Attorney General's Opinion
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal
May 13, 1997
Jesse M. Frankl
Workers' Compensation Commission
21 Oak St., 4th Floor
Hartford, CT 06106
Dear Chairman Frankl:
This is in response to your letter dated January 27, 1997, in which you asked our opinion with respect to the following two questions concerning an application of Conn. Gen. Stat. 52-362 to certain portions of the Workers' Compensation Act.1 Specifically, you asked whether subsistence payments provided by the Workers' Compensation Commission Workers' Rehabilitation Unit are subject to orders for wage withholding obtained by the Support Enforcement Division from family court judges for the support of dependent children, and whether the Workers' Compensation Commission in general is subject to such orders with respect to all workers' compensation benefits. According to your letter, the Support Enforcement Division uses 52-362 as its authority to obtain wage withholding orders for the support of dependent children. For the reasons set forth below, it is our opinion that 52-362 does not apply to subsistence payments allotted by the Workers' Rehabilitation unit but does apply to other benefits pursuant to hapter 568.
The question posed with regard to subsistence allowances has already been the subject of an Attorney General's Opinion, Child Support Garnishment Workers' Compensation, 89 Conn. Op. Atty. Gen. 150 (1989), in which the Attorney General unequivocally concluded that subsistence allowances paid under this program to individuals participating in rehabilitation programs are not subject to wage withholding orders because they do not constitute "earnings" as defined in 52-362. A copy of the Opinion is attached. It remains our opinion that subsistence payments are not subject to wage withholding orders pursuant to 52-362. However, that Opinion is specifically limited to subsistence payments paid pursuant to 31-283a and does not address workers' compensation benefits. Id. at 150. See also, Crochetto v. Lynn Development Corporation, 223 Conn. 376 (1992) which holds that subsistence allowances pursuant to 31-283a are not workers' compensation benefits because they are "ad hoc" payments and are not required by either statute or regulation.
In general, workers' compensation benefits are not subject to garnishment or attachment by creditors. Conn. Gen. Stat. 31-320 provides in relevant part that "[a]ll sums due for compensation under the provisions of this chapter shall be exempt from attachment and execution and shall be nonassignable before and after award." However, case law has treated child support obligations differently from other debts or obligations. In State v. Reed, 5 Conn. Cir. 69 (1967), a case of first impression, the Circuit Court held that 31-320 did not bar the state from garnishment of workers' compensation funds in an action by the state to recover for aid and assistance rendered to the defendant's wife and children. The court stated that the purpose of 31-320 "is to protect both the beneficiary and his dependents from the claims of creditors and to prevent them from becoming public charges." Id. at 70. "The state which has furnished support to the claimant's dependent wife and children is not a creditor within the meaning of 31-320." Id. at 71-2. See, also, McDougald v Norton, 361 F. Supp. 1325, 1328 (l973). In reaching its decision, the court in Reed looked to cases in other jurisdictions with similar exemption statutes and found that its conclusion was in accord with the majority of such jurisdictions. State v. Reed, at 70-71. This reasoning has been followed in other jurisdictions, e.g., Argonaut Ins. Co. v. Lyons, 159 Ariz. 267, 76 P2nd. 619 (1988); Re Marriage of Brand, 123 Ill. App. 3rd. 1047, 463 NE2d. 1037 (1984); Petrie v. Petrie, 41 Mich. App. 80, 199 NW 2d 673; Donovan v. Donovan, 15 Mass App. 61, 443 NE 2d 432 (1982); American Mut. Liability Ins. Co. v. Hicks, 159 GA. App. 214, 283 SE2nd. 18 (1981).
A careful reading of 52-362 supports our opinion that workers' compensation benefits are subject to wage withholding orders. Section 52-362(b) provides, in relevant part, that "[t]he superior court and any family support magistrate shall issue an order for withholding pursuant to this section against the earnings of an obligor to enforce a support order...." Conn. Gen. Stat. 52-362 (a)(3) defines earnings as "any debt accruing to an obligor by reason of his personal services... whether denominated as wages, salary, commission, bonus or otherwise...". (emphasis added). It is our opinion that benefits provided under Chapter 568 are a debt accruing to an obligor by reason of his personal services since, had the claimant not been employed, he would not be entitled to workers' compensation benefits. Presumably, an individual's wages are meant to support himself and his dependents. Benefits paid under Chapter 568 are paid in lieu of wages while an employee is unable to work because of a work-related injury. "The underlying objective (of the workers' compensation law) is to provide for the workman and those dependent on him." (citations omitted), Klapproth v Turner, 156 Conn 276, 279 (l968).
Conn. Gen. Stat. 52-362(l) further provides that "[t]he employer shall notify promptly the dependent or the support enforcement division as directed when the obligor terminates employment, makes a claim for workers' compensation... and provide the obligor's last known address and the name and address of the obligor's new employer if known." The mention of workers compensation in 52-362(l) indicates that the legislature intended to allow the support enforcement division to pursue workers' compensation benefits pursuant to 52-362. Otherwise the inclusion of workers' compensation in this section is meaningless and it is an axiom of statutory construction that every sentence, clause or phrase in a legislative enactment is presumed to have a purpose. See, Peck v Jacquemin,196 Conn. 53, 71, 491 A.2nd 1043 (l985). .
In conclusion, it is our opinion that the Support Enforcement Division cannot obtain a wage withholding order against subsistence allowances granted by the Workers' Rehabilitation Unit pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. 31-283a because they are not earnings as defined in 52-362 nor are they workers' compensation benefits authorized by statute or regulation. However, other workers' compensation benefits awarded pursuant to Chapter 568 are subject to wage withholding orders because they are compensation payable by an employer to an employee for personal services i.e. earnings, and because the Support Enforcement Division is not a creditor within the meaning of 31-320. See, State v. Reed, supra.
Very truly yours,
Assistant Attorney General