Board of Education v. Spradlin, 0320 September Term, 2004.

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Citation161 Md. App. 155,867 A.2d 370
Docket NumberNo. 0320 September Term, 2004.,0320 September Term, 2004.
Decision Date31 January 2005

867 A.2d 370
161 Md.
App. 155


No. .

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.

January 31, 2005.

867 A.2d 373
John T. Beamer (Charles W. Thompson, Jr., Karen L. Federman Henry, on the brief), Rockville, for Appellant

Jonathan S. Beiser, Rockville, for Appellee.

JAMES R. EYLER, BARBERA, and CHARLES E. MOYLAN, JR. (retired, specially assigned), JJ.

CHARLES E. MOYLAN, JR., Judge (Retired, Specially Assigned).

When, If Ever, Is the Past Prologue?

There is first the administrative appeal; and, then, there is the administrative appeal plus. An appeal to the circuit court from a decision of the Workers' Compensation Commission is, not invariably but more frequently than not, by way of the administrative appeal plus. The statutory provision for circuit court review offers the appellant not one but two reviewing options. The first is that of a generic and routine administrative appeal, a familiar process with familiar constraints. "Did the agency fall into legal error?" The "plus" option, by intriguing contrast, is more wide-ranging. It permits revisiting the facts, supplementing the facts, or simply appraising the facts afresh, even in the

867 A.2d 374
total absence of any antecedent error. "The decision of the Commission appears to have been impeccably correct; but we nonetheless arrive at a diametrically different result." Our consideration of this appeal requires an in-depth examination of some of the procedural nuances attendant on that "plus" option. When a proceeding is "essentially," but not totally, de novo, to what extent, if any, is the past prologue

The Workers' Compensation Claim

The appellee, Joannie M. Spradlin ("the claimant"), filed a claim with the Workers' Compensation Commission, requesting compensation benefits for injuries sustained by her after being assaulted by a co-employee. Before the Commission, the appellant employer, the Board of Education for Montgomery County, claimed, inter alia, that the claimant's own wilful misconduct, in instigating the fight with the co-employee, barred her recovery. It also claimed, as an alternative defense, that the injury to the claimant did not 1) occur in the course of the claimant's employment or 2) arise out of that employment. Without meaningful elaboration, the Commission ruled against the claimant and denied her claim.

The claimant appealed the Commission's decision to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. She opted for a de novo trial before Judge William J. Rowan, III, sitting without a jury. Judge Rowan, as the fact finder, was persuaded that the claimant had "sustained an accidental personal injury in the course of employment" and accordingly reversed the decision of the Commission. On this appeal, Montgomery County poses the question:

Once the circuit court determined that the claimant and the employer's witness were equally credible, should the court have given due weight to the presumption of correctness of the Commission's decision?

(Emphasis supplied).

What Was "The Commission's Decision?"

That is not a simple question. It is a generative question that begets not an answer, but only other questions. Putting aside, for the moment, the intricate problem of what it is that a de novo fact finder may, or must, do with the presumption of antecedent correctness of the Commission's decision, what actually was "the Commission's decision?" It was, at the very least, the Commission's ultimate ruling disallowing the claim, but was it anything more than that? If, in arriving at its "decision" on a claim, the Commission arguably resolved ("decided") one or a series of factually disputed sub-issues, did each such resolution of an intermediate sub-issue, ipso facto, become a part of "the Commission's decision" to which the presumption of correctness applies? Is the Commission's putative reasoning process inextricably wrapped into "the Commission's decision?" How finely do we parse the concept of "the Commission's decision" before we pay it due obeisance?

In terms of what officially was the Commission's decision in this case, we have only the bare bones. Two issues were before the Commission, only one of which was ultimately decided. It was:

1. Did the employee sustain an accidental personal injury arising out of and in the course of employment?

On that issue, the Commission answered:

The Commission finds on the issues presented that the claimant did not sustain an accidental injury arising out of and in the course of employment as alleged to have occurred on November 22, 2002; and finds that the remaining
867 A.2d 375
issue is moot, and the Commission will disallow the claim filed herein.

(Emphasis supplied). It is on that spare foundation that Montgomery County constructs an elaborate argument.

The Factual Dispute Before the Commission

At the June 18, 2003, hearing before the Workers' Compensation Commission, only two witnesses were called: 1) the claimant and 2) her co-worker and alleged assailant, Angela Harris. The assault that precipitated the claim in this case occurred on November 22, 2002, at the West Farm Depot of the Montgomery County Board of Education, where both the claimant and Angela Harris were employed. The West Farm Depot provides a kitchen area and a break room for bus attendants before they board the school busses. The claimant and Ms. Harris gave diametrically opposite accounts of a verbal confrontation between them that occurred, initially over the changing of a television channel, in the break room.

According to the testimony of the claimant, she was the innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. She was in the lounge provided by Montgomery County for its bus attendants moments before leaving to go on her bus run. She had, shortly before, been watching channel 7 on the television set; had left the room briefly; and then returned to find that the set had been switched to channel 9. The claimant described what then occurred, both inside the lounge and outside at the bus-boarding area.

I had asked my coworker to change the TV because I had been watching channel 7. She said, yes, she changed it to channel 9. I started to leave, pick up my stuff and I said, well, it's just as well because I have to go on my bus run anyway. She said, I know you're not talking to me. You come back here if you're talking to me. I said, no, if I was talking to you, I'd come and say it to your face.
The next thing you know, I'm walking out the door, and I heard her say it again. She had threatened to "F" me up and kept saying I was talking to her, come back and say what I had to say. I walked around the corner. She followed me outside, came out there. She got up in my face. She pointed her finger at me, and she said, "Now you say what you have to say." And then after that I said, "No." There were a lot of people around, and I said, "I have nothing to say to you."
So, she pushed me back this way (indicating). She put her foot in my chest and started punching me, hitting me in the head, pulled my earring completely out of my ear. And that was basically it. I just put my hands up to defend myself.

The claimant promptly reported the incident to her supervisor, Peggy Proctor. She also filed a report with the police. She was subsequently taken by her bus driver to the Holy Cross Hospital, where she received a chest x-ray and some medication. The only wrinkle pursued by Montgomery County during its cross-examination seemed to go to the question of whether, when the claimant was in the lounge, she was "in the course of her employment."

Q Now, you weren't actually on the clock when this alleged incident occurred, were you?
A No, it was during break time.

Angela Harris, the ultimate assailant, testified to a diametrically different version of the conversation that became the apparent casus belli.

I was sitting there watching television. No one was there. She came in. She
867 A.2d 376
asked me did I turn the television. So, I said, "Yes, I turned the TV." She said, "Well, I was watching the TV." So, I said, "Well, you must be a ghost because there was no one in here but me," and one lady walked out before she came. She caught [sic] an attitude. She started calling me all kind of names. So, she called me the N word, and I got up and asked her what did she say.
By the time I got up, she ran out the sitting room and went to the front where everybody can see her. So, I asked her what did she say, be a woman and say what she said. And then that's when she had a water bottle, had a frozen water bottle. She threw her water bottle at me, I caught it, threw it back at her. She ran up to me and then somebody told me to watch out, and that's when the fight — altercation applied [sic].
Q Based on the fact that she called you the N word, the situation evolved into an altercation?
A Yes, it did.
Q Did she call you anything other than the N word?
A Yes, she did.
Q What else did she call you?
A She called me the B word. First, she called me the B word. Then she called me the N word.[1] That's when she vacated the sitting room and went to the front so everybody can see her. So that's when I asked her what did she call me, be a woman and say what she said.

On cross-examination, Ms. Harris acknowledged having kicked the claimant.

Q Did you kick Ms. Spradlin in the chest?
A Yes. The reason why I kicked her in the chest was because I had an injury myself. An entertainment center fell on me at Kmart, and I was in pain, too. I had my back turned. When she threw the water bottle, I threw it back at her, turned my back to ask what is wrong with this lady, is she crazy or something. Somebody told me to watch out. The only thing I could do was kick her.

In brief argument before the Commission, Montgomery County urged two unrelated propositions, either one of which might have sufficed to defeat the claim. It argued that the claimant was guilty of wilful misconduct in uttering the words that...

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