Frank v. Baltimore County

Decision Date30 March 1979
Docket NumberNo. 96,96
Citation399 A.2d 250,284 Md. 655
PartiesGeorge Andrew FRANK v. BALTIMORE COUNTY, Maryland, et al.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Michael I. Gordon, Baltimore (David S. Harris and Harris, Gordon & Heneson, Baltimore, on brief), for appellant.

Steven A. Charles, Baltimore (Frank J. Tripoda and Hardwick, Tripoda & Harris, Baltimore, on brief), for appellees.

Argued before SMITH, DIGGES, ELDRIDGE, COLE and DAVIDSON, JJ.

DIGGES, Judge.

We granted certiorari in this case, prior to its consideration by the Court of Special Appeals, to determine whether the offset provision contained in this State's workmen's compensation statute, Md.Code (1957, 1979 Repl. Vol.), Art. 101, § 33(c)-(d), 1 applies to a pension benefit received by an employee from a contributory pension plan. Because we conclude that a pension received under such a plan is a "benefit provided by the employer" and because we agree with the ruling of the Workmen's Compensation Commission a final determination to that effect being a statutorily mandated condition precedent to a denial of additional payments that the pension benefits provided to the employee here are "equal to or better than any benefit provided (by workmen's compensation)," we affirm the Circuit Court for Baltimore County's finding that the commission correctly applied section 33(c)'s offset provision in this case.

The petitioner, Lieutenant George A. Frank, was employed by Baltimore County as a police officer when, on July 27, 1975, he suffered an injury in the line of duty. During the next six months, while receiving full salary, petitioner began to lose time from work because of his injury. Subsequently, on February 6 of the following year Lt. Frank retired with a work related disability attributable to the July injury and, pursuant to Baltimore County Code (1968 & 1976 Cum.Supp.), §§ 20-78 to 79, immediately began to receive pension benefits from his employer at a rate of one-half of his regular pay. This benefit initially amounted to $841.42 per month but, in accord with the county code, has been adjusted periodically to reflect increases in the salary for active officers of the same rank that Lt. Frank had obtained at the time of his retirement. 2 Id. § 20-79.

As a result of his injury, at the time of his retirement Lt. Frank filed a claim with the Workmen's Compensation Commission requesting payment for a permanent partial disability. On January 7, 1977, the commission determined that the officer had sustained a twenty percent industrial loss of the use of his body, with fifteen percent of the disability being reasonably attributable to the accidental injury of July 27, 1975, and five percent being due to a preexisting condition. The commission accordingly awarded compensation to the petitioner in the amount of $2,625 to be paid at the rate of $54.83 per week beginning from the date of Lt. Frank's retirement. The commission further found, however, that this obligation had been fully discharged under section 33 of Article 101 of the Maryland Code because the pension benefits that were provided by Baltimore County were "equal to or better than any benefit" that could have been provided to Lt. Frank under the workmen's compensation statute. Petitioner appealed this commission decision to the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, Md.Code (1957, 1979 Repl. Vol.), Art. 101, § 56(a), and, based on an agreed statement of facts in a de novo trial, that court (Cicone, J.), interpreting the applicable statutes in the same manner as did the commission, granted a directed verdict in favor of the county, thus affirming the administrative body's determination.

In reviewing this ruling we, as was the circuit court, are to be guided by the general statutory command that "the decision(s) of the Commission (are) entitled to prima facie correctness." Md. Bureau of Mines v. Powers, 258 Md. 379, 382, 265 A.2d at 862 (1970) (applying Md.Code (1957, 1964 Repl. Vol.), Art. 101, § 56(c)). A court, therefore, may reverse a commission ruling only upon a finding that its action was based upon an erroneous construction of the law or facts, Id. at 383, 265 A.2d 860 (862); Md.Code (1957, 1979 Repl. Vol.), Art. 101, § 56(c), the former being the sole issue presented for judicial determination in this case.

In scrutinizing the commission's application of this statute, we are mindful that our ultimate goal is to discern and effectuate the actual purpose of the legislature in enacting it. See, e. g., Schweitzer v. Brewer, 280 Md. 430, 438, 374 A.2d 347, 352 (1977); Mazor v. State, Dep't of Correction, 279 Md. 355, 360, 369 A.2d 82, 86 (1977). To reach that objective, we rely primarily upon the language chosen by the General Assembly to express its intention, See, e. g., State v. Fabritz, 276 Md. 416, 421, 348 A.2d 275, 278 (1975), Cert. denied, 425 U.S. 942, 96 S.Ct. 1680, 48 L.Ed.2d 185 (1976), although if ambiguity or uncertainty exists, the history surrounding the statute's adoption can be used as an aid in its construction. See, e. g., Criminal Inj. Comp. Bd. v. Gould, 273 Md. 486, 495, 331 A.2d 55, 62 (1975). Moreover in construing statutes, results that are unreasonable or inconsistent with common sense should be avoided whenever possible. See, e. g., Giant of Md. v. State's Attorney, 267 Md. 501, 511-12, 298 A.2d 427, 433, Appeal dismissed, 412 U.S. 915, 93 S.Ct. 2733, 37 L.Ed.2d 141 (1973).

Upon reading section 33 the scheme that unmistakably emerges is that the General Assembly wished to provide only a single recovery for a single injury for government employees covered by both a pension plan and workmen's compensation. Consequently, this section not only provides that when disability pension benefits exceed workmen's compensation the latter shall be completely eliminated, but also directs that when pension benefits happen to be less than workmen's compensation, the employer is required to furnish additional benefits which, when added to it, will equal the compensation award. See Feissner v. Prince George's Co., 282 Md. 413, 420-21, 384 A.2d 742, 747 (1978). This construction, besides being supported by the legislative history of section 33, See Nooe v. City of Baltimore, 28 Md.App. 348, 352-53, 345 A.2d 134, 137 (1975), Cert. denied, 276 Md. 748 (1976), is also consistent with the generally recognized policy underlying all wage-loss legislation:

Wage-loss legislation is designed to restore to the worker a portion . . . of wages lost due to the three major causes of wage-loss: physical disability, economic unemployment, and old age. The crucial operative fact is that of wage loss . . . . Now if a workman undergoes a period of wage loss due to all three conditions, it does not follow that he should receive three sets of benefits simultaneously and thereby recover more than his actual wage. He is experiencing only one wage loss and, in any logical system, should receive only one wage-loss benefit. (4 A. Larson, The Law of Workmen's Compensation § 97.10, at 18-9 (1979) (footnote omitted).)

Accord, Mazor v. State, Dep't of Correction, supra, 279 Md. at 363, 369 A.2d at 88.

That Baltimore County was a statutorily defined employer 3 that had established a pension plan providing benefits to Lt. Frank upon his retirement that were not only equal to but better than the benefits he would have received from the workmen's compensation award is not in dispute here. Petitioner nevertheless argues that properly construed, section 33 provides that a benefit collected from a pension plan maintained by both employer and employee contributions is not a "benefit provided by the employer" to be setoff against a workmen's compensation award until after the employee's contributions are first returned to him. If such an interpretation is utilized, Lt. Frank contends, during the forty-eight weeks in which he would have received workmen's compensation, he was not furnished pension benefits provided by his employer but was only supplied a return of his own contributions to the pension plan and, therefore, could not be said to be receiving payments from his employer which were "equal to or better than" the workmen's compensation award established for this same time period. In sum, petitioner claims he is entitled to both his full pension and his workmen's compensation award. 4

While we agree with petitioner that his pension is not a benefit Entirely provided by his employer since, as an employee, he also contributed to the plan, such a finding does not dictate a conclusion that the board improperly applied the offset provision of section 33 in this case. In the first place, the statute does not mandate that the pension benefit be one "entirely" supplied by the employer before the Commission is required to make the comparison called for in section 33(d), and, in the second place, the addition of such a requirement would frustrate the legislature's intention to minimize the burden on the public treasury that would result from providing duplicate benefits to public employees. When, as in this case, "the statutory language is plain and free from ambiguity and expresses a definite and sensible meaning, the courts are not at liberty to insert or delete words with a view toward making the statute express an intention which is different from its plain meaning." Gatewood v. State, 244 Md. 609, 617, 224 A.2d 677, 682 (1966) (citing cases). We therefore hold that any employee benefit provided by a public employer, "whether as part of a (statutorily adopted) pension system or otherwise," is sufficient to bring section 33 into play, and that under the juxtaposition provided in that section there exists no reason why the employer should not be discharged from his compensation obligation whenever the total amount of any employee benefit, whether furnished entirely or partially by employer funds, is equal to or better than the workmen's compensation award. 5

A second flaw in the petitioner's argument is the...

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