Kansas Court of Appeals Jettisons 82-Year-Old Supreme Court Precedent

Employer’s Payment of Medical Charges Revives Expired Statute of Limitations

Reversing the state’s Workers’ Compensation Board, which had relied upon what it thought was established precedent (i.e., a 1936 decision by the state’s Supreme Court), a Kansas appellate court recently ruled that nothing within the plain language of Kan. Stat. Ann. § 44-534(b) prevents a revival of an expired two-year statute of limitations to file an application for a hearing, where the employer makes a payment of compensation to the employee. Accordingly, the appellate court held that where a firefighter for the City of Lawrence filed a claim for benefits more than six years after his original work-related injury—but within two years of the City’s payment of medical charges related to the firefighter’s chronic back condition—the Commission erred when it found the claim was untimely filed [Schneider v. City of Lawrence, 2019 Kan. App. LEXIS 9 (Feb. 8, 2019)].

Existing Precedent Appeared to Go Against Firefighter

The City cited Graham v. Pomeroy, 143 Kan. 974, 57 P.2d 19 (1936). In Graham, the Kansas high court interpreted Kan. R.S. 1933 Supp. 44-520a—the statute of limitations provision on written claims. The Graham court seemed pretty clear in its ruling:

When the time provided by statute within which to file a claim for compensation has passed, the right to recover compensation under the statute is lost and cannot be revived by subsequent voluntary payments of compensation by the employer. We regard this as the proper interpretation of the statute …. [143 Kan. at 975].

“You Might, But We Don’t”

While the Supreme Court might have regarded its interpretation as “proper,” the Court of Appeals in the the instant case begged to disagree. The lower court stressed, “In reaching its holding, the Graham court wrote an unstated statutory purpose into 44-520a ….” [Opinion, p. 13].

The appellate court went on to note that the Kansas Supreme Court had reaffirmed its holding that a statute of limitations cannot be revived by an employer’s voluntary compensation once the time to file a claim has passed. Nevertheless, the court stressed, the most recent Supreme Court decision affirming the Graham holding was in 1957. Moreover, the Supreme Court had never applied the Graham holding to the statute of limitations in question here, Kan. Stat. Ann. § 44-534(b).

Court Says the Statute is “Plain and Unambiguous”

The appellate court added that the City ignored the fact that the court did not resort to the canons of statutory construction if the language of the statute is plain and unambiguous [citation omitted]. The court stressed that Kan. Stat. Ann. § 44-534(b) was unambiguous. Because the plain and unambiguous language did not prevent revival of the statute of limitations, the court said it had no authority to resort to the canons of statutory construction.

The court concluded that its first obligation was to determine if a statute had a clear meaning. In this case, the meaning was indeed clear. According to the court, the Legislature was not constrained by any particular word choice or structure in drafting the statute. Had it wanted to prevent workers from reviving the statute of limitations as the City argued, it could easily have said so.

Based on the foregoing thought processes and commentary, the court said the Board erred when it concluded that an employer could not revive the two-year statute of limitations when it made a payment of compensation to an injured worker after the time for the injured worker to file a timely application for hearing had run. Here, because the firefighter received compensation from the City in December 2015 and in January 2016 and because he filed his applications for hearings in January 2016, his applications under the revived two-year statute of limitations were timely.

Comment

I had a masterful law professor more than four decades ago who likely would have said the 1936 Kansas rule in Graham is so established that humanity’s memory “runneth not to the contrary.” Reflecting the passage of time, the Court of Appeals here makes what it must feel is a compelling argument that the Graham decision has not been favorably restated since 1957. Might that be because Graham is considered settled law and no further argument is necessary? One might ask, “How often must clearly understood law be restated?”

The decision by the Court of Appeals of Kansas here in Schneider reflects the minority position [see Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 126.07[9]]. As we noted in the Treatise, the objective of provisions that call for the tolling of the statute of limitations where the employer provides benefits, either in the form of temporary indemnity or medical care, is to protect the claimant who reasonably refrains from making a claim because of the receipt of benefits voluntarily supplied. The claimant is hard pressed to argue that a failure to make timely application is excused by something that happened after the claim is already barred. It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court of Kansas takes up this case on further appeal.

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