Prince George's Cnty. v. Minor

Decision Date29 March 2016
Docket NumberNo. 1871, Sept. Term, 2014.,1871, Sept. Term, 2014.
Citation133 A.3d 1209,227 Md.App. 233
Parties PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY, Maryland, et al. v. Frederick MINOR.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Dawn D. Barnett (William A. Snoddy, M. Andree Green, Co. Atty., on the brief), Upper Marlboro, MD, for Appellant.

Kenneth G. Macleay (John Hall Law Group, LLC, on the brief), Millersville, MD, for Appellee.

Panel: KEHOE, LEAHY, and JAMES A. KENNEY, III (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

JAMES A. KENNEY, III (Retired, Specially Assigned), J.Appellant, Prince George's County ("the County"), appeals the decision of the Circuit Court for Charles County that reversed the decision of the Worker's Compensation Commission ("the Commission") regarding the payment of attorney's fees to the attorney for appellee Frederick Minor ("Mr. Minor.").

The County presents a single question for our review:

Whether the circuit court erred when it determined that the County is responsible for payment of Mr. Minor's attorney's fees?

For the reasons that follow, we shall reverse.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On September 3, 2008, Mr. Minor, a deputy sheriff with the Prince George's County Police Department, filed a claim for workers' compensation stemming from an injury he sustained when his right middle-finger became caught in his canine partner's collar and twisted sideways. The Commission, on October 15, 2008, found that he "sustained an accidental injury ... arising out of and in the course of employment on 7/08/2008 and that the average weekly wage was $1,500.00 and that the nature and extent of the disability sustained, if any, [could not be] determined at [that] time." A hearing on the nature and extent of disability was held, and the Commission, on December 8, 2009, entered the following award:

Disability leave in lieu of temporary total disability from November 7, 2008 to November 28, 2008 inclusive; based on an average weekly wage of $1,500.00 for an accidental injury sustained on July 8, 2008. PERMANENT PARTIAL DISABILITY: Resulting in 20% loss of use of the right hand, due to the accident of July 8, 2008; at the rate of $293.00, payable weekly, beginning November 29, 2008 for a period of 50 weeks.

In the award, the Commission noted that "No Claimant's Consent to Pay Attorney Fee and Doctor Fees [was] Submitted."

Mr. Minor's counsel wrote the Commission on December 7, 2009, and "attached Claimant's Consent to Pay Attorney Fee and Doctor Fee which was mistakenly not turned in at the time of the hearing." The consent form, signed by Mr. Minor on December 8, 2009, certified that counsel had "explained to [him] the amounts allowable by the Commission as counsel fee under the Schedule of Fees and [he] consent[ed] to the Award of a Fee to [his] attorney in accordance with the Commission's Fee Schedule." Both the County's counsel, Antonia St. John, and the senior claims specialist for the County's third party claim administrator, Melissa Casselman, were copied on the letter, but neither acknowledged receiving it. The Commission docketed the letter and accompanying consent form on December 9, 2009.

On December 15, 2009, Ms. Casselman, emailed Mr. Minor's counsel's office1 regarding the attorney's fees: "I have received the Award Order on Fred Minor. What are the fees so I can deduct them?" When there was no response to the email inquiry, the County, on December 22, 2009, wrote a check for $14,650.00 (the full amount of the award) made payable to "Frederick Minor C/O John Hall, Esquire" and mailed it to Mr. Minor's attorney's office. Counsel delivered the check to Mr. Minor, who cashed or deposited it on January 6, 2010.

On January 11, 2010, the Commission rescinded its December 8, 2009 compensation award and entered a new award that included Mr. Minor's consent to pay counsel "in the amount of $2,930.00, plus reimbursement of expenses in the amount of $24.46 [and medical expenses] in the amount of $410.85."

On May 23, 2013, Mr. Minor's counsel filed issues with the Commission for the County's "non compliance of award dated 1/11/10 in which the atty and doctor fees have not been paid to the respective parties." A hearing was held on September 13, 2013, and, on September 20, 2013, the Commission issued its order that:

the [appellant], Prince George's County Maryland, is not responsible for the payment of attorney's fees. The fee is approved and is payable by [Mr. Minor]. The fee may be collected from [Mr. Minor] or shall constitute a lien against the payment of any future benefits to [him].

On October 15, 2013, Mr. Minor filed for judicial review of the order.

A hearing was held in the circuit court on June 6, 2014. Mr. Minor's counsel argued that "by issuing [the] lump sum check to [Mr. Minor, the County] created a situation where they overpaid [him]. The[ County's] remedy is that should [he] come back for additional benefits in the future [it] may have a credit for an overpayment." But, according to counsel, the County was not relieved of the obligation to pay any attorney's fees awarded in the case. Mr. Minor's counsel further argued that the Commission order stating that fees may be collected from Mr. Minor is a violation of workers' compensation law, and requested that the circuit court vacate the September 2013 Commission order.

The County responded that the law requires that any fee shall be paid from an award of compensation in the manner stated by the Commission, and in this case, no fee was provided for in the initial award because no fee consent form was filed. Moreover, if the County had held payment and did not submit payment to Mr. Minor within fifteen days of the award, it would have been subject to a penalty. According to the County, it did not receive a copy of counsel's December 7, 2009 letter, and Mr. Minor's Counsel did not respond to Ms. Casselman's December 15 email, and therefore, the Commission order should be affirmed. To do otherwise, it asserted, would impose a burden on the County not provided for in existing law. At the conclusion of the hearing, the circuit court, commenting that it was "obvious that steps could have been taken on either side to avoid this problem," took the case under advisement.

On September 16, 2014, the circuit court filed an "Opinion and Order" finding that "the Commission's September 20, 2013 order placing responsibility on Mr. Minor was an incorrect construction of the law and facts" and that the County is "required to pay $2,930.00" to Mr. Minor's counsel:

The record reflects that the County and its agents should have known that a fee petition was filed with the Commission on December 9, 2009 and that the Commission's approval of the fee was pending. First, the December 7, 2009 letter and attached fee petition from Counsel for Mr. Minor was copied to the County's attorney and Ms. Casselman. This letter put the County and Ms. Casselman on notice of the fee petition three weeks before the check was issued. Second, the fee petition was docketed the day after the First Award was issued, and the County and Ms. Casselman easily could have checked the Commission's dockets for any updates. Third, Ms. Casselman's email indicates her knowledge that the issue of counsel fees was still outstanding. While Counsel for Mr. Minor concedes that there was some communication between Ms. Casselman and counsel for Mr. Minor's office, Ms. Casselman, as the County's agent, should have acted more diligently by following up with Counsel for Mr. Minor, checking to see if anything new was docketed with the Commission, directly inquiring of the Commission to determine the requested amount of attorney's fees, or making the check payable to both Mr. Minor and Counsel for Mr. Minor. Instead, Ms. Casselman took no further action in the seven days before payment was due. As the individual responsible for processing Mr. Minor's compensation award, Ms. Casselman was responsible for ensuring she had all the necessary information to make a proper payment, and the information was readily available from the Commission's public records.
Notwithstanding the fact that 20% of the award was not reserved in escrow, on January 11, 2010, a lien attached to the Revised Award approving attorney's fees. The revised award was notice to the County to reserve the $2,930.00 fee in an escrow account. Although the County paid Mr. Minor in full under the First Award, the Commission expressly rescinded the First Award and the County has not been discharged from its liability under the revised award....
Furthermore, the Court accepts the argument by Counsel for appellee that an attorney cannot collect legal fees directly from a claimant in a worker's compensation case. The Commission's attorney fee approval system is such that an attorney cannot collect any legal fees unless approved by the Commission....
Given these policies and considerations and the principles [espoused in the relevant case law], the County is responsible for paying attorney's fees in the event of an overpayment to the claimant.

(Internal citations and footnotes omitted). On October 14, 2014, appellant filed this appeal.

Standard of Review

A party can petition for judicial review of a Commission decision pursuant to Md.Code (1991, 2008 Repl.Vol.), § 9–737 of the Labor and Employment Article ("L.E. § 9–737"). In that review, "the decision[ ] of the Commission ( [is] ) entitled to [a presumption of] prima facie correctness [,]" Frank v. Balt. Cnty., 284 Md. 655, 658, 399 A.2d 250 (1979) (quoting Md. Bureau of Mines v. Powers, 258 Md. 379, 382, 265 A.2d 860 (1970) ), but a court "may reverse a commission ruling only upon a finding that its action was based upon an erroneous construction of the law or facts." Frank, 284 Md. at 658, 399 A.2d 250. In addition, "[r]eviewing courts should give special deference to an agency's interpretation of its own regulations because the agency is best able to discern its intent in promulgating those regulations." Brunson v. Univ. of Md. Med. Sys. Corp., 221 Md.App. 583, 591, 110 A.3d 713 ...

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    ...On judicial review, a decision of the WCC is “entitled to [a presumption of] prima facie correctness[.]” Prince George's Cnty. v. Minor, 227 Md.App. 233, 240, 133 A.3d 1209 (2016) (alteration in Minor ) (quoting Frank v. Balt. Cnty., 284 Md. 655, 658, 399 A.2d 250 (1979) ). “A court, theref......
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