Stuckey v. Department of Labor and Industries

Decision Date16 May 1996
Docket NumberNo. 63227-8,63227-8
Citation916 P.2d 399,129 Wn.2d 289
PartiesMarshall L. STUCKEY, Petitioner, v. The DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND INDUSTRIES, Respondent; Willadean ROBERTS, Petitioner, v. The DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND INDUSTRIES, Respondent.
CourtWashington Supreme Court

George J. Schwab, II, Jeffrey Schwab, Moses Lake, for petitioner.

Evelyn A. Fielding, Seattle, for respondent.

JOHNSON, Justice.

Two issues of statutory construction involving RCW 51, the Industrial Insurance Act (Act), are presented in this case. The first issue requires us to decide the method by which the Department of Labor and Industries (Department) can recover certain workers' compensation benefits. Specifically, we must determine which section of RCW 51.32 controls (.080(4) or .240(3)) where a claim is ordered closed with a finding of permanent partial disability and an award of a lump sum payment, and then, on appeal, a new order changes the earlier finding to permanent total disability and orders placement on the pension rolls, effective as of the date of the first order. The second issue we are asked to decide is whether the Department may include social security benefits paid to an injured worker's spouse when calculating the social security offset to the worker's state disability pension payments, required by RCW 51.32.220.

We hold RCW 51.32.080(4) applies to all situations where permanent partial disability is followed by permanent total disability and any recoupment available to the Department must be made under that statute. We also hold the Department correctly included the injured worker's spouse's social security benefits in calculating the offset to the injured worker's state disability pension payments under RCW 51.32.220. We reverse in part, affirm in part, and remand for determination of the proper recoupment of the permanent partial disability awards.

FACTS

Petitioners, Marshall Stuckey and Willadean Roberts, were both injured in the course of their employment and received benefits under the Act. In each of their cases, the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals (Board) reversed an order by the Department. The Department sought review of those decisions in the superior court. These two separate appeals were consolidated by the superior court. Although they present a common question for review in this court, we discuss their factual and procedural histories separately.

Ms. Roberts

Ms. Roberts was injured in 1978. She received time-loss compensation for temporary disability through May 22, 1989. Finding her condition had become fixed and stable, the Department closed her claim on August 12, 1990 and awarded a lump sum payment of $6,900 for permanent partial disability. Ms. Roberts received no compensation for the 15 months after time-loss compensation was terminated and before the permanent partial disability award was issued.

She appealed to the Board, arguing she had a permanent total disability rather than a permanent partial disability. The Board agreed and ordered Ms. Roberts placed on the permanent total disability pension rolls as of August 13, 1990. The Board also ordered retroactive time-loss compensation for the previously uncompensated 15-month period.

Following the Board's order, the Department awarded Ms. Roberts $9,251.10 for retroactive time-loss compensation, minus $6,966.82 for the permanent partial disability award. The Department relied on RCW 51.32.240(3) in making this deduction. Ms. Roberts appealed the deduction to the Board, which reversed, ordering the Department to deduct the amount of the permanent partial disability award from her pension reserve as provided in RCW 51.32.080(4) 1.

Mr. Stuckey

Mr. Stuckey was injured in 1984. The Department paid him time-loss compensation through July 15, 1987. Mr. Stuckey was without compensation for six months before the Department awarded a lump sum payment of $3,600 for permanent partial disability on January 21, 1988. He appealed the partial disability determination to the Board, which reversed, finding Mr. Stuckey had a permanent total disability. The Board ordered Mr. Stuckey placed on the pension rolls as of January 21, 1988 and ordered the Department to pay him retroactive time-loss compensation for the previously uncompensated six-month period.

The Department paid Mr. Stuckey $4,813.33, the amount of retroactive time-loss compensation to which he was entitled, less $3,600 for the permanent partial disability award, again relying on RCW 51.32.240(3). Mr. Stuckey appealed and the Board reversed, ordering the Department to deduct the amount of the partial disability award from his pension reserve "to the extent, if any, that it exceeds the amount of permanent total disability compensation had it been paid in the first instance" (i.e., January 21, 1988), as provided in RCW 51.32.080(4). In re Stuckey, Bd. of Indus. Ins. Appeals Dec. 89 5977, 90 2638 at 6 (1991); Clerk's Papers (Stuckey) at 6.

On November 15, 1989, the Department ordered Mr. Stuckey's permanent total disability compensation offset to account for his receipt of social security disability benefits. Such offset is required by RCW 51.32.220. In calculating the offset, the Department included benefits payable to Mr. Stuckey and benefits payable to his wife, based on his primary insurance amount. The Department found Mr. Stuckey's new permanent total disability compensation rate to be $0.00 based on Mr. and Mrs. Stuckey's combined monthly social security benefits of $988 and the monthly state permanent total disability compensation rate of $827.05.

Mr. Stuckey appealed the Department's decision on the offset to the Board, arguing RCW 51.32.220 does not provide for offsetting disability payments based on a spouse's social security benefits. This appeal was consolidated with Mr. Stuckey's first appeal on the recoupment issue. The Board affirmed the Department's inclusion of Mrs. Stuckey's social security benefits in calculating the offset.

The Department appealed the Board's decision on the recoupment issue in both Ms. Roberts' and Mr. Stuckey's cases to the superior court, where the two cases were consolidated. Mr. Stuckey also appealed the Board's decision affirming the Department's inclusion of his wife's social security benefits in calculating the offset. The Petitioners and the Department filed cross motions for summary judgment on the recoupment issue; Mr. Stuckey filed a motion for summary judgment on the offset issue.

The superior court granted the Department's summary judgment motion on the recoupment issue (denying Petitioners' motion), as well as granting Mr. Stuckey's summary judgment motion on the offset issue. First, the court concluded when a permanent partial disability award is reversed on appeal and the worker is determined to have a permanent total disability RCW 51.32.080(4) is inapplicable, and the amount of the permanent partial disability award is to be recouped from future payments, including an offset against any retroactive time-loss payments as provided in RCW 51.32.240(3). On Mr. Stuckey's offset issue, the superior court reversed the Board, finding Mr. Stuckey's wife's social security benefits could not be used to offset his permanent total disability pension payments.

Petitioners appealed on the recoupment issue, and the State cross-appealed on the offset issue. Stuckey v. Department of Labor & Indus., 78 Wash.App. 625, 897 P.2d 1289 (1995). As to the recoupment issue, the Court of Appeals affirmed the superior court's decision, holding RCW 51.32.080(4) was inapplicable in situations where the permanent partial disability determination is reversed on appeal. Stuckey, 78 Wash.App. at 632, 897 P.2d 1289. On the offset issue, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, holding RCW 51.32.220 requires the Department to offset all social security benefits that are paid out based on a claimant's primary insurance amount. Stuckey, 78 Wash.App. at 637, 897 P.2d 1289. Because Mrs. Stuckey's "wife's benefits" were based on Mr. Stuckey's primary insurance amount, the Court of Appeals held the Department properly included the amount of those social security benefits in offsetting Mr. Stuckey's permanent total disability pension payments. Stuckey, 78 Wash.App. at 636-37, 897 P.2d 1289.

Mr. Stuckey and Ms. Roberts petitioned for review of the Court of Appeals decision regarding the applicability of RCW 51.32.080(4) (recoupment issue), and the scope of RCW 51.32.220 (offset issue). We granted review on both issues.

ANALYSIS
Standard of Review

The two issues in this case require construction of provisions contained within RCW 51.32. The construction of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo on appeal. Waste Management of Seattle, Inc. v. Utilities & Transp. Comm'n, 123 Wash.2d 621, 627, 869 P.2d 1034 (1994); Our Lady of Lourdes Hosp. v. Franklin County, 120 Wash.2d 439, 443, 842 P.2d 956 (1993).

Recoupment Issue

We first note that Petitioners do not challenge the Department's authority to recoup the permanent partial disability awards (either in full or in part). Recovery is required to ensure that injured workers who first receive permanent partial disability awards and later receive total disability pensions do not receive greater benefits than workers who endure permanent total disabilities in the first instance. The issue, rather, concerns the appropriate method of recoupment.

The Department argues RCW 51.32.240(3) provides the appropriate method to recoup lump sum permanent partial disability awards after such order is changed, on appeal, to an order for a permanent total disability pension. RCW 51.32.240(3) provides:

Whenever any payment of benefits under this title has been made pursuant to an adjudication by the department or by order of the board or any court and timely appeal therefrom has been made where the final decision is that any such payment was made pursuant to an erroneous...

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