Hall v. Gilbert and Bennett Mfg. Co., Inc.

Decision Date03 June 1997
Docket NumberNo. SC,SC
Citation241 Conn. 282,695 A.2d 1051
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesGarland HALL v. GILBERT and BENNETT MANUFACTURING COMPANY, INC., et al. 15608.

Michelle D. Truglia, Assistant Attorney General, with whom, on the brief, were Richard Blumenthal, Attorney General, and William J. McCullough, Assistant Attorney General, for appellant (defendant second injury fund).

Joseph J. Passaretti, Jr., Milford, for appellee (named defendant).

Before CALLAHAN, C.J., and BORDEN, NORCOTT, PALMER and McDONALD, JJ.

CALLAHAN, Chief Justice.

This is an appeal by the defendant 1 the second injury fund (fund), from a decision of the compensation review board (board). The principal issue is whether the board correctly concluded that the provisions of Public Acts 1995, No. 95-277, § 4(a) (P.A. 95-277), 2 now codified at General Statutes § 31-349c, applied prospectively only and did not apply retroactively to a claim in which the claimant's second injury occurred before July 1, 1995, the effective date of P.A. 95-277. Section 31-349c requires a party seeking to transfer liability for a claim to the fund pursuant to General Statutes § 31-349(a) and (b) 3 to submit all controverted issues concerning the existence of a previous disability to the chairman of the workers' compensation commission (chairman), who is required to submit such disputes to a three physician panel for determination. We conclude that the legislature intended § 31-349c to apply retroactively. We therefore reverse the decision of the board and remand the case for further proceedings.

The record reveals the following facts and procedural history. On June 23, 1980, the claimant, Garland Hall, sustained an injury to his cervical spine arising out of and in the course of his employment with the defendant Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing Company, Inc. (Gilbert and Bennett). On August 11, 1983, the defendant Travelers Insurance Company (Travelers), the workers' compensation carrier for Gilbert and Bennett, notified the fund, on behalf of Gilbert and Bennett, of its intent to transfer liability for Hall's claim to the fund pursuant to § 31-349. In support of its transfer request, Travelers alleged that Hall had various spinal conditions that predated the June 23, 1980 injury, and that the combination of these preexisting permanent conditions with the injuries sustained in the 1980 accident resulted in a permanent disability materially and substantially greater than would have existed in the absence of the preexisting conditions. The fund questioned the medical assertions of Travelers, and eventually rejected Travelers' transfer request.

On August 8, 1995, at Travelers' request, the trial commissioner (commissioner) held a formal hearing addressing whether transfer of Hall's claim to the fund was appropriate. At the hearing, the fund argued that the commissioner had no jurisdiction to entertain Travelers' transfer request because P.A. 95-277, § 4(a), mandated that all contested issues regarding the existence of a previous disability under § 31-349 were to be decided by a panel of three physicians to be appointed by the chairman. The commissioner agreed with the fund. 4 Travelers subsequently petitioned the board for review of the commissioner's decision. The board reversed the commissioner's decision and remanded the case for a hearing on the transfer request. After first determining that it had jurisdiction to consider Travelers' appeal, the board concluded that P.A. 95-277, § 4(a), affected substantive rather than procedural rights, and, therefore, that it should be applied only prospectively from July 1, 1995, its effective date. 5 The fund appealed from the decision of the board to the Appellate Court pursuant to General Statutes § 31-301b, 6 and we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to Practice Book § 4023 and General Statutes § 51-199(c).

I

The first issue that this court must address is whether we have jurisdiction to consider the merits of the fund's appeal. That inquiry initially requires us to answer two questions: First, we must determine whether the board had subject matter jurisdiction over Travelers' appeal pursuant to General Statutes § 31-301(a). 7 Next, we must determine whether the board's decision constituted an appealable final judgment pursuant to § 31-301b. If we determine, on the basis of the answers to those two questions, that the present appeal is not properly before us, we then must determine whether there is another jurisdictional basis to consider the merits of the appeal.

We first address the question of whether the board had subject matter jurisdiction. In its brief to the board, the fund declined to argue the merits of Travelers' appeal. Rather, it claimed, inter alia, that the board lacked jurisdiction to entertain the appeal because, the fund contended, none of the statutory prerequisites necessary under § 31-301(a) for an appeal to the board existed. In support of this claim, the fund argued that, because the commissioner had not entered an award, had not issued a decision on a motion, and had not issued an order pursuant to General Statutes § 31-299b, 8 the board lacked jurisdiction. The board concluded, however, on the basis of the provision of § 31-301(a) allowing a party to appeal from a commissioner's decision on a motion, that it did have jurisdiction over Travelers' appeal from the commissioner's decision. In its brief to this court, the fund renewed its argument that the board lacked subject matter jurisdiction. 9

We begin our analysis by noting that "[a]dministrative agencies are tribunals of limited jurisdiction and their jurisdiction is dependent entirely upon the validity of the statutes vesting them with power and they cannot confer jurisdiction upon themselves.... [A]n administrative body must act strictly within its statutory authority, within constitutional limitations and in a lawful manner.... It cannot modify, abridge or otherwise change the statutory provisions, under which it acquires authority unless the statutes expressly grant it that power." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Castro v. Viera, 207 Conn. 420, 428, 541 A.2d 1216 (1988). "It is a familiar principle that [an administrative agency] which exercises a limited and statutory jurisdiction is without jurisdiction to act unless it does so under the precise circumstances and in the manner particularly prescribed by the enabling legislation." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., at 427-28, 541 A.2d 1216.

Section 31-301(a) defines the board's appellate jurisdiction. It affords parties the right to appeal from three distinct actions of a commissioner: (1) an entry of an award; (2) a decision upon a motion; or (3) an order according to the provisions of § 31-299b. Dixon v. United Illuminating Co., 232 Conn. 758, 775-76, 657 A.2d 601 (1995). The commissioner did not enter an award, nor did he issue an order according to the provisions of § 31-299b. The only basis upon which the board could have exercised jurisdiction, therefore, was the provision of § 31-301(a) allowing an appeal from a commissioner's decision on a motion. Consequently, the question before us is whether the commissioner's ruling at the August 8, 1995 hearing properly can be characterized as a decision on a motion. There is no definition of "motion" in the Worker's Compensation Act, General Statutes § 31-275 et seq. Practice Book § 197, 10 however, defines a motion as "any application to the court for an order, which application is to be acted upon by the court or any judge thereof...." Black's Law Dictionary (6th Ed.1990) defines a motion as "[a]n application made to a court or judge for [the] purpose of obtaining a rule or order directing some act to be done in favor of the applicant."

With these two definitions in mind, we turn to the commissioner's ruling at the August 8, 1995 hearing. Travelers ostensibly requested the hearing so that the commissioner could hear evidence and make a determination of all of the factual issues necessary to transfer liability for Hall's claim to the fund pursuant to § 31-349. See footnote 3. The fund objected to the hearing claiming that P.A. § 95-277, § 4(a), removed from the commissioner's purview any determination regarding the existence of a previous disability. We construe the fund's objection to the August 8, 1995 hearing going forward, and its request that the previous disability issue be submitted to the chairman pursuant to P.A. 95-277, § 4(a), as an application to the commissioner for a continuance of the proceeding pending submission of the previous disability issue to the chairman, and the rendering of an opinion by a three physician panel appointed by the chairman pursuant to P.A. 95-277, § 4(a). In essence, the fund orally moved the commissioner for "a rule or order directing some act to be done in favor of the applicant"; Black's Law Dictionary (6th Ed.), p. 1013; i.e., to continue the proceeding pending further proceedings in accordance with the provisions of P.A. 95-277, § 4(a). We conclude that the commissioner's oral ruling granting the fund's application for a continuance of the proceeding amounted to a decision on a motion pursuant to § 31-301(a) and, therefore, that the board properly determined that it had subject matter jurisdiction over Travelers' appeal.

We next must determine whether the board's decision reversing and remanding the case to the commissioner constitutes an appealable final judgment in accordance with § 31-301b and our case law interpreting § 31-301b. We raised this issue, sua sponte, prior to oral argument. Section 31-301b provides that "[a]ny party aggrieved by the decision of the [c]ompensation [r]eview [b]oard upon any question or questions of law arising in the proceedings may appeal the decision of the [c]ompensation [r]eview [b]oard to the Appellate Court." We have stated, however, that "appellate...

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