Wills v. Baltimore County, s. 579

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtBYRNES; In Frank
Citation707 A.2d 108,120 Md.App. 281
PartiesMary E. WILLS v. BALTIMORE COUNTY, Maryland, et al. Jerry BLEVINS v. BALTIMORE COUNTY, Maryland. ,
Docket NumberNos. 579,668,s. 579
Decision Date01 September 1997

Page 281

120 Md.App. 281
707 A.2d 108
BALTIMORE COUNTY, Maryland, et al.
Nos. 579, 668, Sept. Term, 1997.
Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.
March 19, 1998.

[707 A.2d 110]

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Hal C.B. Clagett, III, Upper Marlboro (Patricia G. Adams and Serio, Tansey & Adams, Riverdale, on the brief), for appellant Wills.

Steven D. Shemenski (James R. Farmer and Turnbull, Mix & Farmer, on the brief), Towson, for appellant Blevins.

Michael G. Comeau, Asst. County Atty. (Virginia W. Barnhart, County Atty., on the brief), Towson, for appellees.

Argued before DAVIS, SONNER and BYRNES, JJ.

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BYRNES, Judge.

These two cases, which we have consolidated for disposition, call upon us to construe Maryland Code (1991 Repl.Vol., 1997 Supp.), § 9-610(a) of the Labor and Employment Article ("L.E."), which is known as the "governmental employee offset provision" of the Maryland Workers' Compensation Act (hereinafter "the Act.") 1 In Case No. 579 (September 1997 Term), the Circuit Court for Baltimore County (Cadigan, J.) granted summary judgment in favor of appellee Baltimore County ("County"), ruling that workers' compensation disability benefits awarded to appellant Mary E. Wills were offset by her length of service retirement benefits, even though her receipt of retirement benefits was unrelated to the injury for which she was awarded workers' compensation. In Case No. 668 (September 1997 Term), the Circuit Court for Baltimore County (DeWaters, J.) granted summary judgment in favor of appellee Baltimore County, ruling that workers' compensation benefits awarded to appellant Jerry L. Blevins for a time period before his retirement were offset by disability retirement benefits that he received from Baltimore County after his retirement.

As neither case presents a genuine dispute of material fact and the granting of summary judgment in each case was legally correct, we shall affirm the judgments in both cases.


Wills v. Baltimore County

On March 26, 1992, Mary E. Wills, a clerical worker employed by Baltimore County in its Office of Aging, fell off her chair at work and sustained an injury to her back. Wills [707 A.2d 111] was hospitalized and subsequently treated by an orthopedist and a physical therapist. At the time of her injury, Wills was 70 years old and had been employed by the County for 30 years.

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She was earning $492.08 per week. Wills's back injury prevented her from returning to her job.

Wills filed a claim for benefits with the Workers' Compensation Commission ("commission") and on August 31, 1992, the commission awarded her temporary total disability benefits of $300.00 per week. The County paid Wills her full salary in lieu of that award. Approximately six months later, on February 8, 1993, Wills retired. Effective February 11, 1993, Wills began receiving a service-related retirement benefit of $300.23 per week from Baltimore County.

On March 4, 1994, the commission held a hearing in Wills's case on issues of accidental injury, causation, and pre-existing disability. Wills testified that she was receiving a retirement benefit from the County. The County did not then seek to offset the retirement benefits against the workers' compensation award, under L.E. § 9-610(a). The commission passed an order on March 17, 1994 attributing 75% of Wills's injury to her accident and the remaining 25% to a pre-existing condition. It further directed the County to pay Wills permanent total disability benefits of $329.00 per week, beginning as of January 1, 1993, for 500 weeks, not to exceed the sum of $164,500.00 allowable under "other cases," with continuing benefits to be assumed by the Subsequent Injury Fund ("the Fund").

Baltimore County and the Fund filed a petition for judicial review of the commission's decision in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. They did not raise the issue of an offset under L.E. § 9-610(a). On November 9, 1995, the circuit court affirmed the commission's award.

In January, 1996, the County filed issues with the commission, requesting that it offset Wills's workers' compensation benefits by the amount of her retirement benefits. The commission held a hearing on the County's request on May 20, 1996. On June 7, 1996, it issued an order denying the request. The County and the Fund filed a petition for judicial review in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. Motions for summary judgment were filed by all parties. The court held a hearing and,

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on April 1, 1997, it granted the motions for summary judgment of the County and the Fund, reversing the commission's decision and granting the County's request for an offset.

Wills noted this appeal, presenting the following questions for review, which we have rephrased:

I. Was the commission's June 7, 1996 decision appealable?

II. Did the trial court err in reversing the commission's ruling that the County was barred from seeking an offset under L.E. § 9-601 because an offset must be sought at the time of the initial award?

III. Did the trial court err in ruling that, given the elimination of the word "similar" from the governmental employee offset provision of the Act, benefits that are not "similar" are now offset against workers' compensation benefits under L.E. § 9-610(a)?

Blevins v. Baltimore County

Jerry L. Blevins worked full-time for the Baltimore County Police Department for 28 years. In 1994, he was a Deputy Police Chief, earning a yearly salary of $77,000.00. On January 21, 1994, Blevins was going about his police duties when he slipped and fell on a patch of ice in the parking lot of the Baltimore County Police Headquarters. Blevins sustained injuries to his neck, back, and shoulder. He was treated by an orthopedist, a physical therapist, and a pain management specialist.

Blevins did not miss any time from work on account of his accident. Nevertheless, he filed for accidental disability retirement benefits with the Employees' Retirement System of Baltimore County. His application was approved and, on November 16, 1995, Blevins retired. From that time forward, Blevins has received disability retirement benefits of $1,038.25 per week ($53,989.00 per year).

After he retired, Blevins filed a petition for permanent partial disability benefits before [707 A.2d 112] the Workers' Compensation

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Commission. On February 9, 1996, the commission held a hearing on Blevins's claim and, on February 23, 1996, it awarded Blevins permanent partial disability benefits under the "other cases" category, for a 20% loss of industrial use of his body. The award directed that Blevins be paid benefits of $170.00 per week for the period from January 22, 1994 (the day after his accident) until November 16, 1995 (his retirement date). It specified that any permanent partial disability payments attributable to a period after Blevins's retirement were offset by his pension benefits.

On March 4, 1996, Baltimore County filed a petition for judicial review of the commission's decision in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. It then filed a motion for summary judgment, which Blevins opposed. The circuit court held a hearing and on March 5, 1997, it granted the motion for summary judgment, reversing the commission's award. Blevins noted this appeal, presenting two questions for review, which we have combined and reworded as follows:

I. Did the lower court err in reversing the commission's ruling that L.E. § 9-610(a) did not entitle Baltimore County to offset his retirement disability benefits against workers' compensation benefits awarded for a period before his retirement?


Standard of Review

Our task in reviewing a trial court's granting of a summary judgment is two-pronged. First, we determine whether there was a dispute of material fact that rendered summary judgment improper. Then, if there is no such dispute, we must determine whether the trial court's ruling that the prevailing party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law was legally correct. Lynx, Inc. v. Ordnance Prods., Inc., 273 Md. 1, 8, 327 A.2d 502 (1974); McKinney Drilling Co. v. Mach I Ltd. Partnership, 32 Md.App. 205, 209, 359 A.2d 100 (1976). In

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these cases, we need only perform the second prong of our task, as the parties agree that there are no disputes of material fact.

In addition, in reviewing the ruling of the Workers' Compensation Commission:

[w]e, as was the circuit court, are to be guided by the general statutory command that "the decision[s] of the Commission [are] entitled to prima facie correctness." A court, therefore, may reverse a commission ruling only upon a finding that its action was based upon an erroneous construction of the law or facts ...

Frank v. Baltimore County, 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)).


The Governmental Employee Offset Provision of the Act

By Chapter 8, § 2 of the Acts of 1991, section 33(d) of Article 101 of the Maryland Code, which set forth the "governmental employee offset" provision of the Act, was recodified at § 9-610(a) of the Labor and Employment Article. Former Art. 101, § 33(d) provided, in pertinent part:

Whenever by statute, charter, ordinances, resolution, regulation or policy adopted thereunder, whether as part of a pension system or otherwise, any benefit or benefits are furnished employees of [public] employers ... the benefit or benefits when furnished by the employer shall satisfy and discharge pro tanto or in full ..., the liability or obligation of the employer and the Subsequent Injury Fund for any benefit under this article. If any benefits so furnished are less than those provided for in this article the employer or the Subsequent Injury Fund, or both shall furnish the additional benefit as will make up the difference between the benefit furnished and the similar benefit required in this article ...

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