The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act was enacted to provide a flow of benefits to compensate injured workers for lost wages and the loss of earning capacity in exchange for a bar on certain liabilities of employers.  Included in this remedial legislation is a statutory remedy for injured workers should an employer fail or refuse to pay a final Commission award.  The applicable provision is section 19(g), which allows the employee to reduce the award to an enforceable judgment in the circuit court.  Section 19(g) provides, in pertinent part, that “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 enter a judgment in accordance therewith.” 820 ILCS 305/19(g) (West 2012).  When an application for judgment under §19(g) is filed, the circuit court’s inquiry is limited to whether the section’s requirements have been met.  The only defense available in a §19(g) proceeding is showing that full payment of the final award was made.  Therefore, if the injured worker presents a certified copy of a final Commission award of compensation and the employer fails to prove that the award was paid in full, then the circuit court must enter a judgment.

This provision was recently addressed in Estate of Burns v. Consolidation Coal Company, 2015 IL (5th) 140503WC.  In Burns, the employee had worked as a coal miner for 38 years; when he passed away, his death was attributed to pneumonia and pneumoconiosis, with final diagnoses of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, right lower lobe pneumonic consolidation, bilateral marked pleural adhesions, and severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  His widow filed federal and state claims for benefits for his death from pneumoconiosis.  The injured worker’s widow died before her claims were resolved so her estate was substituted as a party in the claim for benefits.  The matter was ultimately tried and the arbitrator found that the employee had been exposed to an occupational disease that arose out of and in the course of his employment; the employer was ordered to pay weekly benefits from the date of employee’s death through the date of the widow’s death, as well as burial expenses.  The total benefits payable under the Workers’ Occupational Diseases Act was $97,845.45.  The decision was appealed all the way up to the Appellate Court level and eventually, in 2012, the Fifth District Appellate Court held the Commission’s award was proper.

During the pendency of the state claim appeals, the federal matter had also been progressing.  The employer eventually conceded liability in the federal claim and, in March 2010, paid $15,480 to the Department of Labor as reimbursement for benefits issued to the widow by the Black Lung Trust Fund. The employer also paid the widow’s heirs $7,906.30 in benefits. All told, the employer paid $23,386.30 under the federal Black Lung Benefits Act.

After the original award of occupational disease benefits was upheld, the employer issued a payment of $89,865.30 to the widow’s estate.  Attorneys for the estate advised the employer that this was less than full payment and when the employer refused to pay the whole award, the estate filed an application for judgment pursuant to §19(g).  The employer responded by filing a motion to dismiss wherein it argued it had already issued full payment.  Specifically, the employer alleged that the federal Black Lung Benefits Act requires that benefits paid in a federal claim be offset against benefits paid in a state claim for the same period; since the benefits at issue in the state claim were for the same period as those in the federal claim, except for a two week period, the offset for the $23,386.30 federal claim payment left a total amount due of $74,532.17 in the state claim; with the addition of $15,333.13 in interest which accrued while the state claim was on appeal, the total Commission award came to $89,865.30, which it had already paid.  After a hearing on the matter, wherein there was testimony about whether the parties had agreed that the offset would be taken from the Commission’s award of occupational disease benefits, the circuit court granted the employer’s motion to dismiss.  On appeal, the Fifth District Appellate Court reversed.  The Burns court noted that while there were avenues available for the employer to recoup the amount of the federal claim, the §19(g) proceeding was not among them:

Similarly, in the instant case, the [employer] was not entitled to offset the amount of the federal claim against the state workers’ compensation benefits under section 19(g). The circuit court’s inquiry was limited to whether section 19(g)’s requirement had been met. (Citation omitted). Because the requirements of section 19(g) had been met, the circuit court should not have granted the respondent’s motion to dismiss and should have entered judgment on the Commission’s award. The Code of Federal Regulations provides a mechanism for the recovery of any overpayment of federal black lung claims. 20 C.F.R. §§ 725.540-725.548 (2012). The respondent may ultimately be able to recoup the amount of the federal claim but cannot offset the amount of the federal claim against the state workers’ compensation benefits in a section 19(g) proceeding. Burns, 2015 IL App (5th) 140503, ¶22.

Appellate Court, Award, Black Lung, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, Occupational Disease, Pneumoconiosis, Workers’ Occupational Diseases Act