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Ahlers v. Sears

OPINION FILED NOVEMBER 22, 1978.

ARTHUR AHLERS, CONSERVATOR, APPELLEE,

v.

SEARS, ROEBUCK COMPANY, APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Appellate Court for the First District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Hon. Mayer Goldberg, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE KLUCZYNSKI DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This is an appeal from the appellate court, which affirmed judgments of the circuit court of Cook County holding that defendant, Sears, Roebuck and Company, is obligated under the terms of a 1971 settlement agreement to make payments accruing from April 1, 1975, through June of 1976 for nursing services for the plaintiff's ward, Anna Ahlers. (54 Ill. App.3d 638.) We allowed Sears' petition for leave to appeal under Supreme Court Rule 315 (65 Ill.2d R. 315).

In 1969, Anna Ahlers sustained serious, permanent head injuries in the course of her employment with Sears, Roebuck and Company. A claim for compensation was filed before the Industrial Commission. The incapacitating nature of the accident necessitated the appointment of her husband, Arthur, as conservator. In addition to medical attention immediately following the accident, continuous nursing care was recommended because Mrs. Ahlers could not care for herself. On June 4, 1971, a settlement contract executed by the parties was approved by the Commission. As part of the agreement, Sears became obligated to pay $725 per month for nursing care.

Two conditions subsequent were included in the agreement; the occurrence of either would relieve Sears of its duty of payment of $725 per month. It was agreed that payments would be discontinued if nursing care was no longer required or if the Commission determined that Mrs. Ahlers required different nursing care.

On March 14, 1974, Sears filed a petition to reopen the case before the Commission, alleging that nursing services were no longer being provided and that its payment obligation had therefore terminated. Sears honored its obligations under the agreement until April 1, 1975, at which time it unilaterally terminated payments. The petition to reopen the case was eventually denied on January 6, 1976. Sears did not seek review.

On June 3, 1976, Arthur Ahlers, husband and conservator of Anna, filed suit in the circuit court of Cook County for amounts accrued under the agreement but not paid since April 1, 1975. The action was filed under section 19(g) of the Workmen's Compensation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 138.19(g)), which provides:

"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."

On June 25, 1976, the circuit court entered judgment in favor of Ahlers for $10,150, representing the $725 monthly payments withheld by Sears between April 1, 1975, and June 1, 1976. A $2,000 judgment for attorneys' fees was entered on September 1, 1976. Also, on that date, Ahlers recovered a judgment for $1,450, representing payments due in June and July of 1976, and attorneys' fees of $290. Sears appealed the judgments for arrearages to the appellate court, but also, in December 1976, filed its second petition to reopen the case with the Commission. The award of attorneys' fees is not contested.

In the appellate court, Sears filed a motion to dismiss on August 29, 1977. The appellate court was informed that Sears had commenced new proceedings in the Commission, that those proceedings were then pending, and that the same issues were before the Commission. The appellate court was also informed of Arthur Ahlers' concession in those proceedings that nursing care had not been provided since early 1974. Medical testimony was also given to the Commission by Dr. Israel Zivin that, since early 1974, Mrs. Ahlers' condition had not required such constant care as was previously provided.

Sears' motion to dismiss was denied, and the appellate court soon thereafter, on October 30, 1977, rendered its decision in favor of Ahlers, from which Sears has taken this appeal. The appellate court denied a petition for rehearing on November 30, 1977.

Two days later, on December 2, 1977, the Commission, in response to Sears' second petition to reopen the case, entered an order which reduces Sears' payment obligation from $725 to $325 per month as of November 23, 1977. That decision is presently in the circuit court on a writ of certiorari under section 19(f) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 48, par. 138.19(f)), and is not being reviewed herein. The circuit court's judgments of June 25 and September 1, 1976, for arrearages, as well as its authority to enter these judgments, form the basis of the present appeal. We shall first address Sears' argument that the requirements of section 19(g) have not been met, and then the argument that the circuit court improperly entered judgment on the 1971 Commission order of approval without first being apprised of the current status of the parties.

Section 19(g) confers authority upon the circuit courts> to render judgment in accordance with an award or other decision of the Commission when a certified copy thereof is presented to the court. We see no problem in concluding that the Commission's order of approval constitutes a decision of the Commission or is the equivalent of an award within the meaning of section 19(g), as we see no reason for drawing a distinction between a decision reached after full adversary proceedings and an order of approval of the parties' settlement agreement such as that entered here. Commission approval of such agreements is both authorized (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 138.23) and encouraged (Hartford Accident & Indemnity Co. v. Industrial Com. (1926), 320 Ill. 544, 546), and previous cases recognize that Commission approval of a settlement agreement may be, in legal effect, an award (Harrison Sheet Steel Co. v. Industrial Com. (1950), 404 Ill. 557, 565; Michelson v. Industrial Com. (1941), 375 Ill. 462, 468; Dyer v. Industrial Com. (1936), 364 Ill. 161, 163; Hartford Accident & Indemnity Co. v. Industrial Com. (1926), 320 Ill. 544, 546). We now hold that Commission approval of a settlement agreement constitutes a decision of the Commission and is, in legal effect, the equivalent of an award within the meaning of section 19(g). We accordingly hold that an action on an approved settlement agreement may properly be commenced in the circuit court under section 19(g).

Sears argues, however, that the circuit court erred in entering judgment on this particular approval order. By the statute's own terms, only final orders of the Commission may be presented to the circuit court under section 19(g), and no action lies under that section if proceedings for review are pending. It is Sears' contention that these requirements have not been satisfied. Sears first contends that the Commission order of approval is not a final order because it is subject to modification according to the conditions set forth in the parties' approved settlement agreement. It is also Sears' contention that the ...


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