Case of Tobin

Decision Date11 February 1997
Citation675 N.E.2d 781,424 Mass. 250
PartiesJohn TOBIN'S CASE.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Daniel C. Roache, Cambridge, for employee.

Thomas O. Bean, Assistant Attorney General, for intervener.

Joseph B. Bertrand, Boston, for insurer.


GREANEY, Justice.

In this workers' compensation case, the employee, John Tobin, appeals from a decision of the reviewing board of the Department of Industrial Accidents affirming a decision of an administrative judge that the employee's benefits were to be terminated pursuant to G.L. c. 152, § 35E. This statute provides that an employee over age sixty-five, who has been out of the labor market for at least two years and is eligible for social security benefits, or benefits from a public or private pension paid for in part or entirely by an employer, will not be entitled to total or partial incapacity benefits under G.L. c. 152, §§ 34 and 35, unless the employee can establish that, but for the injury, he or she would have remained active in the labor market. The statute goes on to create a rebuttable presumption of noneligibility for benefits for affected employees.

The employee's appeal was filed in the single justice session of the Appeals Court pursuant to that court's rule 2:04, and was reserved and reported by the single justice to a panel of that court. We transferred the appeal to this court on our own motion. We reject the employee's arguments that G.L. c. 152, § 35E, violates the equal protection and due process provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution, that the statute is substantive in nature and therefore cannot be applied retroactively to his case, and that the statute is preempted by 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq. (1994), the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). We also reject the employee's request that the case be remanded for further evidence and findings on the issue of the application of the statute to him. Consequently, we affirm the decision of the reviewing board.

The background of the case is as follows. The employee began to work for the town of Stoughton in 1978. He worked mostly as a custodian at the Stoughton police department, where his duties included cleaning and maintaining the facility. On September 27, 1988, the employee injured his shoulder while working on an overhead light fixture. As a result of the injury, surgery was performed on the employee's injured shoulder, and he received workers' compensation benefits from October 15, 1988, through October 29, 1991. On the latter date, after the employee had been out of the labor force for more than two years, he was sixty-five years of age. Pursuant to G.L. c. 152, § 35E, as amended by St.1991, c. 398, § 66, set forth below, 1 an administrative judge terminated the employee's workers' compensation benefits based on findings that the employee came within the provisions of § 35E, and he had not overcome the presumption created by the statute. The employee appealed from the administrative judge's decision to the reviewing board where two members of the three-judge panel rejected all his arguments. The third judge dissented on the basis that G.L. c. 152, § 35E, was preempted by the ADEA. This appeal followed the reviewing board's decision.

1. Equal protection. As an act of the Legislature, G.L. c. 152, § 35E, is presumed constitutional. Leibovich v. Antonellis, 410 Mass. 568, 576, 574 N.E.2d 978 (1991). "For the purpose of equal protection analysis, our standard of review under ... the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights is the same as under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution." Dickerson v. Attorney Gen., 396 Mass. 740, 743, 488 N.E.2d 757 (1986). The employee is not a member of a "suspect" or "quasi-suspect" class simply because he is over sixty-five years old, 2 and his interest in receiving workers' compensation benefits obviously does not involve a fundamental right. The statute, therefore, will overcome an equal protection challenge if it is rationally related to a legitimate State interest. Take Five Vending, Ltd. v. Provincetown, 415 Mass. 741, 748, 615 N.E.2d 576 (1993).

There are at least two rationales for the Legislature's enactment of G.L. c. 152, § 35E. First, the statute is a benefit coordination provision. The workers' compensation law was designed to provide wage-loss protection to employees who are injured on the job and incur a loss of earning capacity from the injury. Scheffler's Case, 419 Mass. 251, 256, 643 N.E.2d 1023 (1994). Workers' compensation restores to the injured employee a portion of the wages made unavailable because of lost earning capacity. Social security and public or private pension programs are also designed to provide wage-loss protection, but do so on account of advanced age. Like workers' compensation, benefits from these sources provide an employee with a percentage of preretirement income. Without a benefit coordination provision, the combined payments from "double-dipping" through the receipt of both workers' compensation benefits and social security and pension payments could exceed the employee's preinjury average weekly wage. In furtherance of a legitimate State interest, the Legislature could rationally have enacted G.L. c. 152, § 35E, to coordinate benefits and thereby prevent the stacking of benefits derived from statutory and other schemes designed to serve a common purpose.

The Legislature could also have enacted the statute to reduce the cost of workers' compensation premiums for employers who are paying into multiple benefit systems such as workers' compensation, social security, and pensions. Because § 35E makes it more difficult for employees eligible for social security or pensions also to collect workers' compensation benefits, the burden on employers is alleviated. This also provides a rational basis for the statute. For these reasons, there is universal agreement that statutes like G.L. c. 152, § 35E, promote legitimate governmental goals and do not violate rights of equal protection. See Richardson v. Belcher, 404 U.S. 78, 82-84, 92 S.Ct. 254, 257-259, 30 L.Ed.2d 231 (1971); Rosa v. Warner Elec. Contr., 849 P.2d 845, 848 (Colo.Ct.App.1992), aff'd, 870 P.2d 1210 (Colo.), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 814, 115 S.Ct. 69, 130 L.Ed.2d 25 (1994); Acosta v. Kraco, Inc., 471 So.2d 24, 25 (Fla.), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1022, 106 S.Ct. 576, 88 L.Ed.2d 559 (1985); Brown v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 3 Kan.App.2d 648, 653, 599 P.2d 1031 (1979), aff'd, 227 Kan. 645, 608 P.2d 1356, appeal dismissed, 449 U.S. 914, 101 S.Ct. 310, 66 L.Ed.2d 142 (1980); Berry v. H.R. Beal & Sons, 649 A.2d 1101, 1103 (Me.1994); Peck v., General Motors Corp., 164 Mich.App. 580, 599, 417 N.W.2d 547 (1987), vacated on other grounds sub nom. Pankow v. General Motors Corp., 432 Mich. 892, 438 N.W.2d 80 (1989); McClanathan v. Smith, 186 Mont. 56, 66, 606 P.2d 507 (1980); Harris v. Department of Labor & Indus., 120 Wash.2d 461, 478-481, 843 P.2d 1056 (1993).

2. Due process. The employee argues that § 35E contravenes the procedural due process protections contained in the Fourteenth Amendment and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights because he reads the statute as preventing him and his family from testifying to rebut the presumption contained in the statute. The procedural due process protections involved in this area are subject to the same analysis under both the Federal and State Constitutions. Liability Investigative Fund Effort, Inc. v. Massachusetts Medical Professional Ins. Ass'n, 418 Mass. 436, 443, 636 N.E.2d 1317, cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1058, 115 S.Ct. 666, 130 L.Ed.2d 600 (1994). The basic test is whether the challenged statute affords the aggrieved party "the opportunity to be heard 'at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.' " Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 333, 96 S.Ct. 893, 902, 47 L.Ed.2d 18 (1976), quoting Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545, 552, 85 S.Ct. 1187, 1191, 14 L.Ed.2d 62 (1965). The statute clearly satisfies this test.

The employee misreads § 35E in concluding that he and members of his family are barred from testifying to defeat the presumption. The statute only provides that "[t]he presumption of non-entitlement to benefits ... shall not be overcome by the employee's uncorroborated testimony, or that corroborated only by any of his family members, that but for the injury, such employee would have remained active in the labor market." Testimony by the employee and his family members concerning his life, environment, and present and future work goals is certainly permissible under § 35E and should be considered by the administrative judge. We note that the reviewing board has held that "s 35E does not say that an administrative judge should ignore all of an employee's testimony which bears on whether he intended to retire at age sixty-five. Indeed, much of that testimony is also relevant to the issue of diminution of earning capacity and motivation to return to work. Section 35E by its plain language simply says that the employee's testimony that he would have continued to work past age sixty-five--standing alone--will not carry the day and rebut the presumption of retirement. Either party may bring in witnesses or documents to verify or disprove the employee's testimony." Harmon v. Harmon's Paint & Wallpaper, 8 Mass. Workers' Comp. Rep. 432, 437 (1994).

The statute's establishment of a rebuttable presumption also does not violate due process. Presumptions are simply rules of evidence that fall within the general power of government to adopt. DiLoreto v. Fireman's Fund Ins. Co., 383 Mass. 243, 248, 418 N.E.2d 612 (1981), quoting Mobile, Jackson & Kansas City R.R. v. Turnipseed, 219 U.S. 35, 42-43, 31 S.Ct. 136, 137-138, 55 L.Ed. 78 (1910). The presumption disappears as soon as...

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