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Holdsworth v. Greenwood Farmers Cooperative

Supreme Court of Nebraska

June 14, 2013

Bruce Holdsworth, appellee,
v.
Greenwood Farmers Cooperative and Cooperative Mutual Insurance Company, Inc., appellants.

1. Workers' Compensation: Appeal and Error. An appellate court is obligated in workers' compensation cases to make its own determinations as to questions of law.

2. Jurisdiction. A jurisdictional question which does not involve a factual dispute is determined by an appellate court as a matter of law.

3. Appeal and Error. The meaning of a statute is a question of law. 4. Jurisdiction. Jurisdiction does not relate to the right of the parties as between each other, but to the power of the court.

5. ___. Parties cannot confer subject matter jurisdiction upon a judicial tribunal by either acquiescence or consent, nor may subject matter jurisdiction be created by waiver, estoppel, consent, or conduct of the parties.

6. ___. The jurisdiction of courts is a public matter that cannot be affected by a private agreement, and the jurisdiction of a court can neither be acquired nor lost as a result of an agreement of the parties.

7. Statutes: Appeal and Error. An appellate court will not resort to interpretation to ascertain the meaning of statutory words which are plain, direct, and unambiguous.

8. Workers' Compensation: Penalties and Forfeitures: Attorney Fees. The waiting-time penalty and attorney fees for waiting-time proceedings provided under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-125 (Cum. Supp. 2012) are rights under the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act.

9. Workers' Compensation: Penalties and Forfeitures: Waiver. The settlement procedures in Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-139(3) (Reissue 2010) require a worker to waive all rights under the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act, including both the right to penalties under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-125 (Cum. Supp. 2012) and the right to ask a judge of the compensation court to decide the parties' rights and obligations.

10. Statutes: Appeal and Error. An appellate court will not read into a statute a meaning that is not there.

11. Statutes. A court must attempt to give effect to all parts of a statute, and if it can be avoided, no word, clause, or sentence will be rejected as superfluous or meaningless.

[286 Neb. 50] 12. Appeal and Error. An appellate court is not obligated to engage in an analysis that is not necessary to adjudicate the case and controversy before it.

Appeal from the Workers' Compensation Court: Thomas E. Stine, Judge.

Charles L. Kuper, of Larson, Kuper & Wenninghoff, P.C., L.L.O., for appellants.

Rolf Edward Shasteen, of Shasteen, Miner, Scholz & Morris, P.C, L.L.C, for appellee.

Heavican, C.J., Wright, Connolly, Stephan, McCormack, and Cassel, JJ.

Cassel, J.

INTRODUCTION

In this workers' compensation appeal, the parties implemented a lump-sum settlement in compliance with Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-139(3) (Reissue 2010), which dispenses with court approval. Pursuant to this statute, the worker filed a release in which he waived "all rights under the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act" and discharged his employer from "further liability" on account of the injury. When the employer paid the lump-sum amount 42 days after the filing of the release, the worker sought and received a court order awarding a waiting-time penalty and attorney fees, from which the employer appeals. Because the worker's release waived his right to penalties and attorney fees, the order must be reversed.

BACKGROUND

In November 2011, Bruce Holds worth filed a petition for workers' compensation benefits alleging that he had been injured during his employment at Greenwood Farmers Cooperative. Holdsworth entered into a lump-sum settlement with Greenwood Farmers Cooperative and its workers' compensation insurance carrier (collectively appellants). Pursuant to this settlement, appellants agreed to make a one-time payment of $20, 000 "to cover any future claims for indemnity benefits and future medical treatment and to close any and all liability for the accident of March 19, 2004." At the time of [286 Neb. 51] settlement, appellants had already paid for all of Holdsworth' s medical expenses, temporary total disability benefits, and permanent partial disability benefits for a 27-percent loss of earning capacity. Holdsworth agreed that he was not entitled to any further temporary total disability benefits or permanent partial disability benefits.

The parties opted to use the settlement procedures adopted by the Legislature in 2009 and outlined in § 48-139(3), which did not require approval by the Workers' Compensation Court but, instead, required the filing of a release. Accordingly, Holdsworth signed a release of liability, along with his attorney, and filed it with the court on January 11, 2012. In this release, Holdsworth waived "all rights under the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act, " including the right "to ask a judge of the compensation court to decide the parties' rights and obligations." Holdsworth also agreed that appellants were "fully and completely discharged from further liability" on account of his injury.

Although not required by § 48-139(3), the parties filed a joint stipulation and motion to dismiss with prejudice. On January 12, 2012, the court issued an order dismissing Holdsworth's petition with prejudice.

Holdsworth received the settlement payment from appellants in the form of a check dated February 21, 2012. The letter mailing the check was postmarked on February 22, which was 42 days after the release had been filed. Because payment was made more than 30 days after the filing of the release, Holdsworth filed a motion with the Workers' Compensation Court to obtain a waiting-time penalty and attorney fees pursuant to Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-125 (Cum. Supp. 2012).

Appellants objected to Holdsworth's motion, arguing that § 48-125 was not applicable to settlements made under § 48-139(3). Specifically, appellants argued that when a settlement was finalized without court approval, there was no "entry of a 'final [ojrder, [ajward, or [jjudgment'" to trigger the 30-day limitation. As for the order of dismissal, which Holdsworth had also suggested could serve as a final order for purposes of § 48-125, appellants maintained that such an order was "simply a housekeeping matter" to clear the docket, [286 Neb. 52] highlighting that "no [c]ourt action is required to effectuate the settlement" executed pursuant to § 48-139(3).

On April 16, 2012, after an evidentiary hearing, the Workers' Compensation Court entered an order granting Holdsworth's motion for a waiting-time penalty and attorney fees. In its order, the Workers' Compensation Court considered whether the January 12 order of dismissal was a final order for purposes of § 48-125—focusing its analysis on the definition of a final order under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 25-1902 (Reissue 2008). The court concluded that the order of dismissal was a final order because it was made during a special proceeding and affected one of Holdsworth's substantial rights (the right to bring an action against appellants for his work-related injury). The court reached this conclusion despite a workers' compensation decision in an earlier case in which a different judge concluded the exact opposite—that the settlement procedures of § 48-139(3) did not produce a final order for purposes of § 48-125.

Having determined that the order of dismissal was a final order, the Workers' Compensation Court ruled that appellants were bound by the penalty provisions of § 48-125 and granted Holdsworth's motion for penalties. The court ordered appellants to pay a $10, 000 waiting-time penalty and $500 in attorney fees for failing to pay the lump-sum settlement on time.

Appellants subsequently filed a motion to modify the court's April 16, 2012, order on the ground that there was a "reasonable controversy" over Holdsworth's right to penalties that precluded the imposition of such penalties. They cited to McBee v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., [1] in which this court construed § 48-125 as authorizing a waiting-time penalty only "where there is no reasonable controversy regarding an employee's claim for workers' compensation." Appellants argued that there was a reasonable controversy precluding the imposition of penalties because (1) the question whether penalties could be applied to settlements reached under § 48-139(3) was a question of law not yet addressed by this [286 Neb. 53] court and (2) judges of the Workers' Compensation Court disagreed as to whether ...


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