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Ratledge v. Industrial Commission

February 25, 2000


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Ogle County No. 98MR34

Honorable Judge Presiding.

PRESIDING JUSTICE McCULLOUGH delivered the opinion of the court:

On May 20, 1998, appellee, Helle Hardwoods (respondent), filed a motion before the Industrial Commission (Commission) to terminate lifetime benefits to appellant, Bernice Ratledge (claimant), under section 7(a) of the Workmen's Compensation Act (Act) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 138.7(a) (now section 7(a) of the Workers' Compensation Act (820 ILCS 305/7(a) (West 1998))). On September 23, 1998, the Commission denied respondent's motion. On February 9, 1999, the circuit court reversed the decision of the Commission. On April 20, 1999, pursuant to claimant's motion, the circuit court reconsidered its February 1999 order and affirmed the Commission's denial of the petition to terminate. On June 9, 1999, the circuit court, pursuant to respondent's motion, issued a supplementary statement with respect to the April 20, 1999, opinion and order. Claimant appeals, arguing (1) the circuit court lacked authority to issue the supplementary order; and (2) the circuit court's supplementary order was contrary to the law. To the extent that the circuit court's decision modifies the Commission decision, we vacate the circuit court's decision and reinstate the Commission decision.

On January 16, 1976, decedent, William L. Ratledge, suffered fatal injuries arising out of and in the course of his employment with respondent. William Ratledge was survived by his wife, the claimant herein, and two minor children, Timothy (then age 5) and Kimberly (date of birth, September 24, 1974). On February 27, 1976, claimant filed an application for adjustment of claim. On September 13, 1976, the arbitrator awarded claimant $105.33 per week in lifetime benefits pursuant to section 7(a) of the Act. Respondent did not dispute this award and it became the final order of the Commission as of September 28, 1976.

On August 18, 1991, claimant remarried. At the time of claimant's remarriage, Timothy had reached majority age but Kimberly had not.

With respect to its April 20, 1999, order, the circuit court disagreed with the Commission's reasoning and case analysis, but nevertheless confirmed the Commission's denial of respondent's motion to terminate benefits. As to respondent's May 7, 1999, motion to clarify, the circuit court's supplemental June 9 order restated its April 20, 1999, opinion and order. On July 6, 1999, claimant filed her notice of appeal.

Although we disagree with the claimant's assertion that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction with respect to the May 7 motion, we agree with the Commission and claimant with respect to the precedent of Interlake, Inc. v. Industrial Comm'n, 95 Ill. 2d 181, 447 N.E.2d 339 (1983), and will not address claimant's first issue. We also note that, even if the circuit court lacked the authority to enter the June 9, 1999, supplemental order, the outcome would be the same. Despite claimant's assertions in her brief, the circuit court's supplemental order did not substantially differ from the April 20, 1999, opinion and order. Both orders provided that claimant was entitled to compensation until Kimberly turned 18, unless Kimberly enrolled in an accredited academic institution, in which case claimant was entitled to benefits until Kimberly reached age 25.

Section 7(a) of the Act governs lifetime benefit awards and, at the time of decedent's death, provided substantially what it now provides in its current form:

"(a) If the employee leaves a surviving *** widow, widower, child or children, the applicable weekly compensation rate computed in accordance with subparagraph 2 of paragraph (b) of Section 8, shall be payable during the life of the widow or widower and if any surviving child or children shall not be physically or mentally incapacitated then until the death of the widow or widower or until the youngest child shall reach the age of 18, whichever shall come later; provided that if such child or children shall be enrolled as a full time student in any accredited educational institution, the payments shall continue until such child has attained the age of 25. In the event any surviving child or children shall be physically or mentally incapacitated, the payments shall continue for the duration of such incapacity.

In the event of the remarriage of a widow or widower, where the decedent did not leave surviving any child or children who, at the time of such remarriage, are entitled to compensation benefits under this Act, the surviving spouse shall be paid a lump sum equal to 2 years compensation benefits and all further rights of such widow or widower shall be extinguished." Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 138.7(a) (now 820 ILCS 305/7(a) (West 1998)).

Two cases have addressed this section. First, in Interlake decedent died from work-related injuries, and decedent's widow remarried. At the time of her remarriage, two of decedent's surviving children were minors and therefore entitled to support. Our supreme court unanimously held:

"Under the language of the section, *** decedent's widow[] is entitled to benefits until she dies, because she did not remarry at a time when none of the decedent's children were entitled to support. There simply is no provision in the statute for terminating a widow's benefits upon remarriage when there remain minor children entitled to support." (Emphasis added.) Interlake, 95 Ill. 2d at 191, 447 N.E.2d at 344.

Our supreme court examined section 7(a) again in Stewart v. Industrial Comm'n, 115 Ill. 2d 337, 504 N.E.2d 84 (1987). In Stewart, decedent died of work-related injuries. The arbitrator awarded death benefits to decedent's widow (decedent's second wife) and decedent's four children from a previous marriage who lived with their natural mother. Prior to the Commission's ruling on review, decedent's widow remarried. The Commission held that, under Interlake, her remarriage did not affect her right to continuing benefits. Stewart, 115 Ill. 2d at 339, 504 N.E.2d at 85. On appeal to the supreme court, decedent's widow argued that, under Interlake, she was entitled to benefits for life irrespective of her remarriage. The supreme court disagreed and distinguished Interlake, finding "the widow in Interlake was the natural mother of the decedent's children and was responsible for their care and support, whereas the widow in the present case is the decedent's second wife and is not responsible for the decedent's children." Stewart, 115 Ill. 2d at 340, 504 N.E.2d at 85.

Turning to the case at bar, the Commission found that the instant case was "on all fours with Interlake. *** According to the law in Interlake, benefits to the widow continue as the remarriage occurred while [Kimberly] was a ...

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