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Hampton v. Intech Contracting, LLC

Supreme Court of Kentucky

August 29, 2019

GEOFFREY HAMPTON APPELLANT
v.
INTECH CONTRACTING, LLC; AND ZURICH AMERICAN INSURANCE COMPANY APPELLEES

          ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NO. 2017-CA-000480-MR MUHLENBERG CIRCUIT COURT NO. 15-CI-00280

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Charles William Gorham The Law Offices of Charles W. Gorham

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEES: Donnie James Niehaus Walter A. Ward Ward, Hocker & Thornton, PLLC

          OPINION

          BUCKINGHAM, JUSTICE

         Appellant Geoffrey Hampton filed a workers' compensation enforcement action in the Muhlenberg Circuit Court against his employer, Intech Contracting, LLC, and its workers' compensation insurance carrier, Zurich American Insurance Company (collectively, Intech/Zurich). The circuit court entered an order granting Hampton's third, fourth, and fifth motions for partial summary judgment.

         Intech/Zurich appealed, and the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal of the portion of the order granting Hampton's fourth motion for partial summary judgment as an appeal from an interlocutory order, but it refused to dismiss the remainder of the appeal. Rather, it reversed the portion of the circuit court's order granting summary judgment to Hampton on his third and fifth partial summary judgment motions and directed the circuit court to dismiss Hampton's claims relating to those two motions on the grounds that the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

         Hampton moved for our discretionary review of the portion of the Court of Appeals opinion reversing the circuit court's order granting him partial summary judgment on his third and fifth motions for partial summary judgment. Intech/Zurich did not move for our review of the portion of the Court of Appeals opinion dismissing its appeal of the portion of the circuit court's order granting Hampton's fourth motion for partial summary judgment.

         We agree that the Court of Appeals properly dismissed the appeal from the circuit court's order granting partial summary judgment to Hampton on his fourth partial summary judgment motion as being an appeal from a nonfinal order.[1] However, we conclude the Court of Appeals erred in not dismissing the Intech/Zurich appeal from the portion of the circuit court's order granting summary judgment to Hampton on his third and fifth motions for partial summary judgment as also being an appeal from a nonfinal order. Therefore, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On September 9, 2009, Hampton suffered a severe workplace injury which resulted in multiple severe injuries, including a below-the-knee amputation, a C2 fracture with spinal cord injury, a C6 level ASIA-C tetraplegia, multiple spinal fractures, lower extremity deep vein thrombosis, traumatic brain injury, a vocal cord injury, fractured teeth, and underlying anxiety related to the multiple injuries. As a result of these injuries, Hampton filed a workers' compensation claim wherein he was awarded permanent total disability benefits and future medical benefits related to his injuries, including certain specific benefits applicable to his specific injuries.

         According to Hampton, notwithstanding his entitlement to the awarded benefits, Intech/Zurich has consistently failed to timely approve medical treatment, reimburse his out-of-pocket expenses, or pay him the correct amount of past due principal and interest for his income benefits. The validity of Hampton's claim is supported by the fact the Department of Workers' Claims opened an Unfair Claims Settlement investigation that resulted in Zurich agreeing to pay a civil penalty of $18, 500.

         On August 5, 2015, Hampton filed a workers' compensation enforcement action in the Muhlenberg Circuit Court against Intech/Zurich, alleging that Intech/Zurich had failed to timely pay certain medical benefits to which he was entitled. As authority for his filing, Hampton cited KRS[2] 342.305, which provides as follows:

Any party in interest may file in the Circuit Court of the county in which the injury occurred a certified copy of a memorandum of agreement approved by the administrative law judge, or of an order or decision of the administrative law judge or board, or of an award of the administrative law judge unappealed from, or of an award of the board rendered upon an appeal whether or not there is a motion to reopen or review pending under KRS 342.125. The court shall render judgment in accordance therewith and notify the parties. Such judgment shall have the same effect, and all proceedings in relation thereto shall thereafter be the same as though it had been rendered in a suit duly heard and determined by that court. Any such judgment, unappealed from or affirmed on appeal or modified in obedience to the mandate of the Court of Appeals, shall be modified to conform to any decision of the administrative law judge ending, diminishing, or increasing any weekly payment under the provisions of KRS 342.125 upon a presentation to it of a certified copy of such decision.

         Hampton's complaint alleged that on October 6, 2014, he had received a workers' compensation award entitling him to income and medical benefits; that Intech/Zurich was obligated to pay for those benefits; that Intech/Zurich had "failed to pay all benefits awarded and found compensable"; that Intech/Zurich had "failed to approve all medical treatment found compensable in the opinion, award and order rendered on October 6, 2014"; and that he was seeking enforcement of Intech/Zurich's obligations to pay for those benefits, along with an award of attorney's fees.

         Thereafter, through a succession of motions for partial summary judgment, Hampton made a variety of piecemeal enforcement requests. By order dated March 6, 2017, the circuit court granted Hampton's third, fourth, and fifth motions for partial summary judgment[3] and ordered as follows: an award directing payment for the cost of a power wheelchair (third motion); an award of past-due income benefits in the amount of $6, 579.59 for the underpayment of past permanent total disability benefits plus interest (fourth motion); and an award of $1, 884.68 for the reimbursement of expenses for a medically-related trip to Oklahoma (fifth motion). Significantly, the order does not contain CR[4] 54.02 finality language. Furthermore, the order did not resolve all the issues between all the parties because Hampton's claim for attorney fees remained pending. Therefore, the order was by definition an interlocutory order, and it also lacked CR 54.02 finality language.

         After Intech/Zurich filed its appeal in the Court of Appeals, Hampton filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the circuit court's order was interlocutory and did not contain CR 54.02 finality language. The Court of Appeals agreed that the underpayment of benefits aspect of the appeal was interlocutory as Hampton's complaint in the circuit court had claimed attorney fees and that claim remained pending. Therefore, the Court of Appeals dismissed that aspect of the appeal pursuant to CR 54.02 because the order appealed from did not resolve all the issues between all the parties and did not contain the necessary finality language.

         The Court of Appeals concluded relative to the circuit court's granting of Hampton's third and fifth motions for partial summary judgment, however, that the "[Intech/Zurich] argument that the circuit court was acting outside the scope of its subject matter jurisdiction in this type of context was the functional equivalent of asserting an absolute immunity defense, the denial of which was subject to interlocutory review." Thus, the Court of Appeals held that although the circuit court order was interlocutory and otherwise did not comply with CR 54.02, it (the Court of Appeals) nevertheless had jurisdiction to address the issues concerning Hampton's third and fifth partial summary judgment motions under the absolute immunity doctrine that permits a party to immediately appeal from a ruling that the party is not entitled to immunity.

         The Court of Appeals reasoned that "the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to approve Hampton's requests for a camouflaged power wheelchair with all-terrain tires (as set forth in his third motion for summary judgment) and reimbursement for mileage and other costs associated with his November 2015 trip to Tahlequah, Oklahoma (as set forth in his fifth motion for partial summary judgment)." It stated, "Neither of those expenses were approved in Hampton's award, and they were required to be approved, in the first instance, by the ALJ."

         Hampton's motion for discretionary review, which we granted, followed.

         II. THE CIRCUIT COURT'S MARCH 6, 2017 ORDER WAS A NONFINAL ORDER THAT DOES NOT ...


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