Starks v. University of Connecticut

Decision Date06 July 2004
Docket Number(SC 17013).
Citation850 A.2d 1013,270 Conn. 1
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Sullivan, C. J., and Borden, Katz, Palmer and Vertefeuille, Js.

Howard B. Schiller, for the appellant (plaintiff).

Douglas L. Drayton, for the appellees (defendants).

Richard Blumenthal, attorney general, and William J. McCullough, assistant attorney general, filed a brief for the state employees retirement commission.1



The principal issue in this appeal is whether the receipt of state disability retirement benefits by the plaintiff, Diana Starks, must be considered in determining her discretionary benefits awarded pursuant to General Statutes (Rev. to 1989) § 31-308a2 of the Workers' Compensation Act, contained in chapter 568 of the General Statutes.3 The plaintiff appeals4 from the decision of the compensation review board (review board) affirming the decision of the workers' compensation commissioner for the second district (commissioner) that ordered that the plaintiff receive a reduced § 31-308a benefit due to her receipt of state disability retirement benefits. The named defendant,5 the University of Connecticut, argues that the decision of the review board was proper, and further argues that any other outcome would result in a double recovery for the plaintiff.6 We conclude that, because the State Employees Retirement Act, codified in chapter 66 of the General Statutes,7 already provides for a statutory offset of certain workers' compensation benefits; see General Statutes §§ 5-169(g) and 5-192p (d); see footnotes 23 and 24 of this opinion; in determining the plaintiff's § 31-308a benefit calculation, the commissioner should not have considered any amounts received as part of her state disability retirement benefits. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the review board.

The record reveals the following undisputed facts and procedural history. The plaintiff was employed by the state, at the University of Connecticut, on April 17, 1990, when she suffered a compensable injury that left her with a 25 percent permanent partial disability of her back. Her injury arose out of and during the course of her employment. Commencing February 7, 1995, she was awarded 130 weeks of permanent partial disability benefits pursuant to General Statutes (Rev. to 1989) § 31-308, as amended by Public Acts 1989, No. 89-36,8 which entitles an employee who sustains a permanent disability to a specified body part to payment of a fixed amount of benefits. After her specific indemnity benefits expired, the plaintiff was awarded $150 per week in benefits from August 6, 1997, through May 5, 2001, pursuant to § 31-308a, which permits the commissioner, on a discretionary basis, to grant additional benefits "equal to two-thirds of the difference between the wages currently earned by an employee in a position comparable to the position held by such injured employee prior to his injury and the weekly amount which such employee will probably be able to earn thereafter . . . ." General Statutes (Rev. to 1989) § 31-308a.9 The parties stipulated that a person engaged in the plaintiff's former position earned $31,325 annually at the time of the commissioner's decision, a weekly average of $602.40. The most recent medical evidence available indicated that the plaintiff's injury prevented her from working more than four to six hours at a time. The plaintiffs last position paid $8.50 an hour, which would entitle her to gross earnings of $255 per week if she worked thirty hours per week. On the basis of these facts, the commissioner determined that the wage differential between the plaintiff's actual earning capacity and the salary paid for her preinjury position was $347.40 per week.

The plaintiff retired from state service in 1996 and began receiving service-connected disability retirement benefits from the state amounting to $1396.72 per month, or $324.82 per week. In proceedings before the commissioner, the defendant argued that the plaintiff's disability retirement pension should be considered in determining her § 31-308a benefit and that such benefit should be reduced accordingly. The commissioner agreed, and, as a result of the offset of her disability retirement benefits against her postinjury earning capacity, the commissioner determined that the plaintiff received $22.58 per week less than the amount currently being earned by employees in her former position, and subsequently awarded § 31-308a benefits in the amount of $15.05 per week for fifty-two weeks commencing May 6, 2001.

The plaintiff filed a petition for review on December 6, 2001, disagreeing with the commissioner's interpretation of § 31-308a and the commissioner's subsequent calculation of her benefits. In an opinion issued February 13, 2003, the review board rejected the plaintiff's contentions, determining that the offset of disability retirement benefits was appropriate under its prior ruling in Iannarone v. Dept. of Mental Retardation, 4138 CRB-7-99-10 (June 15, 2001), in which the review board held that a state disability pension should be included in the amount a claimant is "`able to earn'" for purposes of § 31-308a. Quoting Iannarone, the review board noted that "`the [wage replacement] benefits sought. . . by the claimant are meant to replenish a former income source . . . that is already being replenished in part by a pension from that same entity.'" In further support of its decision, the review board stated that General Statutes § 31-31410 mandates such an offset because, "§ 31-314 requires that the fixing of compensation under [c]hapter 568 duly allow[s] for any sum that an employer has paid to an injured employee on account of her injury." Finally, the review board rejected the plaintiff's claim that her state disability retirement benefits were in the nature of "fringe benefits" under General Statutes (Rev. to 1989) § 31-284b,11 which requires covered employers to maintain "equivalent insurance coverage or welfare fund payments or contributions while the employee is eligible to receive or is receiving workers' compensation . . . ."

On appeal, the plaintiff claims that benefits received under the state disability retirement plan should not be considered part of "the weekly amount which such employee will probably be able to earn thereafter" under § 31-308a. Additionally, the plaintiff argues that her retirement benefits should not be credited as an "advance" by her employer pursuant to § 31-314. The plaintiff also claims that her receipt of state disability retirement benefits are in the nature of a "fringe benefit" and are protected by § 31-284b. Lastly, the plaintiff contends that the state disability retirement statutory scheme requires such benefits to be offset by the receipt of certain workers' compensation benefits, not the other way around.

"As a threshold matter, we set forth the standard of review applicable to workers' compensation appeals.. . . It is well established that [a]lthough not dispositive, we accord great weight to the construction given to the workers' compensation statutes by the commissioner and [the review] board." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Kuehl v. Z-Loda Systems Engineering, Inc., 265 Conn. 525, 532, 829 A.2d 818 (2003). "It is well settled that we do not defer to the [review] board's construction of a statute — a question of law — when, as in the present case, the provisions at issue previously have not been subjected to judicial scrutiny or when the [review] board's interpretation has not been time tested." Rayhall v. Akim Co., 263 Conn. 328, 354, 819 A.2d 803 (2003). Accordingly, because this issue is one of first impression for our courts, our review is plenary.

"We begin with our well established principles of statutory interpretation in analyzing the [plaintiff's] claim. Our legislature recently has enacted No. 03-154, § 1, of the 2003 Public Acts, which provides: `The meaning of a statute shall, in the first instance, be ascertained from the text of the statute itself and its relationship to other statutes. If, after examining such text and considering such relationship, the meaning of such text is plain and unambiguous and does not yield absurd or unworkable results, extratextual evidence of the meaning of the statute shall not be considered.' In the present case, the relevant statutory text and the relationship of that text to other statutes do not reveal a meaning that is plain and unambiguous." Bergeson v. New London, 269 Conn. 763, 769-70, A.2d (2004). Accordingly, in ascertaining the meaning of § 31-308a, we will "look to the words of the statute itself, to the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and to its relationship to existing legislation . . . ." Jones v. Kramer, 267 Conn. 336, 343, 838 A.2d 170 (2004).

Because "[i]n determining the meaning of a statute. . . we look not only at the provision at issue, but also to the broader statutory scheme to ensure coherency of our construction"; Schiano v. Bliss Exterminating Co., 260 Conn. 21, 42, 792 A.2d 835 (2002); we will begin with a basic overview of the workers' compensation statutory scheme. "Benefits available under the [Workers' Compensation Act] serve the dual function of compensating for the disability arising from the injury and for the loss of earning power resulting from that injury.. . . Compensation for the disability takes the form of payment of medical expenses . . . and specific indemnity awards, which compensate the injured employee for the lifetime handicap that results from the permanent loss of, or loss of use of, a scheduled body part.. . . [S]ee General Statutes § 31-308 (b) (loss of or loss of use of member) and (d) (scarring); see also 4 A. Larson & L. Larson, Workers' Compensation Law (2002) § 80.04, p. 80-12 ([p]ermanent partial schedule awards...

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