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Stinson v. Home Depot USA, Inc.

Superior Court of Delaware

April 20, 2017

ROBERT STINSON, Plaintiff,
v.
HOME DEPOT USA, INC.; LIBERTY MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendants.

          Submitted: February 16, 2017

         Upon Consideration of Defendant Home Depot USA, Inc. 's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, GRANTED.

          ORDER

          Vivian L. Medinilla, Judge

         AND NOW TO WIT, this 20th day of April, 2017, upon consideration of Defendant Home Depot USA, Inc. ("Home Depot")'s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, Plaintiffs response thereto, the parties' positions at oral argument, and their post-argument letter submissions, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Home Depot's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is GRANTED, for the following reasons:

         Factual and Procedural Background

         1. Plaintiff Robert Stinson seeks to recover Huffman damages for a work-related injury he suffered seven years ago after he slipped and injured his right knee while working at Home Depot in Claymont, Delaware.[1]

         2. Plaintiff initially filed a Petition to Determine Compensation Due ("Petition") with the Delaware Industrial Accident Board ("IAB") on or about August 2, 2010. The Petition sought compensation for Plaintiffs total disability benefits ("lost wages"), medical expenses, and attorney's fees. An IAB hearing was scheduled for December 30, 2010.

         3. Home Depot and Plaintiff (the "parties") exchanged documents and began settlement discussion in advance of the IAB hearing. The parties' correspondence during this period is highly germane to the present Motion and is, therefore, outlined in great detail below:

• On December 22, 2010, then-counsel for Home Depot, Mr. Simpson, writes Plaintiffs counsel.[2] Mr. Simpson acknowledges receipt of the medical records from Plaintiffs surgery and confirms that Home Depot agrees that his "surgical procedure" is "compensable." He states: "I am currently awaiting confirmation from my client of the exact dates the claimant missed from work as a result of the work injury as well as the claimant's wage information in order to calculate his average weekly wage and corresponding workers' compensation rate. Once I have that information I will forward it to you. . . ." Mr. Simpson then seeks Plaintiffs counsel's confirmation that the IAB hearing is unnecessary given his statements above.
• Between December 22, 2010 and December 29, 2010, settlement negotiations ensue between the parties. On December 29, 2010, Plaintiffs counsel drafts a letter to Mr. Simpson "confirm[ing] our resolution of the [Petition]."[3] However, it is undisputed that this letter was not sent to Mr. Simpson until January 19, 2011. The letter states the terms of the putative agreement: first, Home Depot will "acknowledge compensability of Mr. Stinson's work related injury to his right knee" for a period of total disability from June 2, 2010 to September 17, 2010-at an average weekly wage of $900.14; compensation rate of $600.12; equaling $9, 173.26 for the total period. Second, Plaintiffs medical treatment is reasonably related to his injury. Plaintiffs counsel states that he already sent a copy of "most of the medical expenses" to Mr. Simpson and that he would forward additional bills to him. Third, Home Depot would "tender an attorney's fee;" he demands $6, 000.00. Fourth, Home Depot "will also tender payment/reimbursement for mileage reimbursement expenses incurred." Plaintiffs counsel confirms that he has canceled the IAB hearing scheduled for the next day.
• On January 12, 2011, Mr. Simpson writes Plaintiffs counsel to "confirm that the [Petition] has settled with the Employer's agreement to acknowledge the claimant's right knee injury of 6/2/10 as compensable as well as the surgical procedure performed. . . ."[4] He attaches Plaintiffs wage records, showing a different average weekly wage of $710.68 for 26 weeks disability. He further states that this new calculation translates to a compensation rate of $473.79 and a total payment of $6, 159.27 "if this figure is accurate."[5] Mr. Simpson states that the period of disability runs from June 12, 2010 to September 11, 2010.[6] He also restates that he is "awaiting confirmation from [his] client" as to the dates and numbers above and asks Plaintiffs counsel to confirm or deny the dates and figures. He requests a demand for legal fees. He further requests any outstanding medical bills. Finally, he explains that Home Depot believes Plaintiff received other disability benefits for the period of disability for which Home Depot would be entitled to a credit or offset in the total figure above, and asks that Plaintiffs counsel confirm whether Plaintiff received such benefits for purposes of a credit. The letter concludes with an integration/merger provision.
• On January 24, 2011, Mr. Simpson writes again to Plaintiffs counsel, asking Plaintiffs counsel to confirm the same figures as his January 12, 2011 letter, but provides that the dates of disability are now June 3, 2010 to September 6, 2010. The total disability payment is adjusted accordingly to $6, 429.60. Mr. Simpson further states that Plaintiff had, in fact, received short term disability benefits for the same period in the amount of $5, 028.38. This figure is used as a credit against the total payment figure, making the net settlement of the disability period $1, 401.22. Mr. Simpson asks Plaintiffs counsel to confirm the acceptance of these numbers. Mr. Simpson also relays his client's offer of $3, 000.00 in attorney's fees.
• The next correspondence is dated seven months later, on August 24, 2011.[7] On that date, Plaintiffs counsel writes to Mr. Simpson to "acknowledge the receipt of your letters of January 12 and January 24, 2011. ... Be advised that I had thought that this letter-which was dictated in February-went out to you in early March."[8] Acknowledging the produced wage records from Mr. Simpson, Plaintiffs counsel agrees to Mr. Simpson's calculations of the average weekly wage and compensation rate. However, he argues that the original period of disability is from June 2, 2010 to September 11, 2010 and states that he disagrees with "the balance of Mr. Simpson's January 24, 2011 letter. Plaintiffs counsel writes that Mr. Simpson was "now claiming, for the first time, that your client is entitled to a credit for short term disability benefits. . . ." The letter threatens a Huffman suit based on the assertion of this credit but it is unclear what the amount due would have been since Plaintiffs counsel was then disputing Home Depot's calculations.
• Plaintiff concludes his August 24, 2011 letter with a harbinger of this litigation. He states: "That said, kindly accept this as the claimant's demand for payment of all sums due as outlined in my letter dated December 29, 2010, following our discussion regarding settlement. Please note again that the only modification to that agreement concerns the compensation rate. . . . Otherwise, the terms of our agreement are binding, and I expect your client to honor them. This includes, inter alia, payment of total disability benefits to Mr. Stinson in the amount of $6, 429.40 for the period of total disability from 06/03/10 through 09/06/10. This demand is being made pursuant to Huffman v. C.C. Oliphant & Sons, Inc...."
• On September 14, 2011, Plaintiffs counsel writes to Mr. Simpson enclosing-for the first time-Plaintiffs actual mileage expenses.[9] He demands $129.41 within thirty days of the letter and attaches addresses, maps, and directions for each mileage claim.

         4. On May 13, 2016, Plaintiff filed this case, alleging three Huffman claims (lost wages, unpaid physical therapy bills, and mileage reimbursement) and one count of Breach of Duty of Good Faith and Fair Dealing. The filing of the Complaint comes almost six years after the original injury and over four years after Plaintiffs counsel's August 24, 2011 letter.

         5. Home Depot moved for Judgment on the Pleadings on August 29, 2016. Plaintiff responded in opposition to the Motion on October 28, 2016. Home Depot filed a reply brief on November 14, 2016. Oral argument on the Motion was held on January 30, 2017. The Court then ordered both parties to submit letter briefs to clarify an issue regarding the submission of Plaintiffs physical therapy bills to Home Depot. The parties submitted their supplemental briefs on February 14, 2017 and February 16, 2017 respectively. The Motion is now ripe for decision.

         Standard of Review

         6. A motion for judgment on the pleadings is akin to a motion to dismiss or general demurrer to the plaintiffs complaint.[10] Under Rule 12(c), the motion may be raised at any time after the pleadings are closed and within such time so as to not delay trial.[11] The motion accepts as true the allegations in the complaint and contends that they are insufficient as a matter of law to grant relief to the plaintiff.[12] Where the pleadings raise "any material issue of fact, " denial of the motion is appropriate.[13] Any factual assertions must be contained within the pleadings themselves.[14] If a motion injects material outside the pleadings, the motion is converted to a motion for summary judgment.[15]

         Contentions of the Parties

         7. The issues in this Motion may be subdivided according to the subject matter of the Huffman claim: lost wages, medical expenses, and mileage reimbursement. First, the issue of lost wages commands the most amount of ink. As to this demand, Home Depot argues that the parties never reached a settlement agreement because the parties never came to a "meeting of the minds" regarding the "amount due" to Plaintiff.[16] It argues that Plaintiffs counsel's failure to send Mr. Simpson the December 29, 2010 letter[17]the very letter Plaintiff contends is the "settlement agreement"-evinces a lack of mutual assent to be bound by the terms of the December 29, 2010 letter. Home Depot notes that Mr. Simpson's December 22, 2010 letter conditions acceptance of the proposed figures on Home Depot's confirmation of the dates of disability and respective wage figures.[18] Mr. Simpson's January 12, 2011 letter further manifests the conditional nature of the negotiations.[19] Like ships passing in the night, the January 24, 2011 letter does not reference the December 29, 2010 letter, further bolstering Home Depot's primary contention.[20] Defendant appends to its Motion correspondence between January 24, 2011 and August 24, 2011 that is not attached as an exhibit to Plaintiffs Complaint and is not referenced in the Complaint.[21]

         8. Second, as to the medical bills, Home Depot contends that Exhibit 1 to Plaintiffs Complaint-containing medical bills for Plaintiffs postsurgical physical therapy and addressed to Plaintiffs home-fails to show that these bills were ever submitted to Defendants for purposes of a Huffman demand.[22]

         9. Third, as to the mileage reimbursement demand, Home Depot points to the date of the letter submission (September 14, 2011) and suggests that this is proof that no mileage amount was ever "due" pursuant to the workers' compensation statute and Huffman.[23]

         10. It is undisputed that the December 29, 2010 letter was not timely sent. Nevertheless, Plaintiff responds by arguing that an enforceable agreement existed as of December 29, 2010, despite the non-delivery of this letter.[24] Plaintiff argues that a settlement agreement existed and that any changes to the underlying agreement were merely modifications to this agreement. The first modification was a requested change to the average weekly wage and corresponding workers' compensation rate (i.e., Mr. Simpson's January 12, 2011 letter). The second modification was a requested application of a credit for short term disability benefits Plaintiff may have received during the period of disability (i.e., Mr. Simpson's January 24, 2011 letter). Plaintiff agreed to the former, but rejected the latter. Thus, Plaintiff contends that there is a valid settlement agreement and Plaintiffs August 24, 2011 letter suffices to put Home Depot on notice of his Huffman demands with respect to his claims for lost wages, medical expenses, and mileage reimbursement.

         Discussion

         11. "An employer is responsible for paying compensation to an employee where the parties either enter into a voluntary agreement regarding benefits or where the IAB enters an order requiring the employer to pay."[25] Pursuant to 19 Del. C. § 2357, if "default is made by the employer for 30 days after demand in the payment of any amount due under [Delaware's workers' compensation statute], the amount may be recovered in the same manner as claims for wages are collectible.[26]Wages are recoverable under Title 19, Chapter 11 of the Delaware Code.[27] According to § 1113(a), "[a] civil action to recover unpaid wages and liquidated damages may be maintained in [Delaware Superior Court]."[28]

         12. A "Huffman claim" is shorthand for a "[c]ivil action[] filed under 19 Del. C. § 2357 'to collect unpaid workers' compensation awards. . . .'"[29] A Huffman claim seeks an award for "the employer's failure to pay once the thirty day default period [of § 2357] has expired after proper demand."[30] Once the employer defaults, the claimant is entitled to file suit to recover "liquidated damages, attorneys' fees and costs."[31] "The purpose behind the demand requirements of Section 2357 is to put defendants on notice of their default and permit them to cure their deficiency within thirty days in order to avoid incurring liquidated damages...."[32]

         A. ...


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