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Petersen v. Utah Labor Commission

Supreme Court of Utah

December 1, 2017

Steven G. Petersen, Petitioner,
v.
Utah Labor Commission and Granite School District, Respondents.

         Petition for Review of an Agency Decision

          Halston T. Davis, Jared L. Mortenson, Salt Lake City, for petitioner

          Jaceson R. Maughan, Salt Lake City, for respondent Utah Labor Commission

          Bret A. Gardner, Kristy L. Bertelsen, Salt Lake City, for respondent Granite School District.

          Troy L. Booher, Beth E. Kennedy, Salt Lake City, for amicus Utah State Board of Regents.

          Stanford E. Purser, Salt Lake City, for amicus State of Utah.

          Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Justice Durham [*] and Justice Himonas joined.

          OPINION

          DURRANT, CHIEF JUSTICE

         Introduction

         ¶ 1 This case presents the question of whether Utah Code section 35-1-65 (1982) operates as an unconstitutional statute of repose under the Open Courts Clause of the Utah Constitution. The statute provides that an injured worker who is temporarily totally disabled "shall receive" a specified amount of compensation per week, but that "[i]n no case shall compensation benefits exceed 312 weeks . . . over a period of eight years from the date of the injury."[1]In November 1982, Steven Petersen suffered a back injury when, while working for the Granite School District (Granite), a 500-pound cast iron boiler door fell onto him. In proceedings before the Utah Labor Commission (Commission), an impartial medical panel concluded that Mr. Petersen's 1982 injury was the medical cause of a subsequent surgery in 2014. An administrative law judge (ALJ), with the Commission, denied Mr. Petersen's request for temporary total disability compensation following the 2014 surgery on the ground that more than eight years had elapsed since the date of the injury. Mr. Petersen appealed this decision to the appeals board of the Commission (Appeals Board), which affirmed.

         ¶ 2 Mr. Petersen filed a petition for review with this court. He argues that the statute cuts off his right to temporary total disability compensation before it accrued, thus operating as an unconstitutional statute of repose in violation of the Open Courts Clause of the Utah Constitution. We hold that section 35-1-65 does not abrogate any previously existing remedy and so is not subject to an Open Courts Clause challenge. We disagree with Mr. Petersen's contention that his common law tort cause of action was abrogated with no adequate substitute remedy and hold that the Workers' Compensation Act as a whole is an adequate substitute. We therefore affirm the Commission's decision.

         Background

         ¶ 3 On November 10, 1982, Mr. Petersen injured his back while working for Granite. Mr. Petersen underwent back surgery in December 1983. Granite paid the medical costs of this surgery, as well as temporary total disability compensation following this surgery.

         ¶ 4 Mr. Petersen returned to work, and in July 1987, experienced a second work accident. He underwent a second back surgery in March 1988 and a third back surgery in December 1989. Granite paid for medical costs and temporary total disability compensation following both surgeries. In January 2004, more than twenty years after the date of the original accident, Mr. Petersen underwent a fourth back surgery. He was off work for seven months, and Granite paid for both the medical costs of surgery and temporary total disability compensation for this period.

         ¶ 5 In June 2011, while still working for Granite, Mr. Petersen slipped and fell into a trench, landing with his back on an exposed rock. He was off work for two weeks and then returned to his regular work duties. In March 2014, Mr. Petersen underwent a fifth surgery, but this time Granite refused to pay temporary total disability compensation. Mr. Petersen then sought a hearing before the Commission, seeking temporary total disability compensation for work missed following the 2014 surgery.

         ¶ 6 The ALJ referred the case to a medical panel, which concluded that Mr. Petersen's 1982 accident, and not his 2011 accident, medically necessitated the 2014 surgery.[2] The ALJ denied Mr. Petersen's request for temporary total disability compensation on the grounds that the eight-year period specified by Utah Code section 35-1-65 is a statute of limitation that expired on November 10, 1990, eight years from the date of the initial workplace accident.

         ¶ 7 Mr. Petersen appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Board. The Appeals Board disagreed with the ALJ, concluding that section 35-1-65 is a statute of repose that may be unconstitutional under the Open Courts Clause of the Utah Constitution. But because the Appeals Board concluded that it lacked authority to adjudicate the constitutionality of the statute, it affirmed the ALJ's order denying temporary total disability compensation. Mr. Petersen then filed a petition for review, which was certified to this court. His sole contention before this court is that section 35-1-65 operated as an unconstitutional statute of repose under the Open Courts Clause.

         Standard of Review

         ¶ 8 This court "has jurisdiction to review all final agency action resulting from formal adjudicative proceedings"[3] and is empowered to "grant relief" where "a person seeking judicial review has been substantially prejudiced" because "the agency action, or the statute or rule on which the agency action is based, is unconstitutional on its face or as applied"[4] or "the agency has erroneously interpreted or applied the law."[5] "A person is 'substantially prejudiced' when the agency's erroneous interpretation or application is not harmless. We review that agency's interpretation or application of the law for correctness."[6]

         Analysis

         ¶ 9 There are two issues on appeal: first, whether Utah Code section 35-1-65, the temporary total disability statute, is a statute of limitation or a statute of repose. If it is a statute of limitation, our analysis ends.[7] If it is a statute of repose, we must address whether it survives scrutiny under our Open Courts Clause jurisprudence.

         ¶ 10 We conclude that section 35-1-65 is not a statute of limitation, but that, in any event, it does not operate to abrogate a previously existing remedy and so is not subject to challenge under the Open Courts Clause. Moreover, we conclude that the only plausible challenge Mr. Petersen could raise is that section 35-1-65 is an inadequate substitute remedy for the loss of an injured employee's common law tort claim. We hold, however, that such a challenge must fail because the Utah Workers' Compensation Act (WCA) as a whole is an adequate substitute remedy for the loss of such a tort claim.

         I. Utah Code Section 35-1-65 Is Not a Statute of Limitation and Does Not Abrogate a Previously Existing Remedy

         ¶ 11 The first issue we must decide is whether Utah Code section 35-1-65 is a statute of limitation or repose. After examining how section 35-1-65 operates within the WCA context, we conclude that it is not a statute of limitation. We next assess whether the statute is one of repose that abrogates a remedy in a manner implicating the Open Courts Clause of the Utah Constitution. Because it does not operate to abrogate a previously existing remedy, we hold that section 35-1-65 does not implicate our open courts jurisprudence.

         A. Section 35-1-65 Is Not a Statute of Limitation Because It Does Not Specify a Time Period Following the Accrual of a Cause of Action During Which a Claim Must Be Brought

         ¶ 12 As noted above, we must determine whether section 35-1-65 is a statute of limitation or repose. "A statute of limitations requires a lawsuit to be filed within a specified period of time after" a cause of action accrues. [8] In contrast, a statute of repose "bars all actions after a specified period of time has run from the occurrence of some event other than the occurrence of an injury that gives rise to a cause of action."[9] Thus, to assess whether section 35-1-65 is a statute of limitation or repose, we must determine what event-whether the accrual of a cause of action or some other event-starts the clock on the statutory time period.

         ¶ 13 "[A] cause of action accrues upon the happening of the last event necessary to complete the cause of action."[10] The difficulty in this case, then, is determining what constitutes a "cause of action" in the Workers' Compensation context and when such a cause of action "accrues." "Workers' compensation claims are best viewed as a process, rather than as a discrete event . . . ."[11] We have recognized that WCA "remedies, whether viewed individually or together, are not analogous to an ordinary lump-sum judgment that the common law provides for personal injury actions."[12]

         ¶ 14 The relevant portions of section 35-1-65 provide:

In case of temporary disability, the employee shall receive 66 2/3% of that employee's average weekly wage at the time of the injury so long as such disability is total . . . . In no case shall compensation benefits exceed 312 weeks . . . over a period of eight years from the date of the injury.

         We note from the outset that while the statute runs from the "date of the injury, " we have consistently interpreted this phrase to mean the date of the workplace accident.[13] The question then becomes whether the "last event necessary to complete the cause of action" is the workplace accident. If so, section 35-1-65 is a statute of limitation. If not, then the statute is not one of limitation because it runs from a date other than the happening of the last event necessary to give rise to a cause of action.

         ¶ 15 Granite argues that Mr. Petersen's "cause of action" for temporary total disability, unlike a claim for death benefits, [14] did not "arise after the happening of some unanticipated event such as a need for surgery, or even death, but rather runs from the date of the injury as explicitly provided for by the statute."[15] In Granite's view, a WCA cause of action fully accrues on the date of the accident. Though there is some support for this argument in our caselaw, [16] we ultimately reject it, at least in the context of section 35-1-65.

         ¶ 16 Mr. Petersen's cause of action for temporary total disability compensation did not fully accrue when he was first injured in 1982. Instead, that right accrued at the moment he became temporarily disabled and therefore entitled to compensation. This is because the period of disability is the "last event necessary to complete the cause of action" under the statute, which provides that temporary total disability compensation "shall" be awarded "so long as" the "disability is total." [17] The words "so long as" necessarily convey that the disability could cease to be total, or that it might not be total immediately upon the happening of the accident. Because the statute requires that "disability" be "total" before compensation may be awarded, and total disability may not occur on the day of the accident, the happening of the workplace accident alone is not the "last event necessary" to entitle Mr. Petersen to compensation. A statute of limitation runs from the last event necessary to complete the cause of action. But a statute of repose runs from a date other than this last event.[18] This statute runs not from the time that an injured worker enters a period of total disability, but instead from the happening of the accident. Thus, it is not a statute of limitation.

         B. Section 35-1-65 Does Not Violate the Open Courts Clause, Because It Does Not Cut Off a Previously Existing Remedy

         ¶ 17 Mr. Petersen argues that section 35-1-65 is a statute of repose that abrogates his right to a remedy in violation of our Open Courts Clause. After briefly reviewing our open courts jurisprudence, we conclude that even if the statute qualifies as a statute of repose, it does not violate our constitution because it does not operate to cut off a previously existing remedy, and so Mr. Petersen's challenge to the statute fails.

         ¶ 18 A "statute of repose bars all actions after a specified period of time has run from the occurrence of some event other than the occurrence of an injury that gives rise to a cause of action."[19] Based on this definition, section 35-1-65 is arguably a statute of repose: it bars all actions for temporary total disability after eight years have run from the occurrence of the workplace accident, which, as discussed above, is not the last event necessary to create a cause of action for temporary total disability.

         ¶ 19 But a closer review of section 35-1-65 and its history reveals that it does not operate to cut off a previously existing remedy. Because it does not, section 35-1-65 is not akin to those statutes we have found susceptible to Open Courts Clause challenges.[20] Section 35-1-65 does not cut off a previously existing right to temporary total disability compensation; instead, it creates a right to temporary total disability compensation, albeit with a built-in time limitation. A review of our Open Courts Clause jurisprudence reveals ...


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