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Clayton v. J.C. Penney Corp.

Supreme Court of Vermont

September 22, 2017

Brandy Clayton
J.C. Penney Corporation

         On Appeal from Commissioner of Labor Anne M. Noonan, Commissioner

          David L. Grayck of Law Office of David L. Grayck, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Wesley M. Lawrence of Theriault & Joslin, P.C., Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellant.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          CARROLL, J.

         ¶ 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." Id.

         ¶ 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 compensable.

         ¶ 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 ...

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