Hughes-Turner v. Dist. of Columbia Dep't of Emp't Servs., 20-AA-332

Citation20-AA-332
Case DateJuly 14, 2022
CourtCourt of Appeals of Columbia District

Sidnice Hughes-Turner, Petitioner,
v.

District of Columbia Department of Employment Services, Respondent,

and Supercuts, et al., Intervenors.

No. 20-AA-332

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

July 14, 2022


Argued September 30, 2021

On Petition for Review of a Decision and Order of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services Compensation Review Board (CRB-20-025)

Matthew J. Peffer for petitioner.

Karl A. Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Loren L. AliKhan, Solicitor General at the time, Caroline S. Van Zile, Principal Deputy Solicitor General at the time, and Carl J. Schifferle, Deputy Solicitor General, filed a statement in lieu of a brief for respondent.

Robin E. Hauptmann for intervenors.

Before Glickman, McLeese, and Deahl, Associate Judges.

OPINION

McLeese Associate Judge

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Petitioner Sidnice Hughes-Turner challenges a decision of the Compensation Review Board (CRB) limiting her eligibility for disability payments. We vacate and remand.

I.

Except as indicated, the following facts appear to be undisputed for purposes of this petition for review. Ms. Hughes-Turner worked as a hairstylist for intervenor Supercuts. She suffered a work-related injury that limited her ability to work. In the following years, she received several different types of disability benefits, including temporary partial benefits, temporary total benefits, and "non-schedule" permanent-partial benefits. (We briefly explain those various kinds of disability benefits later in this opinion.)

A question eventually arose about whether D.C. Code § 32-1505(b) (2019 Repl.) limited Ms. Hughes-Turner's ability to receive further disability benefits. Section 32-1505(b) provides that, "[f]or any one injury causing temporary or

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permanent partial disability, the payment for disability benefits shall not continue for more than a total of 500 weeks." After extensive proceedings, the CRB concluded that § 32-1505(b) precluded Ms. Hughes-Turner from receiving more than an aggregate total of 500 weeks of temporary total benefits and "non-schedule" permanent-partial benefits. Hughes-Turner, CRB No. 20-025, 2020 WL 7226238, at *1-2 (Comp. Rev. Bd. Mar. 31, 2020) (Hughes-Turner IV).

II.

The District of Columbia Workers' Compensation Act (WCA), D.C. Code § 32-1501 et seq. (2019 Repl.), classifies disabilities as either temporary or permanent and also as either partial or total. D.C. Code § 32-1508. A disability becomes permanent rather than temporary once the claimant's condition reaches "maximum medical improvement." Capitol Hill Hosp. v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp. Servs., 726 A.2d 682, 686 (D.C. 1999) (internal quotation marks omitted). "A claimant suffers from total disability if [the claimant's] injuries prevent [the claimant] from engaging in the only type of gainful employment for which [the claimant] is qualified." Clark Constr. Grp., LLC v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp. Servs.,

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163 A.3d 768, 776 (D.C. 2017) (emphasis and internal quotation marks omitted).

Temporary partial benefits are capped at five years. D.C. Code § 32-1508(5). Temporary total benefits are capped at 500 weeks. D.C. Code §§ 32-1508(2), -1505(b); Clement v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp. Servs., 126 A.3d 1137, 1139-41 (D.C. 2015).

[The WCA] divides permanent partial disabilities into two categories, "schedule" and "non-schedule." Schedule disabilities are those involving the loss or impairment of certain specified body parts, e.g., the loss of an arm, leg, or eye. For each such injury, a worker is entitled to receive [compensation] for a fixed number of weeks that varies depending on the particular body part injured and the degree of its impairment regardless of the actual wage loss the worker sustains as a result of the injury. In contrast, for other partially disabling injuries (i.e., to parts of the body not listed in the "schedule," such as the back or neck), the worker's disability compensation is measured by his or her actual or imputed wage loss attributable to the injuries.

Brown v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp. Servs., 83 A.3d 739, 743 n.6 (D.C. 2014) (citations omitted). "Non-schedule" permanent partial benefits are capped at 500 weeks. D.C. Code §§ 32-1508(3)(V), -1505(b).

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Finally, there is no durational cap on permanent total benefits. D.C. Code § 32-1508(1).

One provision of the WCA specifically addresses whether claimants can receive more than one type of disability benefits in connection with a single incident. See D.C. Code § 32-1508(3) (permanent partial benefits are "in addition to compensation for temporary total disability or temporary partial disability"). We also have decided cases addressing various other permutations of that general question. See, e.g., Brown, 83 A.3d at 752-756 (addressing issues arising from award of both "non-schedule" and "schedule" permanent partial benefits). It is undisputed in this case that Ms. Hughes-Turner can permissibly obtain temporary partial benefits, temporary total benefits, and "non-schedule" permanent partial benefits. It also is undisputed that Ms. Hughes-Turner can receive no more than five years of temporary partial benefits, no more than 500 weeks of temporary total benefits, and no more than 500 weeks of "non-schedule" permanent partial benefits. Rather, the dispute is about the extent to which D.C. Code § 32-1505(b) imposes an aggregate cap on Ms. Hughes-Turner's recovery of such benefits.

As previously noted, § 32-1505(b) provides that, "[f]or any one injury causing temporary or permanent partial disability, the payment for disability benefits shall

5

not continue for more than a total of 500 weeks." This court has already squarely addressed one ambiguity in § 32-1505(b): whether the 500-week cap applies to temporary total benefits. Clement, 126 A.3d at 1139-41. Considered in isolation, § 32-1505(b) is ambiguous on that point, because it is not clear whether the word "temporary" modifies only "disability" or instead modifies "partial disability." Id. at 1140. On the former reading, the 500-week cap would appear to apply both to temporary partial benefits and to temporary total benefits, whereas on the latter reading the 500-week cap would apply to temporary partial benefits, but not to temporary total benefits.

Our holding in Clement that § 32-1505(b) is ambiguous on the point then at issue did not rest solely on the text of § 32-1505(b) in isolation. To the contrary, we explained that "even where statutory language has a superficial clarity, a detailed consideration of other factors, such as the specific context in which that language is used and the broader context of the statute as a whole, when viewed in light of the statute's legislative history, may reveal ambiguities . . . ." 126 A.3d at 1139-40. We then addressed other such considerations, including the legislative history of the WCA and the fact that the WCA provides a separate five-year cap on temporary partial benefits. Id. at 1140-41. In light of those considerations, we held that § 32-

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1505(b) is ambiguous and that the CRB had reasonably concluded that the 500-week cap in § 32-1505(b) does apply to temporary total benefits. Id.

This case presents a different question about the meaning of § 32-1505(b): Does the 500-week cap apply individually to each different type of benefits to which the cap applies, so that a claimant could receive up to 500 weeks of temporary total benefits and up to an additional 500 weeks of "non-schedule" permanent partial benefits; or does the 500-week cap instead apply in the aggregate, so that a claimant could get no more than 500 weeks of all benefits subject to the cap?

As noted, the CRB concluded that the 500-week cap applies in the aggregate. Hughes-Turner IV, 2020 WL 7226238, at *1-2. The CRB explained its conclusion in several rulings. In Hughes-Turner, CRB No. 18-005, 2018 WL 1696862 (Comp. Rev. Bd. Mar. 12, 2018) (Hughes-Turner I), the CRB appeared to view § 32-1505(b) as ambiguous on the point at issue. Id. at *4-6. The CRB resolved that ambiguity by relying on the view that permitting more than 500 weeks of benefits in the aggregate would be contrary to the legislative history of the provision. Id. at *5-6. In Hughes-Turner, CRB No. 19-120, 2020 WL 743005 (Comp. Rev. Bd. Jan. 24, 2020) (Hughes-Turner III), however, the CRB's reasoning was somewhat different. In that decision, the CRB concluded that the language of § 32-1505(b)

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unambiguously provides that the 500-week cap applies in the aggregate. Id. at *3. The CRB went on to explain that it would have reached the same conclusion even if § 32-1505(b) were ambiguous. Id. at *4-5. In support of that conclusion, the CRB relied on two related points. Id. First, the CRB indicated that applying the 500-week cap in the aggregate would be more consistent with the legislative history of the amendments that included § 32-1505(b), which were intended to impose limits on workers' compensation costs. Id. at *5. Second, the CRB indicated that applying the 500-week cap in the aggregate would bring the WCA "more in line" with the benefits caps in Maryland and Virginia. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

III.

We may reverse a CRB decision "only if we conclude that the decision was arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with the law." Placido v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp. Servs., 92 A.3d 323, 326 (D.C. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). "[T]his court generally defers to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes under which the agency acts." Butler v. Metro. Police Dep't, 240 A.3d 829, 836 (D.C. 2020). We do not defer to the agency, however, on whether statutory language is or is not ambiguous. See, e.g., Medstar Health, Inc. v. District of Columbia Dep't of Health, 146 A.3d 360, 370 n.30 (D.C. 2016)

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