Benoit v. City of Bos.

Decision Date16 May 2017
Docket NumberSJC-12204
Citation477 Mass. 117,75 N.E.3d 1
Parties Brian BENOIT v. CITY OF BOSTON (and a consolidated case ).
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

John M. Becker for the plaintiff.

E. David Susich ( Thomas A. Pagliarulo also present) for the defendant.

Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Hines, Gaziano, Lowy, & Budd, JJ.

LENK, J.

On September 5, 2011, after working almost twenty years as an emergency medical technician and paramedic for the defendant city's emergency medical services (EMS), the plaintiff suffered an incapacitating ankle injury while transporting a patient. Unable to work, he received workers' compensation payments for almost one year pursuant to G. L. c. 152, the workers' compensation act.

Learning that the plaintiff had been indicted on October 31, 2012, on charges relating to misuse of controlled substances intended for EMS patients, the defendant suspended him indefinitely without pay pursuant to G. L. c. 268A, § 25 (suspension statute). After the defendant, a self-insured municipal employer, discontinued the plaintiff's workers' compensation payments, he took the matter to the Department of Industrial Accidents (DIA); the defendant was ordered to restore those payments.

When the defendant did not comply with the DIA order, the plaintiff sought enforcement in the Superior Court pursuant to G. L. c. 152, § 12 (1). The defendant argued then, as now, that the provision of the suspension statute requiring that suspended public employees "shall not receive any compensation or salary during the period of suspension" prevails over the requirements of the worker's compensation act, and that the DIA order requiring proscribed payments should accordingly not be enforced. A Superior Court judge agreed and dismissed the enforcement actions.2 We conclude that workers' compensation benefits are not "compensation" as defined in the suspension statute, because they are not payments made "in return for services rendered." G. L. c. 268A, § 1 (a ). The Superior Court actions brought by the plaintiff to enforce the orders of the DIA accordingly were dismissed in error.3

1. Background .4 The plaintiff began working for the city of Boston as an emergency medical technician in 1996, and was promoted to paramedic in 2004. On September 5, 2011, he suffered a significant ankle injury while helping bring a patient to his ambulance. As a result of the plaintiff's incapacitation, the defendant paid workers' compensation benefits to him from September 5, 2011, until August 4, 2012.5

In August, 2012, the defendant notified the plaintiff that his workers' compensation payments would be terminated.6 The plaintiff filed a claim contesting the termination of the payments with the DIA on October 23, 2012. Just over a week later, the plaintiff was indicted on seventy-three counts of criminal misconduct involving controlled substances in his ambulance. The defendant suspended the plaintiff's employment shortly thereafter pursuant to the suspension statute.7

The DIA conducted a hearing regarding the plaintiff's workers' compensation claim on September 30, 2013. On October 6, 2014, the DIA ruled in favor of the plaintiff and ordered the defendant to resume making workers' compensation payments. The defendant appealed from the DIA's decision and did not comply with the order.8 On November 24, 2014, the plaintiff brought an action in the Superior Court to enforce the DIA's order against the defendant pursuant to G. L. c. 152, § 12 (1).9 A Superior Court judge granted the defendant's subsequent motion to dismiss on the ground that the suspension statute prohibited the plaintiff from receiving workers' compensation payments while he was suspended because it constituted "compensation" under the statute. See G. L. c. 268A, § 25 ("Any person [suspended pursuant to the statute] shall not receive any compensation or salary during the period of suspension ..."). The plaintiff appealed from the decision.

On August 5, 2015, the plaintiff pleaded guilty to one felony count and seventeen misdemeanor counts and resigned from his employment with the defendant. He then brought another enforcement action in the Superior Court on the basis that the suspension statute no longer barred his compensation payments because he was no longer suspended. A different Superior Court judge granted the defendant's subsequent motion to dismiss, concluding that the suspension statute still barred the plaintiff from receiving workers' compensation because his suspension had not been lifted prior to his resignation. The plaintiff appealed from the ruling; his request that both cases be consolidated pursuant to Mass. R. A. P. 3 (b), 365 Mass. 845 (1974), was allowed in the Appeals Court. We transferred the case from the Appeals Court on our own motion.

2. Discussion . Given that all of the plaintiff's objections to the two Superior Court judges' rulings concern questions of law, our review is de novo. See Commonwealth v. Diggs , 475 Mass. 79, 81, 54 N.E.3d 1115 (2016). The plaintiff advances three claims in his appeal. His main contention is that the judges erred in their determinations that workers' compensation payments are proscribed by the suspension statute, and in dismissing his enforcement actions on that basis. He also contends both that G. L. c. 152, § 12 (1) ( "the court shall enforce the order"), by its terms, requires the Superior Court to enforce his DIA order, and that the defendant waived its argument under the suspension statute by failing to raise it before the DIA. We first address only briefly the latter two issues and then turn to the matter of chief concern, viz., the apparent conflict between the workers' compensation act and the suspension statute.

a. Required enforcement of the DIA order pursuant to G. L. c. 152, § 12 (1) . The plaintiff maintains that the Superior Court judges were obliged to enforce the DIA's order pursuant to the unambiguous terms of G. L. c. 152, § 12 (1), and were required to do so irrespective of any potential conflict with the suspension statute. This contention misses the mark. The Superior Court, when asked to do so, must determine whether the statutory enforcement mechanism it is to employ conflicts with another potentially superseding statute. See Keenan, petitioner , 310 Mass. 166, 179, 37 N.E.2d 516 (1941) (Superior Court "is a court of original and general jurisdiction and possesses the inherent powers of such a court under the common law, unless expressly limited, as well as those conferred by statute" [citation omitted] ). Language in the enforcement statute stating that a "court shall enforce" an order is not to the contrary—it means only that, when asked to enforce the order, a Superior Court judge cannot second guess the merits of the DIA's decision. That is not the situation here.

b. Waiver . The plaintiff also contends, similarly without merit, that the defendant waived its argument concerning the suspension statute by failing to raise it at the administrative level. The DIA's jurisdiction, however, is limited to the interpretation and application of the workers' compensation act, and the defendant thus could not have raised the issue of G. L. c. 268A, § 25, before the DIA. See Hayes's Case , 348 Mass. 447, 452–453, 204 N.E.2d 277 (1965), quoting Levangie's Case , 228 Mass. 213, 216–217, 117 N.E. 200 (1917) ("The [Industrial Accident Board, a predecessor to the DIA,] ‘is not a court of general or limited common[-]law jurisdiction; ... it is purely and solely an administrative tribunal, specifically created to administer the [workers'] compensation act in aid and with the assistance of the Superior Court ..., and as such possesses only such authority and powers as have been conferred upon it by express grant or arise therefrom by implication as necessary and incidental to the full exercise of the granted powers' "). Accordingly, the defendant appropriately raised the issue in the Superior Court.

c. Whether the suspension statute prohibits suspended employees from receiving workers' compensation . The plaintiff contends that workers' compensation does not constitute "compensation" within the meaning of the suspension statute. That statute states, in relevant part, that any employee suspended pursuant to it "shall not receive any compensation or salary during the period of suspension." G. L. c. 268A, § 25. The term "compensation" is in turn defined as "any money, thing of value or economic benefit conferred on or received by any person in return for services rendered or to be rendered by himself or another." G. L. c. 268A, § 1 (a ). We first set forth an overview of the relevant statutes.i. Statutory overview . 1. The suspension statute . The suspension statute, "which applies to county, municipal, and district officers, is identical in its operative language to G. L. c. 30, § 59, ... which applies to officers and employees of the Commonwealth." Springfield v. Director of Div. of Employment Sec ., 398 Mass. 786, 788, 500 N.E.2d 1328 (1986), quoting Massachusetts Bay Transp. Auth . v. Massachusetts Bay Transp. Auth. Retirement Bd ., 397 Mass. 734, 739 n.8, 493 N.E.2d 848 (1986). The suspension statute was enacted in 1972, see St. 1972, c. 257, to "remedy the untenable situation which arises when a person who has been indicted for misconduct in office continues to perform his public duties while awaiting trial ... by allowing for the temporary removal of such employees from office, and by precluding the payment of compensation ... during the period of their suspension." Springfield , supra at 788–789, 500 N.E.2d 1328, quoting Massachusetts Bay Transp. Auth ., supra at 739, 493 N.E.2d 848. Because the statute does not include any exception, it "is dominant in its purpose and its terms" [quotation omitted]. Springfield , supra at 789, 500 N.E.2d 1328.

We have interpreted the term "compensation," as it appears in the suspension statute, as encompassing "a broader meaning than the word ...

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