On February 3, 2017, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland further defined the meaning of “similar benefits” under Md. Code § 9-610 of the Labor and Employment Article (“LE § 9-610”). Relying on the statute’s legislative history and Reynolds v. Board of Educ. of Prince George County, 27 Md. App. 648 (1999) (“Reynolds”), the Court clarified that “similar” in “similar benefits” refers to the nature of the benefits awarded and not the underlying injury when a covered employee is entitled to both workers’ compensation and disability benefits provided by state agencies.
Marcee Zakwieia, an employee of the Board of Education for Baltimore County (“Baltimore County BOE”), accidently injured her back and right shoulder while working on December 12, 2007. Based on her injuries, Zakwieia (“Claimant”) filed a claim with the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission (“Commission”) and was awarded benefits. Additionally, in 2012, she filed an application for disability retirement benefits with the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System. While she was awarded ordinary disability benefits for a pre-existing back condition, the Claimant was denied accidental disability retirement benefits for her injury on December 12, 2007.
Aggrieved by the denial of additional benefits, she appealed and a hearing was held before the Commission on March 26, 2014 to determine whether or not Baltimore County BOE properly refrained from paying her disability benefit under LE § 9-610. After the hearing, the Commission issued an order concluding that the Claimant’s accidental disability retirement benefits and worker’s compensation benefits were “similar benefits” under LE § 9-610 and, therefore, Baltimore County BOE was entitled to a statutory offset. On appeal, the Circuit Court for Baltimore County upheld the Commission’s decision.
At the Court of Special Appeals, Judge Berger followed suit and affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court. While the court addressed three (3) specific issues involved in the matter, Judge Berger spent the majority of the opinion discussing the meaning of “similar benefits” under LE § 9-610. Relying on the statue’s legislative history and Reynolds, the Court of Special Appeals ruled that “similar” in “similar benefits” referred to the nature of the benefits awarded and not the underlying injury.
At the outset, Judge Berger discussed the legislative history of LE § 9-610. He noted that, “Maryland law had long provided for the offset of workers’ compensation benefits against other certain benefits.” Prior to LE § 9-610, statutes such as Ch. 800, Section 34, Acts 1914, stated that when a covered employee was “entitled to benefits equal or better than what was given under workers’ compensation law, employees would not be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.” Thereafter, the Maryland General Assembly enacted Ch. 785, Acts 1971 in 1971 to clarify its purpose. In Nooe v. City of Baltimore, 28 Md. App. 348 (1975), the Court stated that the purpose of the new statue was to “provide for offsets of workers’ compensation benefits against the benefits otherwise furnished by a defined employer.” The Court noted that “if the Workers’ Compensation Commission determines that the benefits furnished by the employer are equal to or better than the workers’ compensation benefits, then the liability or obligation of the employer under the Workers’ Compensation Act is fully satisfied and discharged.” Based off of the history of LE § 9-610, Judge Berger concluded that “the legislative intent of the offset provision was to provide a single recovery to employees covered by both government pension plans and workers compensation.”
When turning to the relevant case law, Judge Berger noted that while both parties agreed that Reynolds was the controlling case, Claimant and Baltimore County BOE interpreted its holding differently. In Reynolds, a school bus driver contracted an occupational disease from toxic fumes and was awarded workers’ compensation and ordinary disability retirement benefits from his employer. The Commission determined that his award was subject to an offset under LE § 9-610 and was appealed. When reviewed by the Court of Appeals, the justices agreed with the lower court’s decision as the “ordinary disability retirement benefit was…..similar to a workers’ compensation award to the extent that the benefits were payable prior to a point in time when service retirement benefits would have been payable in the absence of disability benefits.” Judge Berger stated that the Baltimore County BOE’s interpretation of Reynolds‘ holding was in fact correct as the “critical similarity was based on the benefits provided and not upon the medical condition.” While he acknowledged that the court in Reynolds had slightly relied on the similarity of the nature of the injury, Judge Berger reasoned that relying on this interpretation would “result in a windfall to the Claimant” and be “contrary to LE § 9-610’s purpose.” He stated that if “similar” referred to the nature of the injury, then the claimant would be able to receive “duplicative benefits for the same underlying basis” even though LE § 9-610 was enacted to “prevent double recovery to an injured worker and double payment by the governmental employer.”
Relying on Reynolds and LE § 9-610’s legislative history, the Court concluded that the Claimant’s recovery of accidental disability benefits were “clearly a wage loss benefit intended to compensate the claimant due to her inability to work” and therefore subject to the offset of LE § 9-610. As a result, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court for Baltimore County’s decision.