Montgomery Cnty. v. Rios

Citation244 Md.App. 629,225 A.3d 99
Decision Date28 February 2020
Docket NumberNo. 2642, Sept. Term, 2018,2642, Sept. Term, 2018
Parties MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Maryland v. Fernando RIOS
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Argued by: Wendy B. Karpel (Marc P. Hansen, County Attorney, John P. Markovs, Deputy County Attorney, Kathryn Lloyd, on the brief), Rockville, MD, for Appellant.

Argued by: Matthew J. Engler (Kenneth M. Berman, on the brief), Gaithersburg, MD, for Appellee.

Beachley, Wells, Sally D. Adkins* (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Beachley, J.

The Workers' Compensation Commission ("Commission") granted appellee Officer Fernando Rios's request for modification of a prior award for permanent partial disability benefits, implicitly finding that the claim was not barred by limitations. Appellant/employer Montgomery County noted a record appeal to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, which affirmed the Commission's decision.

In this Court, Montgomery County presents a single question, which we have rephrased:

Is Officer Rios's claim barred by the applicable five-year statute of limitations because he did not obtain a medical evaluation for permanent impairment as required by COMAR until after the expiration of limitations?

We answer this question in the negative and affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Officer Rios was employed as a police officer by Montgomery County. During the course of his work, he suffered an injury to his left shoulder while trying to subdue a suspect. The Commission found his injury compensable in an Order dated May 20, 2009. On September 24, 2012, Rios received a supplemental award of compensation. Rios received the last payment on that award on October 8, 2012.

On September 15, 2017, Rios filed a Request for Modification with the Commission, alleging worsening of his left shoulder and requesting additional temporary total disability benefits and an increase in permanent disability. Rios had not obtained a physician's written evaluation of permanent impairment at the time he filed his Request for Modification. A hearing was originally scheduled for November 27, 2017, but was continued at Rios's request to December 20, 2017. Rios requested the continuance because his medical evaluation for permanent impairment was scheduled for November 29, 2017, two days after the original hearing date. At the December 20, 2017 hearing, Montgomery County asserted that Rios's Request for Modification was barred by limitations because the medical evaluation for permanent impairment was not completed until after the applicable five-year statute of limitations had run. Following the hearing, the Commission found that Rios was entitled to an increase in permanent partial disability. The Commission's decision did not expressly address the limitations issue.

Dissatisfied with the Commission's decision, Montgomery County noted an "on the record" appeal to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County.1 After the circuit court affirmed, Montgomery County timely noted this appeal.

DISCUSSION

We recently stated the appropriate standard of review for "on the record" appeals from the Commission:

When reviewing workers' compensation awards in cases where the claimant sought review on the record (rather than a de novo review involving a new evidentiary hearing), we look through the decision of the circuit court and evaluate the Commission's decision directly. W.R. Grace & Co. v. Swedo , 439 Md. 441, 452–53, 96 A.3d 210 (2014). Our task is "to determine whether the Commission: (1) justly considered all of the facts about the ... occupational disease ... ; (2) exceeded the powers granted to it under [the Act]; or (3) misconstrued the law and facts applicable in the case decided." LE § 9-745(c).[2 ] "The court must confirm the decision unless it determines that the Commission exceeded its authority or misconstrued the law or facts." Richard Beavers Constr., Inc. v. Wagstaff , 236 Md. App. 1, 13, 180 A.3d 211 (2018) (citing Uninsured Empl'rs' Fund v. Pennel , 133 Md. App. 279, 288–89, 754 A.2d 1120 (2000) ).

Montgomery Cty. v. Cochran , 243 Md. App. 102, 112, 219 A.3d 122 (2019) (alterations in original), cert. granted , No. 379, Sept. Term, 2019 (Md. Feb. 11, 2020).

A determination that a claim is barred by the statute of limitations "is ordinarily a mixed question of law and fact." Dove v. Montgomery Cty. Bd. of Educ. , 178 Md. App. 702, 712, 943 A.2d 662 (2008) (quoting James v. Weisheit , 279 Md. 41, 46, 367 A.2d 482 (1977) ). In this case, because the parties agree that the relevant facts are not in dispute, the limitations issue is purely a question of law. Thus, "[i]n an appeal of a workers' compensation case, when the issue presented is an issue of law, we review the decision de novo , without deference to the decisions of either the Commission or the circuit court.’ "

Zakwieia v. Balt. Cty. Bd. of Educ. , 231 Md. App. 644, 648, 153 A.3d 888 (2017) (quoting Long v. Injured Workers' Ins. Fund , 225 Md. App. 48, 57, 123 A.3d 562 (2015) ).

The Maryland Workers' Compensation Act ("the Act") was enacted in 1914 with the purpose of "protect[ing] workers and their families from hardships inflicted by work-related injuries by providing workers with compensation for loss of earning capacity resulting from accidental injury arising out of and in the course of employment." Gang v. Montgomery Cty. , 464 Md. 270, 278, 211 A.3d 355 (2019) (quoting Roberts v. Montgomery Cty. , 436 Md. 591, 603, 84 A.3d 87 (2014) ). The Act created the Workers' Compensation Commission to administer the law. Id. at 279, 211 A.3d 355 (quoting Egeberg v. Md. Steel Prods. Co. , 190 Md. 374, 379, 58 A.2d 684 (1948) ); LE § 9-301. The General Assembly provided the Commission " ‘with the power to carry out the intent of the Act[,] such that its ‘jurisdiction includes the authority to approve claims, reopen cases, make determinations on employment relationships, determine liability of employers, award lump sum payments, approve settlements, [and] award fees for legal services, funeral expenses, and medical services.’ " Gang , 464 Md. at 279, 211 A.3d 355 (quoting Temp. Staffing, Inc. v. J.J. Haines & Co., Inc. , 362 Md. 388, 400, 765 A.2d 602 (2001) ); LE § 9-309, 9-701. The Commission's powers also include the authority to "adopt reasonable and proper regulations to govern the procedures of the Commission." LE § 9-701(1). The validity of a regulation promulgated by the Commission is determined by "whether the regulation is consistent with the letter and spirit of the law under which the [Commission] acts." McLaughlin v. Gill Simpson Elec. , 206 Md. App. 242, 257, 47 A.3d 1074 (2012) (quoting Lussier v. Md. Racing Comm'n , 343 Md. 681, 687, 684 A.2d 804 (1996) ). A valid regulation "has the force of law[ ] and creates new law or imposes new rights or duties." Id. (quoting Sec'y, Dep't of Pub. Safety & Corr. Servs. v. Demby , 390 Md. 580, 606, 890 A.2d 310 (2006) ).

When analyzing a statute, we determine the intent of the legislature by first looking to the plain meaning of the words of the statute. Id. at 253, 47 A.3d 1074. When there is ambiguity, the Act "should be construed as liberally in favor of injured employees as its provisions will permit in order to effectuate its benevolent purposes. Any uncertainty in the law should be resolved in favor of the claimant." Gang , 464 Md. at 279, 211 A.3d 355 (quoting Stachowski v. Sysco Food Servs. of Balt., Inc. , 402 Md. 506, 513, 937 A.2d 195 (2007) ). This general rule of liberal construction is also applicable to the interpretation of regulations. Hranicka v. Chesapeake Surgical, Ltd. , 443 Md. 289, 302, 116 A.3d 507 (2015). However, the statute of limitations is to be strictly construed. McLaughlin , 206 Md. App. at 254, 47 A.3d 1074 (citing Stevens v. Rite-Aid Corp. , 340 Md. 555, 568, 667 A.2d 642 (1995) ).

LE § 9-736(b)(3) establishes the limitations period for modification of a workers' compensation award:

(3) Except as provided in subsection (c) of this section, the Commission may not modify an award unless the modification is applied for within 5 years after the latter of:
(i) the date of the accident;
(ii) the date of disablement; or
(iii) the last compensation payment .

(Emphasis added).

In addition to the statute of limitations prescribed by LE § 9-736(b)(3), two regulations are at issue in this case, Md. Code Regs. (COMAR) 14.09.09.02B and 14.09.03.02F. 14.09.09.02B states:

Prior to filing an Issues Form raising permanent disability, the party filing the issue shall have obtained a written evaluation of permanent impairment prepared by a physician, psychologist, or psychiatrist in accordance with Regulation .03 of this chapter.

14.09.03.02F states:

A party that has filed issues and is not ready to proceed at the hearing shall withdraw the issues.

The parties agree that the limitations period for Rios to file a request for modification ended on October 8, 2017, five years after he received his last compensation payment. Although Montgomery County recognizes that Rios's request for modification was filed within limitations, it argues that "[t]he September 15, 2017 filing failed to toll the statute of limitations ... because [Rios] did not have a written evaluation of permanent impairment as required by the applicable COMAR regulations." In a closely-related argument, Montgomery County maintains that Rios had no "basis in fact" to support his requested modification because he did not have the written evaluation of permanent impairment as of the September 15, 2017 filing. Finally, Montgomery County argues that, even if the September 15, 2017 filing were timely, the Issues identified in Rios's Request for Modification were automatically withdrawn, pursuant to 14.09.03.02F, when Rios had not yet obtained a written medical evaluation by November 27, 2017, the original hearing date. Under any of these scenarios, Montgomery County contends that Rios's claim is barred by limitations.

We hold that Rios's filing of his request for modification on September 15, 2017,...

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