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Brennan v. City of Waterbury

Supreme Court of Connecticut

May 14, 2019

JANET BRENNAN, EXECUTRIX (ESTATE OF THOMAS BRENNAN)
v.
CITY OF WATERBURY

          Argued September 10, 2018

         Procedural History

         Consolidated appeals from the decisions of the Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Fourth District granting the motion to substitute the claimant filed by Janet Brennan, executrix of the estate of Thomas Brennan, and awarding permanent partial disability benefits to the substitute plaintiff, brought to the Compensation Review Board, which reversed the commissioner's decisions and remanded the case for further proceedings, and the substitute plaintiff appealed. Affirmed in part; reversed in part; decision directed in part; further proceedings.

          Richard O. LaBrecque, with whom were Francis J. Grady and, on the brief, Marina L. Green, for the appellant (substitute plaintiff).

          Daniel J. Foster, with whom, on the brief, was Linda T. Wihbey, for the appellee (defendant).

          Robinson, C. J., and Palmer, McDonald, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn and Ecker, Js. [*]

          OPINION

          McDONALD, J.

         In this appeal, we consider whether heart and hypertension benefits under General Statutes § 7-433c for permanent disability properly are paid to a deceased claimant's estate if such benefits vested and were payable ("matured") during the claimant's lifetime but were not paid to the claimant before his death. In particular, we are asked to consider whether Morgan v. East Haven, 208 Conn. 576, 546 A.2d 243 (1988), and the legislative response to that decision, instead requires payment of such benefits to the claimant's dependents or nondependent children.

         The plaintiff, Janet Brennan, executrix of the estate of Thomas Brennan (executrix), appeals from the decision of the Compensation Review Board concluding that the executrix improperly was substituted as party claimant because a claimant's estate cannot receive the claimant's vested but unpaid § 7-433c benefits. We hold that neither Morgan nor any other legal authority barred the substitution to the extent that the executrix sought payment of matured benefits. We conclude, however, that, on the record before this court, we cannot determine that the permanent disability benefits matured prior to the death of Thomas Brennan (decedent). Accordingly, we reverse the board's decision only as to its determination that the decision of the Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Fourth District (commissioner) to grant the motion to substitute the executrix as a party claimant was improper, but we affirm the decision in all other respects.

         The record reveals the following undisputed facts and procedural history. In 1991, the decedent was employed by the defendant, the city of Waterbury (city), as its fire chief. During all relevant times, Janet Brennan[1]was married to the decedent. After the decedent suffered a heart attack during the course of his employment in July, 1993, he promptly filed a claim for § 7-433c benefits. The Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Fifth District thereafter accepted the parties' stipulation of facts, wherein they agreed that the decedent had been diagnosed with hypertension and heart disease after his heart attack and that no evidence of such disease had been present prior to the decedent's employment as fire chief.[2] In December, 1993, the fifth district commissioner issued a finding and award, which ordered the city to pay the decedent all of the benefits of § 7-433c to which he "is or may become entitled."

         For several years after issuance of the 1993 finding and award, the decedent and the city attempted to reach an agreement on the payment of benefits.[3] While negotiations were ongoing, the decedent elected to take disability retirement in December, 1995. In connection with the disability pension hearing and the pending § 7-433c claim, the city obtained opinions from three medical experts assessing the extent of the decedent's disability. Two of those experts rated the permanent impairment relating to his heart condition at 50 percent, and the other expert rated it at 75 percent. The decedent obtained an opinion from his own physician, who assessed the permanent impairment at 80 percent. The city's retirement board authorized a disability pension.[4]

         Thereafter, the city also made certain payments to the decedent pursuant to § 7-433c. In July, 1997, the city paid the decedent a lump sum, which the accompanying letter from the city's risk manager explained as "representing 115.4 weeks [of permanent partial disability benefits] from the [maximum medical improvement] date of [October 13, 1993] to [the decedent's] retirement date of [December 21, 1995] at his maximum [permanent partial disability] rate .... We can use this amount as an advance if a final settlement can be reached. In the event that one is not obtainable at this time, the balance of [the decedent's permanent partial disability] would be calculated pursuant to [the statutory cap under General Statutes §] 7-433b."[5] In June, 1999, the city paid the decedent an additional lump sum, which represented a "52 weeks advance [of permanent partial disability that was] calculated pursuant to [the statutory cap under §] 7-433b and utilized a counterpart's pay . . . ."

         The city and the decedent, however, never entered into a full and final settlement of the heart and hypertension claim. The failure to do so may have been due to the city's ongoing financial difficulties, which, in 2001, resulted in the appointment of an oversight board to review and control the city's financial affairs. See Public Acts, Spec. Sess., June, 2001, No. 01-1.

         In 2003, due to his deteriorating health, the decedent sought temporary total incapacity benefits. The city paid the decedent total incapacity benefits from February 19, 2003, until the decedent's death on April 20, 2006.[6]

         It was not until 2013 that the decedent's attorney sought to finalize the decedent's permanent partial disability claim under § 7-433c. In connection with those proceedings, the decedent's treating physician, who had assigned an 80 percent disability rating in 1995, issued a postmortem opinion that the decedent's permanent disability rating should be increased to 90 percent. Subsequently, the decedent's attorney moved to substitute Brennan in her capacity as executrix of the decedent's estate and Brennan in her individual capacity as party claimants.[7]

         The city objected to the substitutions, advancing two independent grounds with respect to the estate. First, it contended that Brennan, the decedent's sole heir and the beneficiary of a spousal pension, was improperly seeking to circumvent the city charter's pension offset, which would negate any § 7-433c benefits otherwise due to her. Second, it contended that, pursuant to Morgan v. East Haven, supra, 208 Conn. 576, the estate was not a legally qualified recipient of funds paid under § 7-433c. In reply, the decedent's counsel contended that the substitution was proper because the benefits had vested and matured during the decedent's lifetime and, as such, would pass to his estate. The commissioner granted the motion insofar as it permitted the estate to be substituted as a party, but he denied the motion as to Brennan individually. The commissioner cited General Statutes § 52-599 (b), which provides for the survival of actions and the continuation of actions by a decedent's executor, as authority for the substitution. The city filed an appeal from the decision granting the estate's substitution. While that appeal was pending, proceedings continued on the benefits claim.

         In December, 2015, the commissioner issued a finding and decision, ordering the city to pay benefits for 80 percent permanent partial disability of the decedent's heart pursuant to General Statutes §§ 7-433c and 31-308 (b), less any advance payments made to date on permanent partial disability. In support of this decision, the commissioner found that the decedent had reached maximum medical improvement on October 13, 1993, and credited the 1995 opinion of the decedent's physician assigning the 80 percent permanency rating to the decedent's disability. The commissioner declined to credit the lesser ratings of the city's three medical experts or the greater postmortem rating of the decedent's physician. The commissioner concluded that the decedent's entitlement to permanent partial disability benefits had vested prior to his death. The commissioner specifically concluded, however, that benefits were "due and payable to Janet Brennan and not the estate of [the decedent] . . . ."

         Both parties filed motions to correct and for an articulation. The commissioner denied the city's motions but granted the executrix' motions in part. Specifically, the executrix sought (1) an articulation as to the dates on which the decedent's entitlement to disability benefits "vested and matured"; (emphasis added); and (2) a correction making the disability benefits payable to the estate or, alternatively, an articulation as to why the benefits are properly payable to Brennan individually. In response, the commissioner issued the following correction: "[Permanent partial disability] benefits vested as of the date of [maximum medical improvement] on October 13, 1993. [Permanent partial disability] benefits of 80 [percent] of the heart are payable to Janet Brennan, [e]xecutrix of the [e]state of [the decedent]." The city filed an appeal from the corrected finding and decision.

         At the city's request, the board consolidated the appeal contesting the estate's substitution with the appeal contesting the corrected finding and decision. The board concluded that the case was controlled by Morgan v. East Haven, supra, 208 Conn. 576, which the board interpreted to hold that an estate is not a qualified recipient of vested but unpaid § 7-433c benefits. In reliance on Morgan, the board vacated the commissioner's decision granting the motion to substitute the executrix, vacated the corrected decision making the estate the beneficiary, and remanded the case to the commissioner to decide the proper recipient of the benefits. As to the benefits owed to any such recipient, the board affirmed the central findings of the commissioner's decision. However, the board ordered the commissioner, when considering on remand the proper beneficiary, also to address several issues previously raised by the city relating to the availability and amount of benefits that the commissioner had declined to address.[8] This appeal followed.[9]

         I

         Before turning to the executrix' challenges to the board's decision, we must dispose of a jurisdictional issue raised by the city. See, e.g., Soracco v. Williams Scotsman, Inc., 292 Conn. 86, 90-91, 971 A.2d 1 (2009). Specifically, the city contends that this appeal must be dismissed because it was filed by Brennan individually, who lacks standing to appeal as she neither was a party to the proceedings below nor is aggrieved by the board's decision. We disagree.

         The city's jurisdictional claim rests on the fact that the appeal form reflects that "Janet Brennan" is identified as the party filing the appeal. However, this entry does not indicate whether Brennan filed the appeal in her representative or individual capacity. This court has explained that "the forms for appeals and amended appeals do not in any way implicate appellate subject matter jurisdiction. They are merely the formal, technical vehicles by which parties seek to invoke that jurisdiction. Compliance with them need not be perfect; it is the substance that matters, not the form." (Emphasis added.) Pritchard v. Pritchard, 281 Conn. 262, 275, 914 A.2d 1025 (2007). When there is an ambiguity as to the identity of the appellant, this court will look to other filings to resolve that ambiguity. See, e.g., Celentano v. Rocque, 282 Conn. 645, 647 n.1, 923 A.2d 709 (2007). The docketing statement, the name of the case cited on the appeal form, and the appellant's brief indicate that the appellant's intention was that the appeal was filed on behalf of "Janet Brennan, Executrix of the Estate of Thomas Brennan." Although these documents also refer to Brennan individually, the aforementioned references are sufficient to dispel any ambiguity as to whether a proper party has filed the appeal. See, e.g., id. (referring to briefs and docketing statement to discern proper identity of parties to appeal). Accordingly, we reject the city's request for dismissal of the appeal.

         II

         We now turn to the merits of the appeal. The executrix contends that the estate is the proper recipient of any unpaid permanent partial disability benefits owed by the city because those benefits matured during the decedent's lifetime. Had they been paid when due, according to the executrix, the entirety of the decedent's benefits would have been paid during his lifetime. The executrix further contends that Morgan v. East Haven, supra, 208 Conn. 576, on which the board relied, presents no legal impediment to awarding benefits to a claimant's estate because certain statutory language on which the case relied was repealed. Should this court conclude that Morgan was not implicitly legislatively overruled, she contends that Morgan should be either limited to its facts, which involved unmatured benefits, or overruled if applicable to vested, matured benefits.

         The city disagrees with the executrix' characterization of the benefits as matured. It also defends the vitality and applicability of Morgan, and contends that awarding unpaid benefits to an estate would undermine legislative intent to provide compensation only to dependents.

         We conclude that § 7-433c benefits properly may be paid to a claimant's estate, if such benefits matured before the claimant's death. However, we disagree that the record establishes that the disability benefits at ...


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