Weekly Law Resume - March 28, 2013: Civil Procedure – Summary Judgment – Judicial Estoppel

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Diane Marie Minish v. Hanuman Fellowship et al.
Court of Appeal, Sixth District (February 25, 2013)

The doctrine of judicial estoppel precludes a party from obtaining an advantage by asserting one position, and then seeking a second advantage by asserting an incompatible position. This case considered the applicability of judicial estoppel to claims made in workers’ compensation proceedings.

On September 16, 2006, plaintiff/appellant Diane Marie Minish (“Ms. Minish”) was injured on property belonging to defendant/respondent Hanuman Fellowship (“Hanuman”), a non-profit organization for the teaching of yoga. According to Ms. Minish, she was instructed to climb onto the prongs of a forklift in order to be transported from one area of the property to another. While Ms. Minish was riding on the prongs of the forklift, the vehicle crossed uneven ground and Ms. Minish was thrown from the vehicle, sustaining serious injuries. Ms. Minish subsequently brought suit against Hanuman, alleging negligence and seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Hanuman moved for summary judgment under the exclusive remedy provisions of the Workers Compensation Act, asserting that: (1) Hanuman’s board had previously declared its volunteers to be employees for the purposes of workers’ compensation and obtained appropriate workers’ compensation insurance; (2) Ms. Minish was a covered volunteer/employee under Labor Code § 3363.6; (3) Ms. Minish filed a workers’ compensation claim after the accident; and (4) Ms. Minish received substantial workers’ compensation benefits.

In opposition, Ms. Minish argued that: (1) Hanuman’s board did not personally identify her as a volunteer/employee and, therefore, the exclusive remedy provisions of the Labor Code did not apply; (2) there were issues of fact as to whether she was a covered volunteer/employee; (3) the workers’ compensation claim was prepared and filed by Hanuman without her knowledge or consent; and (4) she attempted to return the benefits she received and to transfer her care to her own private insurer. The trial court found that there was undisputed evidence establishing that Ms. Minish had obtained workers’ compensation benefits by asserting that she was a volunteer/employee covered under the Labor Code. The trial court further held that Labor Code § 3363.6 did not require Hanuman to specifically name Ms. Minish as a covered volunteer. Thus, Ms. Minish was estopped from asserting that she was not covered by workers’ compensation in order to bring a civil suit for damages against Hanuman. The trial court granted Hanuman’s motion for summary judgment.

Ms. Minish appealed, claiming the court erred in applying judicial estoppel and in finding that she was subject to workers’ compensation. She further claimed the court erred in overruling her hearsay objection to statements contained in documents that the court had judicially noticed.

The Court of Appeal noted that the doctrine of judicial estoppel requires that the first position be successfully asserted by the party against whom the doctrine is to be applied. Here, the Court held that the record contained no evidence that the WCAB ever considered plaintiff’s claim, let alone made a determination in which it adopted or accepted as true the position plaintiff asserted in her claim. While it was clear that benefits had been paid by the California State Compensation Insurance Fund (“SCIF”), the Court distinguished SCIF from the WCAB, explaining that SCIF is not a judicial or quasi-judicial tribunal with the authority to make binding determinations on workers’ compensation claims. Thus, the Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in applying judicial estoppel because the material facts necessary to show that the WCAB had adopted or accepted as true the position plaintiff asserted in her WCAB pleadings were neither undisputed nor conclusively established.

Although not decided by the trial court, the Court of Appeal next considered whether Ms. Minish’s WCAB pleadings could be considered a binding admission of the facts necessary to establish an exclusive remedy defense under the Labor Code. The Court held that such statements may be considered evidentiary admissions, but that in this case the statements did not represent undisputed evidence that Ms. Minish was a volunteer/employee covered by workers’ compensation. Ms. Minish’s conduct in arguing that the benefits were initiated by Hanuman without her consent, and in attempting to return the money paid her, showed that there were triable issues of material fact as to whether her conduct constituted a binding admission.

Lastly, the Court rejected Ms. Minish’s claims that Labor Code § 3363.6 required Hanuman’s board to personally identify her in writing and declare her to be a covered volunteer/employee; and provide her with notice that she had been deemed a volunteer/employee. Looking to the language and intent of the statutes, the Court found that such an interpretation of § 3363.6 would conflict with § 3202 because it could result in the restriction of coverage to injured persons, as opposed to the extension of coverage as intended by § 3202.

The Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in applying judicial estoppel to prevent Minish from arguing that she was not a volunteer/employee covered by the act, and that there was a triable issue related to the same. The Court of Appeal reversed the granting of summary judgment.

COMMENT

While plaintiffs may be judicially estopped from denying volunteer/employee status if they have successfully asserted the contrary before the WCAB, the mere fact that they received benefits will not, in and of itself, estop them from claiming that the exclusive remedy rule is not applicable to them.

For a copy of the complete decision see:

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/H035737.PDF