Appeal from the Circuit Court of Franklin County. No. 96-MR-14 Honorable Loren P. Lewis, Judge, presiding.
Honorable Thomas M. Welch, J. Honorable Charles W. Chapman, J., and Honorable Terrence J. Hopkins, J.,
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Welch
Plaintiff Eva Segers appeals from an order by the circuit court of Franklin County that denied her motion for summary judgment and granted a motion for summary judgment filed by defendant Old Ben Coal Company (Old Ben). The circuit court ruled, inter alia, that a lump-sum- settlement agreement entered into between Elmer Segers, plaintiff's late husband, and Old Ben was a lump-sum-settlement agreement as contemplated by section 9 of the Workers' Occupational Diseases Act (Act) (820 ILCS 310/a (West 1996)) and that pursuant to section 9 the lump-sum- settlement agreement barred plaintiff's claim for death benefits under the Act. Plaintiff appeals this decision, and for the reasons that follow, we reverse.
Based upon the pleadings, the facts in this case are as follows. In 1979, Elmer retired from his position as a coal miner with Old Ben. Sometime thereafter, he filed a disability claim against Old Ben, alleging injuries from the inhalation of coal and rock dust. In 1991, Elmer and Old Ben settled their disputes. The substance of their settlement agreement provided that Old Ben pay Elmer $25,664 in a lump sum for "full and final settlement of any and all claims under the Workers' Compensation Act and the Occupational Diseases Act." The agreement also resolved issues concerning the extent of Elmer's injuries and conditions, including questions of temporary total disability and permanent disability. On March 19, 1991, the settlement agreement was approved by the Industrial Commission (Commission).
On June 4, 1995, Elmer died. On July 25, 1995, plaintiff filed a claim with the Industrial Commission, seeking death benefits pursuant to the Act. Old Ben responded by filing a motion to dismiss with the Commission. Prior to the Commission taking any action on the matter, plaintiff filed a declaratory judgment action in the circuit court. Plaintiff sought the following declarations by the circuit court:
(1) that the settlement agreement between Elmer and Old Ben was not a lump- sum-settlement agreement as contemplated by section 9 of the Act, (2) that if the settlement agreement was a lump-sum-settlement agreement as contemplated by section 9 of the Act, section 9 does not bar her claim for death benefits under the Act, and (3) that if section 9 does bar her claim for death benefits under the Act, that portion of section 9 barring her claim is unconstitutional.
Both parties filed motions for summary judgment, and as noted earlier, the circuit court granted Old Ben's motion and denied plaintiff's motion. Now on appeal, plaintiff brings before this court the same three issues it raised in the circuit court in her declaratory judgment action.
Before addressing any of the issues raised by plaintiff, we must first address an issue concerning jurisdiction, raised by defendants. *fn1 Although defendants concede that the circuit court and the Commission share concurrent jurisdiction over the issues involved (see Employers Mutual Cos. v. Skilling, 163 Ill. 2d 284, 287 (1994)), they argue that under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction, the circuit court should have conceded jurisdiction to the Commission. Defendants argue that the Commission is the best forum to resolve the issues raised by plaintiff and that this court could have benefited from its special expertise. We disagree.
The doctrine of primary jurisdiction is concerned with promoting proper relationships between the courts and administrative agencies charged with particular regulatory duties. See Skilling, 163 Ill. 2d at 288. The doctrine provides that "where a court has jurisdiction over a matter, it should in some instances stay the judicial proceedings pending referral of a controversy, or some portion of it, to an administrative agency having expertise in the area." Skilling, 163 Ill. 2d at 288. A court should refer the controversy to an agency when the specialized or technical expertise of an administrative agency would help resolve the controversy or when there is a need for uniform administrative standards. See Skilling, 163 Ill. 2d at 288-89.
The doctrine of primary jurisdiction can only be applied when a court has either original or concurrent jurisdiction over the subject matter of the dispute. See Skilling, 163 Ill. 2d at 288. In determining whether the doctrine of primary jurisdiction should apply, the court must consider whether the reasons for the existence of the doctrine are present and whether the purposes that the doctrine serves will be aided by its application in the particular litigation. See Peoples Energy Corp. v. Illinois Commerce Comm'n, 142 Ill. App. 3d 917, 933 (1986). If an agency's technical expertise is not likely to be helpful or if there is no need for uniform administrative standards, courts need not relinquish their authority over the matter to an agency. See Fredericks v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., 255 Ill. App. 3d 1029, 1034 (1994).
In addition, it is within the particular province of the courts to resolve questions of law, and although administrative agencies are given wide latitude in resolving factual issues, they are not in resolving matters of law. See Skilling, 163 Ill. 2d at 289. Finally, a ruling on a question of law that could "foreclose needless litigation" is best addressed by the courts. See Casualty Insurance Co. v. Kendall Enterprises, Inc., 295 Ill. App. 3d 582, 586 (1998) (quoting Skilling, 163 Ill. 2d at 289).
Keeping these principles in mind, we do not believe that the circuit court erred in finding that the agency did not have primary jurisdiction. Plaintiff's declaratory judgment action asks the circuit court for an interpretation of a settlement agreement, an interpretation of a section of the Act, and if necessary, a ruling on the constitutionality of a provision of a statute. All these issues are determined as a matter of law. See Countryman v. Industrial Comm'n, 292 Ill. App. 3d 738, 741-42 (1997) (where the contract is clear, its interpretation is a question of law); Hamwi v. Zollar, 299 Ill. App. 3d 1088, 1093 (1998) (the interpretation of a statute is a question of law). It is within the particular province of the courts to resolve questions of law. See Skilling, 163 Ill. 2d at 289. If the agency were to make a decision regarding these issues, a review of its decision would be subject to a de novo standard of review. No deference would be given to the agency's determination as to these issues. Furthermore, well-established legal principles exist to guide the court to the proper result concerning the issues raised by plaintiff. Therefore, the agency's technical expertise in the instant matter is neither helpful nor necessary. Finally, this action has the potential to foreclose needless litigation. Accordingly, as we do not believe that the reasons for the existence of the doctrine are present or that the purposes the doctrine serves will be aided by its application, we hold that the circuit court did not err by not deferring this dispute to the Commission.
Having resolved the jurisdictional issue raised by defendants, we now turn to plaintiff's appeal. However, based upon our decision as to plaintiff's second issue raised, we need not address the first or third issues raised by plaintiff. For the sake of argument, we will presume that the settlement agreement entered into between Elmer and Old Ben was a lump-sum-settlement agreement as contemplated by section 9 of the Act. Further, as we do not believe that section 9 applies to bar plaintiff's claim, we need not address its constitutionality.
Turning to plaintiff's second issue on appeal, the question she asks is, "[W]hether, pursuant to section 9 of the Act, the lump-sum settlement agreement entered into between Elmer and Old Ben bars plaintiff's claim for death benefits." Old Ben argues in a brief filed in the circuit court and in its brief filed on appeal that the language contained in section 9 of the Act bars plaintiff's claim for death benefits. As the circuit court's ruling was in favor of Old Ben with the only explanation being "for the ...