Appeal from Commissioner of Labor Anne M. Noonan,
L. Grayck of Law Office of David L. Grayck, Montpelier, for
M. Lawrence of Theriault & Joslin, P.C., Montpelier, for
PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll,
1. J.C. Penney Corporation (employer) seeks interlocutory
review of the Commissioner of the Department of Labor's
denial of its motion for summary judgment in this
workers' compensation matter. Specifically, employer
argues that the Commissioner lacked authority to invalidate
an approved settlement agreement that the parties entered
into pursuant to a previous claim. We reverse and remand.
2. At the start, a brief overview of the relevant provisions
of Vermont's Workers' Compensation Act, codified at
21 V.S.A. §§ 601-711, will place employer's
arguments in context. A claim for compensation for a
workplace injury is initiated by filing a notice of injury
with the employer. Id. § 656(a). After a review
of the claim, the employer may deny the claim with notice in
writing to the claimant and the Commissioner, and the
claimant may request a hearing. Id. § 662(b).
When the employer does not deny the claim, but the claimant
and the employer are unable to resolve it, either party may
request that the Commissioner hold a hearing pursuant to 21
V.S.A. § 663.
3. If the claimant and the employer settle the claim without
a hearing, the parties' settlement agreement must be
filed with the Department of Labor for review as follows:
The Commissioner shall approve such an agreement only when
the terms thereof conform to the provisions of this chapter.
However, a compromise agreement may be approved by the
Commissioner when he or she is clearly of the opinion that
the best interests of such employee or such dependents will
be served thereby.
Id. § 662(a). Once approved by the
Commissioner, a settlement between a claimant and an employer
is enforceable, though still subject to modification in two
specific circumstances, neither of which is relevant here.
See id. §§ 668, 675.
4. In addition to the authority described above, the version
of Workers' Compensation and Occupational Disease Rule 17
effective at the time of the settlement agreement at issue
here provides that, in reference to the forms used to satisfy
the requirements of the settlement procedures found in §
662(a): "Once executed by the parties and approved by
the Division, these forms shall become binding agreements and
absent evidence of fraud or material mistake of fact the
parties shall be deemed to have waived their right to contest
the material portions thereof." Workers'
Compensation and Occupational Disease Rules, Rule 17.0000
Compensation Agreements, Code of Vt. Rules 24 010 003 (Apr.
2007) [hereinafter Rule 17]. In addition, Rule 17.6000
addresses the form used for full and final settlement
agreements and stipulates that "[o]nce executed by the
parties and approved by the commissioner, this form shall
relieve the employer of all further liability for
compensation benefits related to the injury."
5. We now turn to the facts. Brandy Clayton (claimant) has
worked for employer for several years as a hair stylist. In
February 2011, she filed a workers' compensation claim
for heel and arch pain in her left foot after suffering a
work-related injury in March 2010 described as a result of
standing all day on the job. Employer accepted the claim as
6. While this February 2011 claim was pending, claimant
sought medical attention from a podiatrist. In October 2013,
claimant reported to the podiatrist that she was suffering
from both left and right foot pain; the podiatrist diagnosed
claimant with right foot plantar fasciitis in addition to his
diagnoses pertaining to her left foot. On the same date, the
podiatrist documented in claimant's medical record that
claimant's "bilateral foot pain" likely
resulted from standing all day at work and that this
"work environment definitely plays a role" in the
development of fasciitis. The podiatrist again noted the
bilateral foot problems after two subsequent appointments
with claimant in December 2013 and February 2014. In June
2014, claimant participated in an independent medical exam
with a physician who noted that claimant had been having
issues with both her left and right feet.
7. On September 14, 2014, the parties filed a "Modified
Full and Final Form 16 Settlement Agreement with
Addendum." The first page of the ...