A recent Business Insurance story by Louise Esola, “Minn. High Court Rules Squabbling Employers Must Pay Attorney Fees,” reports that the Supreme Court of Minnesota upheld a Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals decision that ruled both a man’s current and former employers must pay reasonable attorney fees after arguing over who is responsible for an aggravation of an earlier back injury. Certified nursing assistant Janet Hufnagel filed a workers compensation claim in 2015 for work-related aggravations to a low-back condition that resulted from an admitted work-related injury in 2009 while working for Deer River Health Care Center in Deer River, Minnesota, according to documents in Janet Hufnagel v. Deer River Health Care Center and MHA Insurance Co., respondents, and Essentia Health-Deer River and Berkley Risk Administrators Co., relators, and Midwest Spine & Brain Institute and Essentia Health, intervenors.
In 2013, after Ms. Hufnagel recuperated and was back on the job, Deer River was acquired and became Essentia Health-Deer River, or Essentia, and also changed its workers compensation insurer, court records state. In August 2014, while working for the newly named and acquired facility, Ms. Hufnagel experienced increased low-back pain, which required time off work and medical treatment. When notified of this injury, Essentia denied liability, concluding that Ms. Hufnagel's "current need for medical treatment is a continuation of the prior work injury from 2009 which is under a different insurer." Ms. Hufnagel then suffered an additional aggravation to her low-back condition in June 2015. In July 2015, Ms. Hufnagel filed a claim petition, seeking temporary total disability and medical benefits for the 2014 and 2015 injuries, court records state.
After nearly two years of legal proceedings that included six medical examinations, a Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals judge ruled that Essentia was liable for the 2014 and 2015 aggravated injuries. Following the October 2016 ruling, Ms. Hufnagel and her attorney filed a motion to recover $31,120.47 in attorney fees. A compensation judge concluded that the dispute presented by Ms. Hufnagel's 2015 claim petition was only whether the 2009 injury "continued to be a substantial contributing factor" to her later aggravations, and was not a dispute between employers. Accordingly, the compensation judge denied the motion for fees under state law.
The Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals then reversed, “holding that the compensation judge failed to fully consider the extent to which each employer sought to shift liability to the other employer and that it was error to deny the motion for fees” under state law, concluding that the attorney had not been adequately compensated for the time spent providing effective representation for Ms. Hufnagel.
The state Supreme Court affirmed: “We agree with the WCCA that the efforts by each employer to shift responsibility to the other employer ‘greatly increased the burden on (Ms. Hufnagel’s) counsel to provide effective representation… We therefore hold that (Ms.) Hufnagel was entitled to receive reasonable attorney fees.