Taylor v. Waste Mgmt. of N.M.., Inc.

Decision Date06 April 2021
Docket NumberNo. A-1-CA-37503,A-1-CA-37503
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico
Parties Bryan K. TAYLOR, Worker-Appellant, v. WASTE MANAGEMENT OF NEW MEXICO, INC. and Gallagher Bassett Services, Inc., Employer/Insurer-Appellees.

489 P.3d 994

Bryan K. TAYLOR, Worker-Appellant,
v.
WASTE MANAGEMENT OF NEW MEXICO, INC. and Gallagher Bassett Services, Inc., Employer/Insurer-Appellees.

No. A-1-CA-37503

Court of Appeals of New Mexico.

Filing Date: April 6, 2021


Gerald A. Hanrahan Albuquerque, NM for Appellant

Evie M. Jilek Albuquerque, NM for Appellees

ATTREP, Judge.

{1} Bryan Taylor (Worker) appeals from a compensation order entered pursuant to the Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act), NMSA 1978, §§ 52-1-1 to -70 (1929, as amended through 2017), limiting Worker's temporary total disability benefits (TTD benefits). After Waste Management of New Mexico, Inc. (Employer) terminated Worker, Worker earned wages from other employers below his preinjury wage. The Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) determined, under these circumstances, that Worker was not entitled to full TTD benefits. Because the WCJ's decision is contrary to the law that existed when Worker was injured,1 we reverse.

489 P.3d 996

BACKGROUND

I. Statutory Background

{2} "Temporary total disability," as used in the Act, "means the inability of a worker, by reason of accidental injury arising out of and in the course of the worker's employment, to perform the duties of that employment prior to the date of the worker's maximum medical improvement [(MMI)]." Section 52-1-25.1(A). Generally speaking, workers suffering from a temporary total disability are entitled to TTD benefits in the amount of two-thirds their average weekly wage (AWW).2 See § 52-1-41(A) (1999). Absent one of two exceptions, "the statute requires payment of full total disability benefits." Ortiz v. BTU Block & Concrete Co. , 1996-NMCA-097, ¶ 10, 122 N.M. 381, 925 P.2d 1 (construing the 1990 version of Section 52-1-25.1); see also Hawkins v. McDonald's , 2014-NMCA-048, ¶ 9, 323 P.3d 932 ("Section 52-1-25.1 of the [Act] limits the payment of TTD benefits to an injured worker prior to the date of MMI in only two circumstances.").

{3} The two exceptions to a worker's entitlement to full TTD benefits are set out in Section 52-1-25.1. Subsection B defines the first exception:

If, prior to the date of [MMI], an injured worker's health care provider releases the worker to return to work, the worker is not entitled to [TTD] benefits if:

(1) the employer offers work at the worker's preinjury wage; or

(2) the worker accepts employment with another employer at the worker's preinjury wage.

Section 52-1-25.1(B) (emphases added). Subsection C defines the second exception:

If, prior to the date of [MMI], an injured worker's health care provider releases the worker to return to work and the employer offers work at less than the worker's pre-injury wage, the worker is disabled and shall receive [TTD] compensation benefits equal to two-thirds of the difference between the worker's pre-injury wage and the worker's post-injury wage.

Section 52-1-25.1(C) (emphasis added). At issue in this appeal is the offset provision in Section 52-1-25.1(C).

II. Factual and Procedural Background

{4} The following facts are uncontested. Worker suffered numerous injuries in January 2013 while being trained as a residential garbage collector for Employer. Not long after being hired, Worker was on duty when a garbage container fell through the gripper of the garbage truck and landed inside the truck's hopper. Worker's trainer directed him to climb up the gripper arm, reach into the hopper, and pull the container out. While doing so, Worker lost his balance and fell backward onto the side of the truck and then to the pavement about thirteen feet below. Worker's injuries included a traumatic brain injury, spinal injuries, and a lacerated spleen and kidney. Worker's AWW with Employer was $829.50 and, as a result, his compensation rate for TTD benefits is $553.00 (two-thirds of AWW). See § 52-1-41(A) (1999).

{5} Worker returned to work in April 2013 and remained employed with Employer until he was terminated in July 2013. After his termination, Worker obtained employment with other companies, although, for the most part, he earned less than AWW. Employer issued partial TTD benefits, taking credit for wages Worker earned from his subsequent employers and claiming that the offset provision in Section 52-1-25.1(C) applied to those earnings. Since December 2017 Employer has been paying full TTD benefits because Worker has been unable to work. At issue below and now on appeal is the appropriate amount of TTD benefits for the period between Worker's termination and December 2017, in which Worker was earning less than AWW from other employers.

{6} Worker filed a complaint with the Workers’ Compensation Administration, asserting that Employer had no authority to reduce Worker's benefits if his earnings from other employers did not exceed AWW. After a trial, the WCJ entered a compensation order making numerous findings, including that Worker had not reached MMI, Employer's proffered reason for terminating Worker

489 P.3d 997

was not credible, Worker had endeavored to remain gainfully employed since being injured, and Worker had not otherwise abandoned his job with Employer. The WCJ, however, disagreed with Worker's position that he was entitled to full TTD benefits during the period in question. Although the WCJ understood that the plain language of Section 52-1-25.1 supported Worker's position, the WCJ thought an award of full TTD benefits would be unfair to Employer and "contrary to the spirit and purpose" of the Act. The WCJ thus capped Worker's TTD benefits, determining that "the total amount ... Worker receives from his employment and his [TTD benefits] shall not exceed ... Worker's [AWW] of $829.50." In reducing Worker's TTD benefits, the WCJ did not rely on Section 52-1-25.1(C), but rather on two other provisions of the Act and a case interpreting one of those provisions. Worker appeals.

DISCUSSION

{7} This appeal raises the following question: After Employer terminated Worker, was Employer permitted to reduce the TTD benefits it paid to Worker based on Worker's earnings from other employers that were less than AWW? Resolving this question requires us to interpret Section 52-1-25.1 and other provisions of the Act; our review, accordingly, is de novo. See Baca v. Los Lunas Cmty. Programs , 2011-NMCA-008, ¶ 11, 149 N.M. 198, 246 P.3d 1070 ("We review the WCJ's legal conclusions regarding statutory construction de novo.").

{8} Our "guiding principle when construing statutes is to determine and give effect to legislative intent."3 Fowler v. Vista Care , 2014-NMSC-019, ¶ 7, 329 P.3d 630 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "To discern the Legislature's intent, we rely on the classic canons of statutory interpretation and look first to the plain language of the statute, giving the words their ordinary meaning, unless the Legislature indicates a different one was intended." Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "Statutory language that is clear and unambiguous must be given effect" unless the result would be "absurd, unreasonable, or contrary to the spirit of the statute." Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). In other words, while the existence of a plain meaning might normally end our inquiry, it may nevertheless be necessary to examine, inter alia, the history, background, and overall structure of the statutory provision being construed, as well as the purpose of the statute. See id. ¶¶ 7, 13 ; see also Dewitt v. Rent-A-Center, Inc. , 2009-NMSC-032, ¶ 29, 146 N.M. 453, 212 P.3d 341 (observing that where the plain language of the Act is clear, our statutory construction inquiry should normally end, but considering other principles of statutory construction to the extent the language could be considered ambiguous); Massengill v. Fisher Sand & Gravel Co. , 2013-NMCA-103, ¶¶ 7-12, 311 P.3d 1231 (examining the employer's contentions against applying the plain meaning of the statute). Thus, we "exercise caution in relying only on the plain language of a statute because its beguiling simplicity may mask a

489 P.3d 998

host of reasons why a statute, apparently clear and unambiguous on its face, may for one reason or another give rise to legitimate (i.e., nonfrivolous) differences of opinion concerning the statute's meaning." Fowler , 2014-NMSC-019, ¶ 13, 329 P.3d 630 (alteration, internal quotation marks, and citation omitted); see also Benny v. Moberg Welding , 2007-NMCA-124, ¶ 5, 142 N.M. 501, 167 P.3d 949 (observing that while "[w]e start with the language itself, giving effect to its plain meaning where appropriate," we must be "careful not to be misled by simplicity of language when the other portions of a statute call its meaning into question, or the language of a section of an act conflicts with an overall legislative purpose" (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).

{9} The parties in this case present divergent views about the plain meaning of the relevant statutory language, legislative history, and legislative goals and purposes. The WCJ in contrast largely justified his decision based on principles of fairness. We focus our analysis accordingly. Based on our review of the statutory language, legislative history, and the goals...

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