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Ahlers v. Sears





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. RAYMOND K. BERG, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied November 30, 1977.

The circuit court entered two judgments in favor of Anna Ahlers, an incompetent, suing by Arthur Ahlers, her conservator (plaintiff), and against Sears, Roebuck and Company (defendant), arising out of proceedings before the Industrial Commission of Illinois which had resulted in approval of a settlement contract. Defendant has appealed.

The factual basis of this appeal is readily stated. Plaintiff's ward was seriously injured while employed by defendant. It is agreed that the injuries resulted in permanent total disability and arose out of and in the course of employment. An application for compensation was filed with the commission. A written settlement contract between the parties was approved by the commission on June 4, 1971. Defendant agreed to pay weekly benefits and an annual pension.

The only portion of the settlement agreement at issue here pertained to care and management of the disabled person from and after July 1, 1970. The contract as approved recited that a dispute had arisen concerning the obligation of defendant to provide nursing home care. In lieu of such care, the conservator had rented larger quarters and engaged a practical nurse to live with the ward. The agreement further provided:

"3. In the interest of resolving the dispute as to the extent of the obligation of respondent to provide nursing home care, respondent agrees to pay the sum of $725.00 a month beginning with July 1, 1970 to reimburse the conservator for the nursing home or its equivalent costs borne by him, which said monthly payment shall continue until nursing care and attention is no longer required or until it is determined by the Commission that it is in the best interests of petitioner that other or different nursing care is required by petitioner."

The agreement also provided, concerning payment of necessary medical and hospital services due to the injury, that, "[i]n the event the parties cannot agree whether any item is reimbursable, that controversy may be submitted to the Commission for resolution."

On March 14, 1974, defendant filed a petition to reopen the case before the commission. Defendant sought to terminate its responsibility for "nursing care and attention * * *" on the ground that this was "no longer required * * *" in accordance with the settlement agreement. On January 6, 1976, after due consideration of the petition, the commission denied it. Defendant took no proceedings for review before the commission.

The payments provided in the settlement agreement were made by defendant until April 1, 1975. Further payment was then terminated. On June 3, 1976, plaintiff filed suit in the circuit court seeking a judgment for monthly payments as provided in the settlement contract which had become due after April 1, 1975, and attorney's fees. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 138.19(g).) On June 25, 1976, the trial court entered judgment in favor of plaintiff for $10,150, evidencing installments of $725 per month from April 1, 1975, up to June 1, 1976. There was a subsequent judgment for attorney's fees of $2000.

On August 12, 1976, plaintiff filed a second similar suit in the circuit court. On September 1, 1976, judgment was entered in favor of plaintiff for $1450, representing payments under the settlement agreement for June and July of 1976, and attorney's fees of $290. Appeals from these two judgments have been consolidated in this court.

In this court, defendant contends that the trial court was without jurisdiction to enter judgment on the settlement contract which did not form a proper legal basis for the entry of judgment under section 19(g); the alleged breach of the settlement contract by defendant did not constitute a refusal to pay compensation under the pertinent statute and plaintiff's sole remedies were contractual which were not properly before the trial court. Plaintiff asserts that the Industrial Commission had exclusive power to litigate all disputes arising under the Workmen's Compensation Act; the awards and decisions of the commission have the same finality as judgments of a court; defendant was not able to review the action of the commission in approving the award; a settlement contract approved by the commission has the legal status of an award; and the distinction must be made between the term compensation and the payment of compensation.

• 1 The role of the circuit court in workmen's compensation cases is defined and limited by the special "powers that are conferred by the statute." (Interlake Steel Corp. v. Industrial Com. (1975), 60 Ill.2d 255, 262, 326 N.E.2d 744; Gunnels v. Industrial Com. (1964), 30 Ill.2d 181, 185, 195 N.E.2d 609.) In the case before us, both complaints were filed pursuant to section 19(g) of the Workmen's Compensation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 138.19(g)) which provides:

"(g) Except in the case of a claim against the State of Illinois, either party may present a certified copy of the award of the Arbitrator, or a certified copy of the decision of the Commission when the same has become final, when no proceedings for review are pending, providing for the payment of compensation according to this Act, to the Circuit Court of the county in which such accident occurred or either of the parties are residents, whereupon the court shall render a judgment in accordance therewith. * * * The Circuit Court shall have power at any time upon application to make any such judgment conform to any modification required by any subsequent decision of the Supreme Court upon appeal, or as the result of any subsequent proceedings for review, as provided in this Act."

Defendant contends that section 19(g) does not authorize judgment on a settlement contract which is neither an "award of the Arbitrator * * *" or a "decision of the Commission * * *" under that section. This argument, overlooks the most pertinent fact of commission approval of the settlement contract. The Act recognizes that the parties may enter into settlement agreements (see, e.g., Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 138.19(h)) and it empowers the commission to approve a compromise or settlement of an employee's right to compensation. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 138.23; see Taylor v. Hartford Fire Insurance Co. (1974), 22 Ill. App.3d 164, 167, 319 N.E.2d 303.) The settlement contract before us was an approved compromise of defendant's statutory duty to "pay for such maintenance or institutional care as shall be required" if the employee cannot be self-sufficient ...

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