Judge v. R and T Const. Co.

Decision Date01 September 1985
Docket NumberNo. 1365,1365
PartiesThomas Claude JUDGE v. R AND T CONSTRUCTION COMPANY, et al. ,
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Ronald S. Canter, Rockville, for appellant.

Theodore B. Cornblatt (William R. Van Wambeke and Smith, Somerville & Case, on brief), Baltimore, for appellees.


ADKINS, Judge.

The question put to us in this case is whether the Workmen's Compensation Commission, once it has permitted a claimant to withdraw a claim prior to award or denial of compensation, may subsequently permit the claimant to reopen the claim. The essential facts are stipulated.

On October 28, 1981, appellant, Thomas Claude Judge, "sustained multiple injuries resulting from an accident occurring in Gaithersburg, Maryland and arising out of and in the course of his employment with" appellees, his employers. The injuries rendered Judge a respirator dependent quadriplegic.

In November 1981, Judge filed a compensation claim with the Maryland Workmen's Compensation Commission. On December 11, however, Judge requested that the claim be withdrawn because he intended to file a claim with the Virginia Industrial Accident Commission, of which state he was a resident. On December 16 the Maryland Commission ordered that the claim "be and the same is hereby withdrawn."

On February 2, 1982, the Virginia Commission "awarded ... Judge compensation benefits during the course of his disability, and further awarded him medical benefits for as long as required." Later, however, that Commission denied Judge's request to be furnished with a specially-equipped van and to require the carrier "to modify his residence to make it accessible for his uses as a wheelchair bound quadriplegic accident victim." On October 27, 1983, Judge requested the Maryland Commission to reopen his 1981 claim for further proceedings. The Commission denied that request on November 2, 1984, and dismissed Judge's claim "for lack of jurisdiction...."

Judge appealed to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, where cross-motions for summary judgment were filed. The court granted appellees' motion. This appeal followed.

The statute that Judge claims empowers the Commission to reopen his withdrawn 1981 claim is Art. 101, § 40 (c), which provides:

The powers and jurisdiction of the Commission over each case shall be continuing, and it may, from time to time, make such modifications or changes with respect to former findings or orders with respect thereto as in its opinion may be justified; provided, however, that no modification or change of any award of compensation shall be made to the Commission within five years next following the last payment of compensation.

The Court of Appeals has described this subsection as "by its terms plain and unambiguous [leaving] no room for interpretation." Adkins v. Weisner, 238 Md. 411, 414, 209 A.2d 255 (1965). Judge points to the grant of "continuing" jurisdiction to the Commission and to its power to "make ... changes with respect to former ... orders...." He notes the undisputed fact that the Commission entered an order permitting him to withdraw his initial claim, and argues that § 40(c) authorizes the Commission now to change that former order.

Appellees, on the other hand, treat the Commission's action of November 2, 1984, as a denial of Judge's request to reopen. They contend (correctly) that no appeal lies from the denial of such a request. The subsection gives the Commission discretion to reopen or not to reopen. Stevenson v. Hill, 170 Md. 676, 683, 185 A. 551 (1936) (construing former Art. 101, § 54). Its exercise of that discretion, when it refuses to reopen, ordinarily is not reviewable. Gold Dust Corp. v. Zabawa, 159 Md. 664, 152 A. 500 (1930); Roadway Express, Inc. v. Gray, 40 Md.App. 66, 389 A.2d 407, cert. denied, 283 Md. 737 (1978).

The problem with appellees' argument is that it depends on the Commission's exercise of discretion to deny reopening. "Discretion," we have said, "signifies choice"--that is, a reasoned decision based on the weighing of various alternatives. Hart v. Miller, 65 Md.App. 620, 626, 501 A.2d 872 (1985). Had the Commission considered the pros and cons of reopening Judge's claim, and then refused to do so, we would agree with appellees. But that is not what happened. The Commission exercised no discretion. It concluded it lacked jurisdiction to reopen and for that reason dismissed the claim. Under these circumstances, the Gold Dust--Roadway line of cases does not bar an appeal.

We hold, however, that § 40 (c) does not permit reopening in this case. We understand that the worker compensation law " 'should be construed as liberally in favor of injured employees as its provisions will permit in order to effectuate its benevolent purposes' and that any uncertainty 'should be resolved in favor of the claimant.' " Holy Cross Hospital v. Nichols, 290 Md. 149, 162, 428 A.2d 447 (1981) (quoting Howard County Association for Retarded Citizens v. Walls, 288 Md. 526, 530, 418 A.2d 1210 (1980)). But we can read this unambiguous statute only as liberally "as its provisions will permit...." We turn, then, to those provisions.

Subsection (c) is one of four subsections of § 40. Subsection (a) requires the Commission to "make or deny an award" within a specified time. Subsection (b) permits readjustment or termination of compensation "[i]f aggravation, diminution or termination of disability takes place or is discovered after the rate of compensation shall have been established or compensation terminated...." Subsection (d) discusses the effect of fraud or estoppel on failure to file a reopening application. It is in no way implicated here.

The first two subsections deal with situations in which the Commission is required to make or deny an award; that is, in which it has taken some action to decide the merits of a claim. Reading § 40 as a harmonious whole, Farmers & Merchants Bank of Hagerstown v. Schlossberg, 306 Md. 48, 56, 507 A.2d 172 (1986), we conclude that subsection (c) applies to the reopening of that kind of order or decision. That reading is supported by the very language of (c). The Commission's power to "make such modifications or changes" is with respect to its "former findings or orders with respect thereto " [emphasis supplied]. In the case before us, the only findings were those made by a totally different tribunal, the Virginia Commission. It is not those findings that Judge sought to reopen, and in any case, they are irrelevant for the purposes of § 40 (c). The Maryland Commission, on the other hand, made no findings in its December 16, 1981, withdrawal order. That order was not one "with respect" to any findings, because there were none. The Commission simply granted Judge's request to withdraw his claim. Such an order is not subject to reopening under § 40 (c). 1

This conclusion is not affected by our comment in Subsequent Injury Fund v. Baker, 40 Md.App. 339, 345, 392 A.2d 94 (1978) that Maryland "has one of the broadest reopening statutes"--a view concurred in by Professor Larson. 3 A. Larson, Larson's Workman's Compensation Law (1983), § 81.52 (c) n. 89. Baker was a case in which a prior award had been made. That is true of the authorities discussed in Baker, and it is also true of the authorities discussed by Professor Larson. As he observes in § 81.52 (c), "Some broad reopening statutes give the Commission blanket power to make such changes in awards as are in its judgment justified" [emphasis supplied]. This statement obviously presupposes the existence of a prior award or some earlier decision on the merits of a claim. That is a factor lacking here.

To conclude that § 40 (c) does not empower the Commission to "reopen" Judge's claim does not, however, dispose of this case. As we have seen, in December 1981, the Maryland Commission allowed Judge to withdraw his claim. In Plater v. Kane Warehouse Co., Inc., 241 Md. 462, 217 A.2d 102 (1966), the Court of Appeals held that § 40 (c) gave the Commission authority to permit withdrawal of a claim after an award had been made. That holding is completely consistent with our holding here, since in Plater (in contrast to the present case) there was an existing award upon which the Commission could exercise its § 40 (c) power. For present purposes, the importance of Plater lies in the analogy the Court of Appeals used to support its holding. The Court looked to former Md. Rule 541 b, which allowed voluntary dismissal of an action at law only by stipulation of all parties or by leave of cou...

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