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Frantzen v. Davenport Electric

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

February 27, 2018

EDWARD FRANTZEN
v.
DAVENPORT ELECTRIC ET AL.

          Argued November 15, 2017

          Emily A. Gianquinto, with whom, on the brief, was Enrico Vaccaro, for the appellant (Enrico Vaccaro).

          Sarah Gleason, with whom were David M. Cohen and, on the brief, Adam J. Blank, for the appellee (Wofsey, Rosen, Kweskin & Kuriansky, LLP).

          Alvord, Keller and Beach, Js.

          OPINION

          BEACH, J.

         This case presents the issue of whether the Workers' Compensation Commission (commission) has the statutory authority, pursuant to General Statutes § 31-327 (b), [1] to decide fee disputes among attorneys who have represented a claimant at different times during the pendency of a case before the commission. Pursuant to General Statutes § 31-301b, the appellant, Enrico Vaccaro, [2] appeals from the decision of the Workers' Compensation Review Board (board), which affirmed in part the decision of the Workers' Compensation Commissioner (commissioner), insofar as it determined that the commission has the authority to adjudicate a fee dispute between Vaccaro and the appellee, the law firm of Wofsey, Rosen, Kweskin & Kuriansky, LLP (Wofsey Rosen). On appeal, Vaccaro claims (1) that the commission does not have subject matter jurisdiction to resolve disputes regarding attorney's fees between lawyers who serially represented a claimant and (2) that the commissioner and the board deprived Vaccaro of his constitutional right to have the attendant factual issues resolved by a jury. We disagree with Vaccaro's claims and, accordingly, affirm the decision of the board.

         The following facts and procedural history are relevant to this appeal. Both Vaccaro and Wofsey Rosen represented Edward Frantzen, the claimant, in claims for compensation brought against his employer, Davenport Electric, for work related injuries sustained in1994, 1998, and 2003. Wofsey Rosen represented the claimant from March 18, 1998 to April 1, 2005.[3] Attorney Allan Cane, who is not a party to this appeal, represented the claimant from April 27, 2005 to July 13, 2007. Vaccaro represented the claimant from July 13, 2007 to May 8, 2014. On May 8, 2014, a stipulation was approved by Commissioner Charles F. Senich pursuant to which $850, 000 was awarded to the claimant. The commissioner also approved attorney's fees of 20 percent, with instruction for Vaccaro to hold the amount of the fees in escrow until the fee dispute was resolved. On June 13, 2014, Vaccaro filed a brief that challenged the commission's subject matter jurisdiction over the fee dispute and attacked Wofsey Rosen's claim to any portion of the escrowed fees.

         On September 30, 2014, a hearing was held before Commissioner Michelle D. Truglia on, among other things, Vaccaro's challenge to the commission's subject matter jurisdiction. Vaccaro was given the opportunity to submit evidence of his fee arrangement with the claimant, along with a statement of time and charges attributable to this representation. Vaccaro submitted a copy of his fee agreement but did not provide any evidence of time or charges attributable to this representation. Wofsey Rosen, on the other hand, provided substantial evidence regarding its representation of the claimant. After finding that the commission had subject matter jurisdiction over the fee dispute, the commissioner decided that, because of Vaccaro's failure to document his time and charges, it was impossible to determine the scope and value of his representation of the claimant, and ordered a fifty/fifty split of the escrowed attorney's fees between Vaccaro and Wof-sey Rosen.

         Vaccaro then appealed from the decision to the board, which on February 24, 2016, affirmed the commissioner's decision as to subject matter jurisdiction but reversed as to the division of the fees, and remanded the matter to the commissioner for a full evidentiary hearing on the issue. Vaccaro thereafter appealed to this court.[4] Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

         Vaccaro claims on appeal that the commission does not have subject matter jurisdiction to resolve disputes regarding attorney's fees between lawyers who serially represent a claimant and that the commissioner and the board deprived him of his constitutional right to have the attendant factual issues resolved by a jury.

         As a threshold matter, we set forth the standard of review applicable to workers' compensation appeals. ‘‘It is well established that [a]lthough not dispositive, we accord great weight to the construction given to the workers' compensation statutes by the commissioner and review board. . . . A state agency is not entitled, however, to special deference when its determination of a question of law has not previously been subject to judicial scrutiny. . . . Where . . . [a workers' compensation] appeal involves an issue of statutory construction that has not yet been subjected to judicial scrutiny, this court has plenary power to review the administrative decision.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Day v. Middletown, 59 Conn.App. 816, 819, 757 A.2d 1267, cert. denied, 254 Conn. 945, 762 A.2d 900 (2000). ‘‘We [accord] deference to . . . a time-tested agency interpretation of a statute, but only when the agency has consistently followed its construction over a long period of time, the statutory language is ambiguous, and the agency's interpretation is reasonable.'' State Medical Society v. Board of Examiners in Podiatry, 208 Conn. 709, 719, 546 A.2d 830 (1988).

         Our analysis of this claim is guided by our well established principles of statutory construction. ‘‘When construing a statute, [o]ur fundamental objective is to ascertain and give effect to the apparent intent of the legislature. . . . In other words, we seek to determine, in a reasoned manner, the meaning of the statutory language as applied to the facts of [the] case . . . . In seeking to determine that meaning . . . [we] first . . . consider the text of the statute itself and its relationship to other statutes. If, after examining such text and considering such relationship, the meaning of such text is plain and unambiguous and does not yield absurd or unworkable results, extratextual evidence of the meaning of the statute shall not be considered. . . . When a statute is not plain and unambiguous, we also look for interpretive guidance to the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and to its relationship to existing legislation and common law principles governing the same general subject matter ....

         ‘‘Moreover, [i]n applying these general principles, we are mindful that the [Workers' Compensation Act, General Statutes § 31-275 et seq.] indisputably is a remedial statute that should be construed generously to accomplish its purpose. . . . The humanitarian and remedial purposes of the act counsel against an overly narrow construction that unduly limits eligibility for workers' compensation. . . . Accordingly, [i]n construing workers' compensation law, we must resolve statutory ambiguities or lacunae in a manner that will further the remedial purpose of the act. . . . [T]he purposes of the act itself are best served by allowing the remedial legislation a reasonable sphere of operation considering those purposes.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Kinsey v. World PAC, 152 Conn.App. 116, 124, 98 A.3d 66 (2014).

         ‘‘The powers and duties of workers' compensation commissioners are conferred upon them for the purposes of carrying out the stated provisions of the Workers' Compensation Act. . . . It is well settled that the commissioner's jurisdiction is confined by the . . . act and limited by its provisions.'' (Citations omitted; internal ...


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