Michael DePue v. WCAB (N. Paone Construction, Inc.) 

1113 C.D. 2012 (PA. Cmwlth. January 30, 2013)

By: Lisa A. Miller, Esquire

 

The Commonwealth Court affirmed the Decision of the Appeal Board and WCJ which denied the Claimant’s Review Petition to add a left shoulder injury to the description of his work injury more than two (2) years after the approval of a Compromise and Release Agreement, and also denied Claimant’s Penalty Petition for failure to pay medical bills for the left shoulder injury.

 

The Claimant sustained a work-related closed head injury on February 26, 1996. On March 3, 2008, the Claimant and Defendant entered into a Compromise and Release Agreement to settle the Claimant’s indemnity benefits for a lump sum amount of $175,000.00 as “full and final satisfaction of all future wage loss benefits.”

 

The injuries described in the C&R Agreement were described as “any and all injuries. . . . including but not limited to the accepted injuries of a severe closed head injury with seizure disorder, and short term memory loss.” The Defendant agreed to continue to pay “all reasonable and related medical bills.” 

 

The Claimant filed a Penalty Petition alleging that Defendant failed, neglected, or refused to pay medical bills. The Claimant sought a fifty (50%) percent penalty on $1,200.00 in medical bills. The Claimant also filed a Review Petition alleging that the description of his work injuries were incorrect. 

 

The Defendant denied the Claimant’s allegations, and sought dismissal of the Review Petition invokingres judicata and collateral estoppel.

 

The Claimant submitted a Pre-Trial Memorandum in which he alleged that Defendant informed him in January 2010 that it would no longer pay for treatment for his left shoulder injury.

 

The Defendant submitted the WCJ’s Decision approving the Compromise and Release Agreement; the transcript of the Compromise and Release Hearing; and a packet of Proposed Addendums to the Compromise and Release Agreement prepared by Claimant’s counsel with changes, including a hand written notation made by Defendant’s counsel thereon; and the February 27, 2008 letter that Defendant’s counsel sent to Claimant’s counsel. 

 

In an Interlocutory Order, the WCJ precluded Claimant from proceeding on the Review Petition, and scheduled a hearing on the Penalty Petition to determine whether the Claimant was alleging unpaid medical bills from the left shoulder injury only, or for other injuries accepted by the Defendant. The WCJ indicated that if Claimant was alleging the medical bills only for the left shoulder injury, the Penalty Petition would be denied. Claimant’s counsel stated that the Penalty Petition was related only to the left shoulder injury, and the WCJ denied the Review and Penalty Petitions. 

 

The WCJ concluded that the Review Petition was barred byres judicatabecause the Claimant was aware of the left shoulder injury at the time of the C&R, and agreed not to include it in the Compromise and Release Agreement. The WCJ relied onWeney v. WCAB (Mac Sprinkler Systems, Inc.),960 A.2d 949 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2008). InWeney the Claimant’s first Review Petition was resolved by a Stipulation, in which the parties agreed to amend the NCP to include a shoulder injury. Three (3) days after the WCJ approved the Stipulation and granted the Review Petition, the Claimant filed another Review Petition to amend the NCP to add neck or cervical spine injuries. The Court concluded that the second Petition was barred by theres judicata because the Claimant was aware of those injuries and their causal relationship to the work incident during the first Review Petition proceeding, and should have litigated the claim during that proceeding. 

 

The Appeal Board affirmed the WCJ’s Decision, concluding that the evidence did not indicate that the C&R Agreement was entered into by unilateral or mutual mistake.  The Board determined that the C&R Agreement was final and binding, and that the Review Petition was barred byres judicata. The Board noted the Claimant was attempting to raise a matter in his Review Petition that should have been litigated during the earlier proceeding on the Compromise and Release Agreement underWeney.

 

The Claimant argued that the Compromise and Release Agreement should be “corrected” to add the left shoulder injury to the description of his work injuries.  The Claimant alleged that the left shoulder injury was “erroneously” omitted in the final draft of the Agreement. Claimant contends that the Employer routinely paid medical bills for the left shoulder injury, and that it knew that the bills were “casually related to his injuries.” Claimant disputed thatres judicata applied to the matter noting that there was no prior litigation involving a request to amend the description of his work injuries.

 

Employer argued that the Claimant flagrantly misrepresented that the left shoulder injury was erroneously omitted in the final draft of the Compromise and Release Agreement.  Employer contended that the Claimant was entitled to receive medical benefits only for the injuries described in the Compromise and Release Agreement as accepted by the Employer, and that the Review Petition was barred byres judicata and collateral estoppel. 

 

Section 449(a) and (b) of the Act provides that:

 

a) Nothing in this Act shall impair the right of the parties interested to compromise and release …any and all liability which is claimed to exist under this act on account of injury or death.

 

b) Upon or after filing a Petition, the Employer or Insurer may submit the proposed Compromise and Release by stipulation signed by both parties to the WCJ for approval. The WCJ shall consider the Petition and proposed Agreement in open hearing and shall render a Decision. The WCJ shall not approve any Compromise and Release unless he first determines that the Claimant understands the full legal significance of the Agreement. The Agreement must be explicit with regard to payment, if any, of reasonable, necessary and related medical expenses. 

 

In enacting Section 449 of the Act, the legislature intended a Compromise and Release Agreement to be “on equal footing with civil settlements” in order to promote a public policy of encouraging the parties to settle disputes and bring them to finality. Stroehmann Bakeries, Inc. v. WCAB (Plouse),768 A.2d 1193, 1196 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2001).

 

Defendant’s exhibits demonstrated that before the execution of the Compromise and Release Agreement, Claimant’s counsel sent a Proposed Addendum to the Agreement to Defendant’s counsel. 

 

Paragraph Twenty-Four (24) of the Proposed Addendum stated “the accepted injuries includes ‘closed’ head injury, seizure disorder, left shoulder fracture, chronic pain, loss of short term memory and bi-polar disorder. Defendant agrees to continue to provide medication and medical care which is reasonable and necessary, and casually related to his injuries.”

 

Defendant’s counsel sent the Proposed Addendum back to Claimant’s counsel after crossing out the injuries of “left shoulder fracture”, “chronic pain”, and “bi-polar disorder” in paragraph 24, and placing a hand written notation, which stated that “we already negotiated these injuries at the time of the ‘settlement’”. In a letter dated February 27, 2008, that accompanied the Proposed Addendum sent back to Claimant’s counsel with his changes and notation, Defendant’s counsel further stated “we previously negotiated the accepted injuries in 2007 and those are the only injuries I will outline on the Agreement.” The C & R Agreement signed by the Claimant and Defendant described Claimant’s injuries as accepted by Defendant as “a severe closed head injury with seizure disorder and short term memory loss” and omitted the other injuries listed in the Proposed Addendum. 

 

At the March 3, 2008 hearing, the Claimant testified that his head injury affected mostly his short term memory and caused seizures.  He was not asked, and did not testify as to the left shoulder injury. 

 

The WCJ found that Claimant understood the full legal significance of the Agreement “as regards to his work related injury and right to Worker’s Compensation benefits.”  The WCJ determined that the parties entered into a “valid and binding Agreement” Department of Labor and Industry, Bureau of Worker’s Compensation v. WCAB (Ethan-Allen Eldridge Division),972 A.2d 1268 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2009).  An approved Compromise and Release Agreement can be set aside only upon a clear showing of fraud, deception, duress, a mutual mistake or unilateral mistake caused by an opposing party’s fault. Farner v. WCAB (Rockwell Int’l), 869 A.2d 1075 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2005);Barsczzewski v. WCAB (Pathmark Stores, Inc.), 868 A.2d 224 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2004).

 

After negotiations with the Defendant, the Claimant agreed to omit the left shoulder injury from the description of his injuries accepted by the Defendant in the Compromise and Release Agreement. The record did not support Claimant’s assertion that the left shoulder injury was erroneously omitted in the final draft of the Compromise and Release Agreement. The Compromise and Release Agreement was final and binding on the parties, and may not be amended after its unappealed approval period.

 

Once a Compromise and Release Agreement is approved, any issue which was not expressly reserved in the Agreement may not be raised later.  Department of Labor and Industry, Bureau of Workers’ Compensation v. WCAB (U.S. Food Service), 932 A.2d 309 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007). Because the Claimant did not expressly reserve his right to add the new injury to the description of his work injuries, he was precluded from doing so more than two (2) years after the approval of the Compromise and Release Agreement.

 

Claimant argued that the description of the “injury” in the Compromise and Release Agreement as “any and all injuries” sustained in Employer’s workplace indicates the party’s intention to include the left shoulder injury in the injuries accepted by the Defendant. The Claimant relied on the contract construction rule that the intention of the parties must be ascertained from the document itself, if its terms are clear an unambiguous. 

 

However, Employer did not accept its liability for the left shoulder injury in the NCP or in any Agreement, and specifically refused to include it as part of the Compromise and Release. Nor was there any prior decision finding Defendant liable for that injury. 

 

The Court rejected the Claimant’s reliance on the Doctrine of Promissory and Equitable Estoppel. Promissory estoppel may be invoked to enforce a promise made by a party to an opposing party when there is no enforceable agreement between the parties. Crouse v. Cyclops Indus., 560 Pa. 394, 745 A.2d 606 (2000). 

 

In order to maintain an action in promissory estoppel, the aggrieved party must show the (1) the promissor made a promise that he or she should have reasonably expected to induce action or forbearance on the part of the promisee; (2) the promisee actually took action refrained from taking action in reliance on the promise; and (3) injustice can be avoided only by enforcing the promise.  The essential elements of equitable estoppel are that the party’s inducement of the other party to believe certain facts to exist and the other party’s reliance on that belief to act. Westinghouse Elec. Corp/CBS v. WCAB (Korach),584 Pa. 411, 883 A.2d 579 (2005). In the absence of “expressly proved fraud, there can be no estoppel based on the acts or conduct of the party sought to be estopped, where they are as consistent with the honest purpose and with absence of negligence as with their opposites.” Westinghouse, 584 Pa. at 423, 883 A.2d at 586. 

 

Nothing in the record suggests that Defendant promised to continue to pay medical bills for the left shoulder injury, and that Claimant relied on such promise to enter into the Compromise and Release Agreement. The record demonstrates that he negotiated the extent of his work injuries with the Employer, and ultimately agreed to omit the left shoulder injury in the Agreement. Claimant can not rely on the Employer’s voluntary payment of the medical bills for the left shoulder injury to support his estoppel claims. The Court has consistently held that Employer’s voluntary medical payment does not constitute an admission of liability for the injury. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, Inc. v. WCAB (Schuh),16 A.3d 1221 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011); Findley Township v. WCAB (Phillis),996 A.2d 111 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010). To hold otherwise would be contrary to the Act’s policy of encouraging Employers to voluntarily pay medical expenses to injured employees to assist them in regaining health without fear of being later penalized for the payment. Defendant’s payment of medical expenses was not an admission of liability for the left shoulder injury and cannot be construed as a promise to continue to make such payment. 

 

In conclusion, the Claimant’s Review Petition was barred by the final and binding Compromise and Release Agreement.