appear.' [Citations.] Moreover, the various parts of a statutory enactment must be harmonized by considering the particular clause or section in the context of the statutory framework as a whole. [Citations.]" (Moyer v. Workmen's Comp. Appeals Bd., supra, 10 Cal.3d 222, 230-231, 110 Cal.Rptr. 144, 514 P.2d 1224; see also Nickelsberg v. Workers' Comp. Appeals Bd., supra, 54 Cal.3d 288, 298, 285 Cal.Rptr. 86, 814 P.2d 1328; Nunn v. State of California (1984) 35 Cal.3d 616, 624-625, 200 Cal.Rptr. 440, 677 P.2d 846.) Therefore, to determine whether the Legislature intended to render the UEF liable, pursuant to section 5814, for its own unreasonable delay in paying benefits, we review not only the language of section 3716.2 but the legislative enactments of which it is a part.

III

Pursuant to the "plenary power" the Constitution has granted to the Legislature "to create, and enforce a complete system of workers' compensation" (Cal. Const., art. XIV, § 4), the Legislature has created a statutory scheme requiring all employers to secure the payment of workers' compensation to injured workers, either by obtaining insurance coverage of their liability or by obtaining a certificate of consent to self-insure issued by the Director of Industrial Relations. (§...

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