Weatherly v. Great Coastal Express Co., Inc.

Decision Date19 September 2005
Docket NumberNo. 1176,1176
Citation883 A.2d 924,164 Md. App. 354
PartiesDicie WEATHERLY, Personal Representative of the Estate of Edward Bernard Scheibel v. GREAT COASTAL EXPRESS CO., INC., et al.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Michele Gallagher, Baltimore, for appellant.

Steven A. Levin, Columbia, for appellee.

Panel HOLLANDER, KENNEY and BARBERA, JJ.

BARBERA, J.

Maryland's workers' compensation law provides for dependency death benefits to "individuals who were wholly dependent" upon a worker at the time of his or her "death resulting from an accidental personal injury or occupational disease[.]" See Md.Code (1991, 1999 Repl.Vol., 2004 Supp.), § 9-681 of the Labor and Employment Article ("LE").1 The statute caps the dependency benefits at $45,000.00, but allows extended benefits to a "surviving spouse" or "child" who continues to be wholly dependent after $45,000.00 has been paid to that individual. See LE § 9-681(c), (d), (g). This case presents the question whether an individual who lived with, but was not married to, the deceased worker qualifies for extended benefits if that individual continues to be wholly dependent after the $45,000.00 cap in benefits is attained.

Appellant, Dicie Weatherly, Personal Representative of the Estate of Edward Bernard Scheibel, resided with, but never married, Mr. Scheibel. After the Workers' Compensation Commission ("Commission") determined that Ms. Weatherly was wholly dependent upon Mr. Scheibel at the time of his death, she was awarded dependency benefits pursuant to LE § 9-681. More than three years later, Great Coastal Express Co., Inc. ("Great Coastal") and Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co. (collectively, "appellees") informed Ms. Weatherly that more than $45,000.00 had been paid to her, and her benefits would cease.

Ms. Weatherly initiated proceedings before the Commission, arguing that she was entitled to continued dependency benefits. Appellees responded that Ms. Weatherly's benefits should be terminated on the theory that, under LE § 9-681, she was not entitled to receive more than $45,000.00.

The Commission decided that Ms. Weatherly's benefits were not required to be capped at $45,000.00. Appellees filed a petition for judicial review of the Commission's decision in the Circuit Court for Howard County.

The circuit court reversed the Commission's decision, ruling that LE § 9-681 limits Ms. Weatherly's benefits to $45,000.00 because she is not a surviving spouse. In her appeal to us, Ms. Weatherly contends that the Commission correctly decided that she was entitled to continued benefits and that the circuit court erred when it reversed the Commission's order to that effect.

For the reasons we discuss below, we agree with the circuit court that the Commission erred as a matter of law when it decided that Ms. Weatherly is entitled to benefits exceeding the $45,000.00 cap. We therefore affirm the circuit court's judgment.

FACTS AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS

On December 8, 1999, Edward Bernard Scheibel, an employee of Great Coastal, died after sustaining a work-related injury in an automobile accident on Interstate 95 in Howard County. In July 2000, Ms. Weatherly filed a "Dependent's Claim" with the Commission. In an order dated October 30, 2000, the Commission found that Mr. Scheibel died after "sustain[ing] an accidental injury arising out of and in the course of [his] employment" with Great Coastal. The Commission also found that Ms. Weatherly, who evidently resided with Mr. Scheibel for 30 years before his death, was "wholly dependent" upon him at the time of his injury and death.

The Commission determined that Mr. Scheibel earned an average weekly wage of $720.40. The Commission therefore ordered appellees to pay $5,000.00 toward Mr. Scheibel's funeral expenses and to pay Ms. Weatherly "compensation for her own use and benefit at the rate of $481.00, payable weekly, beginning December 8, 1999 and amounting to $45,000.00 and subject to further payments as provided in [LE §] 9-681 ... so long as [Ms. Weatherly] continues to be wholly dependent[.]"

Appellees requested a rehearing on whether Ms. Weatherly was wholly dependent, and they filed a motion for modification of the order. Appellees did not challenge that aspect of the Commission's order stating that Ms. Weatherly's benefits could exceed $45,000.00 "subject to further payments as provided in" the statute.

The Commission denied appellees' request for rehearing and motion for modification. Appellees then filed a petition for judicial review of the Commission's orders in the Circuit Court for Howard County, challenging the Commission's finding of total dependency. In February 2002, the circuit court entered summary judgment in favor of Ms. Weatherly and affirmed the Commission's orders.

Nearly two years after the initial award of benefits, Ms. Weatherly filed issues with the Commission. The parties stipulated that Mr. Scheibel's average weekly wage should have been determined to be $764.32, not $720.40. In an order dated October 3, 2002, the Commission corrected its earlier determination of Mr. Scheibel's average weekly wage and amended its benefits award by directing that appellees pay Ms. Weatherly $510.00 (rather than $481.00) per week.

On September 11, 2003, the Commission ordered appellees to pay Ms. Weatherly's attorneys' fees of $10,000.00. The Commission ordered that, for 85 weeks, $117.65 of her weekly benefits would be used to effectuate that award. At the conclusion of that time period, Ms. Weatherly's weekly benefits would resume at $510.00.

In a letter dated December 3, 2003, counsel for appellees informed Ms. Weatherly that her benefits would be terminated. The letter stated that she had been paid "in excess of $50,000.00 more than [the $45,000.00] she was entitled to under [LE] § 9-681[]."2 Appellees took the position that LE § 9-681 capped dependency benefits at $45,000.00, and that, because Ms. Weatherly had not been married to Mr. Scheibel, she could not seek additional benefits.

Ms. Weatherly responded to appellees' letter by requesting an emergency hearing before the Commission. On January 30, 2004, the Commission held a hearing on the question whether appellees were obligated to pay Ms. Weatherly benefits in excess of $45,000.00. Ms. Weatherly argued that appellees waived the argument that her dependency benefits were capped at $45,000.00, and that, in any event, the statute did not cap her benefits at $45,000.00.

In an order dated February 2, 2004, the Commission found that Ms. Weatherly remained wholly dependent upon Mr. Scheibel. The Commission ordered appellees to "pay unto [Ms.] Weatherly, dependency benefits at the rate of $510.00" per week, retroactive to December 3, 2003, pursuant to LE § 9-681.3 The Commission did not state why it believed Ms. Weatherly was eligible for the extended benefits.

On February 25, 2004, appellees filed in the Circuit Court for Howard County a petition for judicial review of the Commission's February 2, 2004 order. That same day, appellees filed a motion to stay the Commission's award, a motion for summary judgment, and a motion to shorten time for Ms. Weatherly to respond to the motion for summary judgment.

Ms. Weatherly opposed appellees' motions and requested a hearing. She filed her own motion for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that appellees were barred from contesting the Commission's order by application of the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. She also filed a motion for attorneys' fees and costs.

While the petition for judicial review was pending, Ms. Weatherly initiated another emergency hearing with the Commission. She sought enforcement of the Commission's February 2, 2004 order and requested attorneys' fees. The Commission held a hearing and, on March 31, 2004, ordered appellees to pay Ms. Weatherly "a 20% penalty on the accrued benefits paid late per the Order of February 2, 2004; and pay unto [Ms. Weatherly's counsel] an attorney fee in the amount of $500.00."

Appellees timely filed in the Circuit Court for Howard County a petition for judicial review of that order. Ms. Weatherly moved for summary judgment on the ground that the Commission had jurisdiction to award attorneys' fees. She also sought attorneys' fees in the judicial review action and moved to consolidate the two cases then pending in the circuit court.

On June 11, 2004, all pending motions came on for a hearing. The court consolidated the cases and, after hearing argument from counsel, orally rendered its ruling on each petition.

The court determined that LE § 9-681 limited Ms. Weatherly's benefits to a maximum of $45,000.00. The court viewed LE § 9-681 as expressing the General Assembly's intent to limit death benefits payable to a claimant to $45,000.00, unless the claimant is "a surviving spouse" or is among a "certain class[] of children."

The court rejected Ms. Weatherly's res judicata and collateral estoppel arguments. The court also mentioned that it had not heard any argument concerning whether appellees were entitled to reimbursement of funds they paid to Ms. Weatherly in excess of $45,000.00. On this issue, the court stated that it likely would not entertain that argument and implied that it would not be inclined to order reimbursement.4

With regard to appellees' petition for judicial review of the Commission's February 2, 2004 order, the court granted appellees' motion for summary judgment and denied Ms. Weatherly's motion, thereby reversing the Commission's order. The court granted Ms. Weatherly's summary judgment motion on the petition from the Commission's March 31, 2004 order, which had assessed a penalty and attorneys' fees against appellees, thereby affirming that order. Appellees have not appealed that ruling.

A written order embodying the court's ruling was docketed on June 25, 2004. Ms. Weatherly noted a timely appeal, raising the following questions:

I. Whether the trial court erred in
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